Today sees the formal parts of the Rio+20 summit getting into full swing. A build up of fringe meetings, announcements and report publications have paved the way. There is some really interesting coverage touching on projects, issues and opportunities from around the globe – some of our senior UK politicians are there. Forests have always been a feature of these summits, and a series of international agreements on sustainable forest management have accumulated over time since the heady days of 1992, accompanied by an increasing recognition that forests are both a key to green growth and a crucial means to protecting clean air and water everywhere that they exist.
But if you take the view that good environmental stewardship begins at home, then the call for large scale international projects to address environmental problems will carry more weight if the domestic track record of those promoting wider positive action stands up to close inspection. The UK government have been participating in negotiations and signing up to agreements since the original Rio event to help develop and deliver sustainable forestry both at home and abroad. The UK Forestry Standard is the document that defines this approach for the UK and reflects the original Rio principles and its later iterations. The United Nations Forum on Forests in 2006 included an agreement to work globally and nationally on key objectives including one to “reverse the loss of forest cover worldwide through sustainable forest management, including protection, restoration, afforestation and reforestation, and increase efforts to prevent forest degradation.”
So, this brings me round to the subject of how things are going domestically on sustainable forestry at UK and individual country level, and in particular on the protection, restoration and reforestation fronts. The Forestry Commission released the first cut of the annual woodland planting figures for 2011/12 last week. It’s a pretty mixed picture, and really does throw some light on the challenges of promoting action abroad when progress at home falls well short of our own ambitions. The government’s Independent Panel on Forestry is due to publish its final report on 4th July after being tasked with putting forward a sustainable future for our publicly owned woods, as well as firming up on the government’s stated aspiration for a major expansion of new woodland in England – one that can deliver a wide range of environmental, social and economic benefits.
I remain optimistic, but that escalator analogy weighs heavy on my mind.
Ancient woodland, our richest terrestrial habitat, remains exposed to damage and destruction via planning loopholes that the government failed to close during its recent streamlining exercise enshrined in the revised National Planning Policy Framework. And as for the aspiration to create much more woodland? In England, the rate of woodland creation is bumping along the bottom of a ten year low. With only 2,600 ha of new woodland planted in England in the last year there is a real danger that the domestic performance on international forestry standards is approaching a default situation. The collection of figures on how much woodland is being lost every year, through planning and development for roads, houses, quarries and the like is notoriously uncoordinated and unreliable. Woods may be damaged and destroyed by fires, pests and diseases, illegal clearance, plus additional areas of woodland loss due to appropriate and approved clearance to restore other valuable open habitats all add up – much of this can take five years to show up in the inventory assessments carried out by the Forestry Commission.
We really do need the Panel report to help provide the evidence and the inspiration to stop trying to run up the ‘down’ escalator and show us where the stairs are – isn’t it better for us to take the stairs anyway?
Austin Brady, Head of Conservation