Forestry: Carbon

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 17th November 2020.

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Photo of Órlaithí Flynn Órlaithí Flynn Sinn Féin 2:45 pm, 17th November 2020

3. Ms Flynn asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to outline his plans to restore the status of the forestry sector to a net carbon sink, rather than a carbon source. (AQO 1128/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Forestry in Northern Ireland is a net carbon sink. That was recently confirmed in a detailed report published by the UK's National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory (NAEI) on 30 October 2020. The report also projects that that will remain so under a range of scenarios considered in the report.

My Department has received advice from the UK Committee on Climate Change on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Northern Ireland. It recommends increasing the rate of woodland creation to 900 hectares per year as a simple low-cost option to help capture carbon.

I announced the Forests for our Future afforestation programme in March, aimed at increasing woodland by planting 18 million trees to create 9,000 hectares of new woodland over the next decade. As well as helping to meet the UK Government's net-zero carbon target by 2050, planting new woodland will help us to grow a strong economy, a thriving environment and healthy, active communities.

My Department’s Forest Service is continuing to work with the forest research agency of the Forestry Commission in GB. That research will help to contribute to the understanding of the complex carbon balances associated with woodlands as they are established and grow to maturity.

Forests for our Future will become a foundation programme of the Executive’s green growth strategy, which is being developed by my Department. Green growth aims to transform our society towards net-zero carbon by 2050, protect and enhance our environment and sustainably grow the economy.

Photo of Órlaithí Flynn Órlaithí Flynn Sinn Féin

I am sure that the Minister will be aware of a recent report by Ireland's forestry accounting plan, which shows that the forestry sector in the North is similar to that in the South, in that both have now transitioned from a carbon sink to a carbon source, meaning that the entire island's forestry sector is now a source of carbon emissions. The Minister outlined some initiatives that he has taken. Has he looked at any island-wide initiatives?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Some politicians might suggest that this report is fake news. A recent claim that forestry is a net emitter of greenhouse gases was made in a press release issued by Friends of the Irish Environment in response to a report prepared by the Republic of Ireland's Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) on greenhouse gas emissions and removals from forestry. DAFM has countered that interpretation, commenting that forests remain a substantial and growing store for carbon dioxide and to look at only one subset of the forest estate can be misleading.

The Friends of the Irish Environment press release bases its conclusions on a subset of a report published by DAFM. It focuses on woodlands over 30 years old, which includes tree harvesting from 2021 to 2030, which is estimated to result in a small net source of carbon dioxide. The small carbon dioxide emission is far outweighed by carbon dioxide captured by forests prior to 30 years of age, as is also identified in the DAFM report.

Taking the full forest cycle from planting to harvest and replanting into account, forestry as a whole is estimated to represent a significant store of carbon dioxide. It would be hugely unfortunate if people misconstrued various aspects of a report and conflated things to turn it into something else. It is well known that forestry and trees are a net capturer of carbon.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

How does the Department capture that data? In the past five years, how many trees have been planted? Have the Department's targets been achieved? Will the data be captured annually?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The acreage of trees that have been planted each year has been identified. The forest expansion scheme was launched in June, and we have applications for the planting of some 547 hectares of forest this year. That is approximately double the area in last year's applications. So, we are having some success with Forests for our Future. People are planting trees and taking up the mantle and identifying that they want to be involved.

Considerable acreage has been suggested to us, particularly by NI Water and other public bodies that are looking to participate in making our environment more sustainable by planting trees.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 3:00 pm, 17th November 2020

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the claims that forestry provides ammonia sequestration. The Centre for Hydrology and Ecology has made that case very strongly. Will that feature in his ammonia strategy? Is forestry, even in and about the bogs, which are the concern and the inhibitor to some growth in the poultry industry, a possibility?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for the question. There is a positive and a negative to that. The positive is that forestry can provide a break for ammonia, so strategically located bands of trees could do some good. The problem with trees is that they are hungry for water. Using water close to the peatlands leads to them being drier, and, consequently, they lose carbon on that front. Forestry at the appropriate locations may, therefore, be an inhibitor to the spread of ammonia and something that can be considered. That is the short answer.