Studying how trees can help the UK reach net zero emissions

English forest

Six research teams across the UK will develop new tools and approaches which will help trees and woodlands adapt to climate change.

The research aims to enable the UK to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions. It will also improve our understanding of the value of trees to people and the planet, and support the expansion of treescapes across the UK.

The projects will receive a share of £10.5 million funding from UK Research and Innovation to:

  • understand how local authorities are meeting their tree planting targets, the cultural significance of trees to communities and how well they capture greenhouse gases
  • work creatively with young people to co-produce new approaches to creating and caring for treescapes that benefit the environment and society
  • investigate how trees respond to stress and pass on that memory to future generations
  • assess the potential of woodland restoration along over 200,000 km of England’s rivers and bodies of water
  • examine how community forests enable stakeholders to work in partnership to deliver multiple benefits from forests
  • study whether trees can adapt effectively to climate change, pests and diseases.

Expanding woodlands and forests

Trees, woodlands and forests play a vital role in removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and nurturing biodiversity. Thirteen per cent of the UK is covered by woodland, and the UK government has pledged to plant millions of trees every year over the coming decades.

Expanding the UK’s trees, woodlands and forests will play an important role in realising the government’s ambition to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, our treescapes need to become more resilient to pressures such as changing climate, disease, and competing demands for land in order to reverse decades of decline in biodiversity and environmental quality.

Nature-based climate solutions

This November, the UK government will host the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow where countries will be expected to set out their plans for reaching net zero by 2050. The Future of UK Treescapes programme will contribute evidence to help policymakers and land managers expand our treescapes and reach this target.

Involving multi-disciplinary teams from thirteen universities and research institutes, over 40 non-academic partners and supporters, and with funding for three years, this funding forms part of the £14.5 million Future of UK Treescapes Programme, involving:

  • Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC)
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra)
  • Welsh Government
  • Scottish Government
  • Forestry Commission

Protecting trees for future generations

Forestry Minister Lord Zac Goldsmith said:

I am delighted to be supporting this new research programme, which will emphasise the importance of treescapes and help deliver our tree planting ambitions.

In the run up to COP26 this is an exciting opportunity to showcase how the UK’s cutting-edge science can deepen our understanding of the health and environmental benefits provided by trees while ensuring they are protected for future generations.

Supporting and championing the projects are the Programme Ambassadors, Professor Clive Potter of the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, and Dr Julie Urquhart of the Countryside & Community Research Institute at the University of Gloucestershire.

Professor Potter says:

Threats to and the vital role of treescapes have never been clearer. The UK government is creating ambitious policies and targets towards increasing tree cover and managing tree health, but better evidence of how to achieve this is crucial in underpinning the success of such initiatives.

Dr Urquhart says:

We wanted to encourage new interdisciplinary collaborations that would develop potential pioneering projects that will shape and deepen our understanding of the environmental, social, cultural and economic value of trees, woods and forests to society for years to come.

This programme and its projects are partnering with stakeholders from policy, land ownership and civil society, to ensure the outcomes have direct application to achieving climate change, nature recovery and wellbeing goals.

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, Executive Chair of NERC, part of UK Research and Innovation, said:

Our trees and forests are a precious resource and part of the solution to tackling the climate and ecological emergencies we face and helping the UK reach net zero in 2050.

This research will increase our understanding of the huge societal, economic, cultural and environmental benefits associated with treescapes. This includes the importance of trees in urban spaces, why we connect with forests, and how we encourage landowners and farmers to plant more trees.

This knowledge will help us identify where and how we can expand our woodlands and ensure their resilience to pressures and stresses over decades and centuries.

Chris Stark, Head of Sustainable Management at Scottish Forestry, said:

Scotland’s ambition is to reach net zero by 2045 and the country’s forests and woodlands are playing a significant role in helping us achieve this target.

Scotland provides around 80% of the UK woodland creation target. We are increasing our yearly woodland creation targets to 18,000 hectares a year by 2024 to 2025 and this will help soak up millions of harmful CO2 emissions. This increase in woodland cover will also improve the environment, boost nature and generate over a £1 billion to the Scottish economy each year.

We are supportive of the different strands to this research which will help inform how we manage and futureproof our woodland resource for generations to come.

The six projects are led by the University of York, Manchester Metropolitan University, Loughborough University, the University of Birmingham, the University of Manchester and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

Further information

Project summaries

Connected treescapes: a portfolio approach for delivering multiple public benefits from UK treescapes in the rural-urban continuum

Led by Professor Piran White and Dr Julia Touza from the University of York, with researchers from:

  • the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology
  • the University of Strathclyde
  • the University of Newcastle
  • the University of Derby
  • the University of Edinburgh
  • Forest Research
  • James Hutton Institute.

Partners are:

  • The Tree Council
  • The National Forest Company
  • The Mersey Forest Partnership
  • Woodland Trust Northern Ireland
  • Buccleuch Living Heritage Trust and Estates
  • Dufferin Foundation
  • Rothamsted Research
  • Butterfly Conservation.

Connected Treescapes will evaluate how treescape form and function affects public benefits. Focusing on five community forests, it will address the role of landscape-level partnerships in delivering public benefits from UK treescapes. It will demonstrate how decision-makers and those responsible for treescapes can ensure that these benefits can be secured for the future, in the context of increasing uncertainty.

Integrating historical and ecological approaches with applied health science and economic analysis the project will provide evidence of how UK treescape management decisions are being defined and constrained by past histories of land use and ownership, traditions of management, and changing expectations of treescapes. It will also look to the future by demonstrating how collaboration and decision making around treescapes can be influenced through policy and regulation.

Voices of the future: Collaborating with children and young people to re-imagine Treescapes

Led by Professor Kate Pahl from Manchester Metropolitan University, with:

  • the University of Aberdeen
  • the University of Birmingham
  • Cambridge University
  • the University of Cumbria
  • the University of Middlesex
  • the University of Sheffield.

Partners include:

  • the Community Forests (Manchester City of Trees and Mersey Forest)
  •  Natural England
  • the Chartered College of Teachers
  • Early Education Outdoors
  • the Children’s Society
  • Aberdeen City Council
  • Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust
  • the Station House Media Unit in Aberdeen.

Voices of the Future brings together a set of partnerships with local, regional and national organisations including early years’ contexts, primary and secondary schools, Natural England and the Community Forests to explore how young people perceive and connect with treescapes and how they can participate in changing the present and imagining the future of treescapes.

It aims to bring together children and young people’s knowledge, experiences, and hopes with innovative scientific expertise of how trees adapt to and mitigate climate change. The project will advance new approaches to creating and caring for resilient treescapes that benefit the environment and society to inform educational policies, teacher education, urban planning and treescapes design.

Branching Out: New Routes to Valuing Urban Treescapes

Led by Professor Michael Wilson from Loughborough University, with partners from:

  • the Open University
  • University of York
  • Forest Research

Branching Out will focus on urban treescapes to respond to the increased tree planting targets of local authorities, recognising the need for them to achieve multiple public benefits alongside carbon sequestration, including health and wellbeing, green infrastructure, social amenity and the green economy outcomes.

The project will use storytelling as a key method for capturing the social and cultural values of trees, alongside a range of other approaches to understanding urban treescapes, including urban tree observatories, hyperspectral remote sensing, historic mapping and computer vision techniques, amenity modelling, and citizen science in order to develop the largest, most robust urban tree monitoring dataset anywhere in Europe.

MEMBRA: Understanding Memory of UK Treescapes for Better Resilience and Adaptation

Led by Dr Estrella Luna-Diez from the University of Birmingham, with:

  • the University of Exeter
  • the University of Leeds
  • the University of Leicester
  • Bangor University.

Partners include:

  • The Walking Forest artist collective
  • Forestry England
  • The National Forest Company
  • Small Woods
  • Coed Lleol (Small Woods Wales).

MEMBRA will study how trees can adapt to stress alongside using the concept of memory to integrate a sciences-and-humanities perspective on how best to enhance the resilience of UK Treescapes. The project will demonstrate experimentally whether and how trees can remember past stress conditions and transfer these memories to descendants through epigenetics-based DNA modifications.

This new awareness will also advance our understanding as to how an appreciation of tree-memory, and the language of memory, can influence human decision-making capabilities and our moral relationship with treescapes.

Creative Adaptive Solutions for Treescapes Of Rivers (CASTOR)

  • the University of Manchester
  • the University of Cumbria
  • the University of Leeds
  • the University of Nottingham
  • the University of Birmingham
  • the University of Salford.

CASTOR identifies that over 200,000 km of rivers and streams in England, with potential for restoring riparian woodland, present a substantial opportunity for meeting the UK government’s goal of 17% tree cover by 2050, achieving carbon storage and sequestration, water quality amelioration, habitat creation and flood prevention in the process.

It will explore and provide solutions to the challenges that this restoration might present. CASTOR will identify unique opportunities through which riparian woodland (along rivers and waterways) can promote and protect natural and cultural heritage, deliver nature recovery through wilder, better connected landscapes, and build climate resilience.

Learning to adapt to an uncertain future: linking genes, trees, people and processes for more resilient treescapes (newLEAF)

Led by Dr Stephen Cavers from the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, with partners from:

  • the University of York
  • the University of Strathclyde
  • the University of Stirling
  • the University of Glasgow
  • the Robert Gordon University
  • the James Hutton Institute
  • Forest Research.

NewLEAF takes an interdisciplinary approach to answering how quickly tree species can genetically adapt to change in the wild, whether or not human intervention is needed to accelerate adaptation in tree populations, and how best to intervene if so.

Drawing together an academic team with expertise in ecology, evolutionary biology, forest pathology, epidemiology, economics, social science, data science, mathematics and the arts, newLEAF will draw on evidence from the UK and abroad, from places where historical and current regeneration of tree populations is being shaped by human activity and climatic change.

Top image: Credit: Getty

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