The Opposition has called for a halt to plans by the semi-state agency, Coillte, to sell thousands of acres of land in order to meet Ireland’s climate targets, with concern from rural TDs that farmers could be priced out of land.
SUSTAINABILITY & CLIMATE
Check out our Sustainability and Climate Change Hub where you will find the latest news, features, opinions and analysis on this topic from across the various Irish Examiner topic desks and their team of specialist writers and columnists.
Thousands of acres are expected to be sold to Gresham House as part of an afforestation deal with Coillte.
Deforestation over the past few thousand years has reduced Irish native forest to just 1% of the total land area. The current forest cover in Ireland remains at less than 12%, well below the European average. Forests are recognised as being central to our future green economy as a means of increasing carbon capture and as a renewable energy source.
In April last year, Coillte unveiled plans to grow 100,000 hectares of new forests by 2050. The move aims to support the delivery of one-third of Ireland’s afforestation target and create a carbon sink of 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Its strategic vision includes capturing an additional 10 million tonnes of COand the production of 25 million cubic metres of timber to help Ireland achieve its housing ambition of 300,000 new homes by 2030.
It also intends to focus on producing sustainable wood products that would displace 2.7 million tonnes of COper year from fossil fuel-based products including concrete, steel, and plastic, and to increase the area of its forest estate to be managed primarily for nature from 20% to 30% by 2025.
Afforestation is an important greenhouse gas mitigation strategy, but the efficacy of commercial forestry is disputed. Recent research published in Nature Journal examined the potential greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation of a UK national planting strategy of 30,000 hectares per year from 2020 to 2050.
The most important determinant of cumulative GHG mitigation by 2120 was found to be forest growth rate, irrespective of whether trees are harvested. Greenhouse gas mitigation from harvested stands (trees), typically surpassed unharvested stands. The research concluded that commercial afforestation could deliver effective greenhouse gas mitigation that is robust to future decarbonisation pathways and wood uses.
Under typical conditions, one hectare of newly planted commercial forests could achieve cumulative GHG mitigation of up to Gg 2.27 CO2 equivalent per hectare within a core decarbonisation pathway projected for the UK by 2120 – up to 269% more mitigation than delivered by newly planted broadleaf conservation forests.
Commercial afforestation can also deliver significantly greater GHG mitigation than semi-natural afforestation largely due to the higher growth rate of conifers. Commercial investment in afforestation is based on the expectation of timber harvest and the benefit of earlier harvest of faster-growing species, this generally leads to the planting of conifer rather than broadleaved species.
Commercial forestry was found to be a robust strategy for greenhouse gas mitigation, and merits a prominent role in climate policies. The study noted that commercial and conservation forests should be considered complementary and not conflicting land uses.
Single-species forests are not the only commercial option, and there is increasing support for mixed-species conifer forests under sustainable forest management.
Coillte has come up with an ambitious plan to address climate and biodiversity targets, including the goals of creating badly needed alternatives to fossil fuel-based products. This highly considered strategy should not be scuppered in arguments about the price of land.
- Dr Catherine Conlon is a Cork public health doctor and safefood’s former director of human health and nutrition.