We Are The Tree Generation: scaling carbon sequestration

Rob Squires
Monday, 24th May 2021

Rob Squires has spent his life exploring solutions. Now he wants to scale up carbon sequestration by making new woodlands financially viable.

It’s funny the way life has a habit of going full circle on you. In the early ’90s as a young adult, I found myself ‘up north’, volunteering in the regeneration of a 80 hectare (200 acre) spoil heap, created from a coal mine in Bold, near St. Helens. This was a flagship project for the very first Groundwork Trust, set up in the town to clean up the mess left by industry in the area. I vividly remember the stark, blackened and empty landscape of the spoil before the regeneration. There was little or no soil system, so we were establishing a lot of nitrogen fixers, including clovers and alder, along with the usual mix of native tree species. Thirty years on, the woodlands are flourishing, and the area is the home of the world-famous Jaume Plensa’s Dream sculpture which can be seen clearly by motorists passing along the M62. (It was also around about this time that the very first PM was rolling of the press.)

At the turn of the Millennium, I moved to the area of Hulme, inner city Manchester, where I became embroiled in all kinds of urban permaculture projects. Periodically, to escape the inner city scene and to keep my hand in, I’d take part in tree planting weekends run by Treesponsibility around Calderdale in West Yorkshire. This is an area characterised by steep hillsides and exposed open tops, sheep grazing, and grouse shooting. Treesponsibilty were in the early days of a 25 year tree planting project within the valley, and are eco-warriors and pioneers in combating climate change. Over the years they have planted many trees, yet the uplands are expansive, and still largely barren. 

Whilst it is commonly thought that the open landscape of upland Britain is the norm, many of us in permaculture realise that this is an artificial ecology and that before this much of it was forest. It’s perceived around Calderdale that if more of the hilltops were wooded, the threat of climate change, and instances like the devastating Christmas Floods that hit the town of Hebden Bridge in 2015, could be alleviated. It’s worth noting however, that the uplands of Britain include some rare habitats that need conserving, along with peatlands, which are deep reserves of carbon that must remain undisturbed and in the ground. Sensitive woodland creation using permaculture principles will take this into account and only plant trees in areas where it is appropriate.

One Trillion Trees

A recent piece of research called The Global Tree Restoration Potential shows that there is space to plant one trillion trees, and doing so over the next 50-100 years would mop up two-thirds of all carbon emissions. The report excludes arable and urban areas from its calculations, but includes grazing land, on which trees can benefit sheep and cattle. In order to play our part in a trillion trees it may be necessary to plant as many as two billion, here in the UK. If planting this many trees sounds like a tall order, consider that in 2019 Ethiopia broke a world record by planting an incredible 350 million trees in just one day! Their plan is to plant four billion to counter deforestation, and climate change. The surface area of Ethiopia is actually about five times bigger than the UK, and the population density is a lot less, which makes their target seem much easier. On the other hand, the historic impact of the UK on the environment and the climate in particular is very high, and it could be argued that it is our duty to enact drastic land use changes to this effect.

In the UK, tree planting on such a scale will have a dramatic impact, both on the natural world and on the livelihoods of farmers and smallholders. For the environment the benefits of reforestation are obvious, providing habitat, increased biodiversity and ecological resilience. The challenge however, is to develop ways in which the rural economy can adapt to such changes, protecting food security and ensuring financial benefits for landowners. Woodland conversion is a big risk though and without a lot of motivation, it is unlikely that many landowners will change the way they use their land. 

Carbon Credits Bad?

Fortunately, the Woodland Carbon Code (WCC) is a national standard that is up and running in the UK, and provides a way for landowners to diversify and earn cash from converting pasture into woodland. A new woodland planted to WCC standards is able to sell the carbon that it sequesters as it grows to individuals and business in order that they can offset the carbon that they produce either through their business activities or lifestyles. Offsetting is an expanding market and the price of carbon is set to rise sharply over the next 30 years as climate change continues to be a problem. I’ve done the maths, and depending on how carbon prices go in the future, it is likely that the income from a WCC accredited woodland will be on a par or in excess to what farmers currently get from grazing sheep and cattle.

Hold on though, “Isn’t offsetting a bad thing?”, I hear you say. The biggest criticism of carbon credits is that they give people an option to cop out of their climate responsibilities by just buying offsets rather than reducing their emissions. On the other hand, in a lot of circumstances the technology and opportunity simply isn’t there for people to be carbon neutral. So offsetting through schemes like the WCC, which invests in woodland creation, provides a way to take responsibility, whilst supporting rural livelihoods and biodiversity at the same time. It’s fair to say however, that we all need to be adopting emission reduction measures, even if we are offsetting our carbon as well.

Nowadays, I live in Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales, buffered from more densely populated areas of Britain by the Cambrian Mountains – an upland area that is characterised (like West Yorkshire) by rough grazing and the realm of the Red Kite. In recent years, I’ve made a living as a web developer, and have had some notable clients, including PM, but surrounded as I am now by open space, I have sought to create a new form of livelihood for myself. The solution that I have designed is a new business called Treegeneration, with the aim of supporting landowners to create woodlands, and earn cash under the Woodland Carbon Code. 

Treegeneration’s offer to landowners is threefold:

1. To project manage new woodland developments in partnership with landowners, in order to get them verified with the WCC;

2. To raise the cash for planting trees;

3. To sell the carbon that the trees produce on the carbon market on behalf of the owner.

In the long run, I’d like to be talking to conventional upland farmers and supporting them to convert rough grazing into woodland, but I feel that this is still a way in the future. As Bill Mollison once said though, “I’m not in the convincing business … Instead, it is best to concentrate on the doors that are open.” So I am reaching out to the permaculture community, with a view to finding people with similar ideas, and a hectare or two of land on which to plant some trees. If you’re a landowner, or know of one, who is interested in this, I would be very happy to talk to you about how Treegeneration can help.

The amount of carbon that is sequestered by a new woodland peaks after about 25-30 years (see right), so it is gratifying to think that the trees that I helped plant on Bold Moss in the early ’90s, when I was starting out as a permaculturist, are at that stage right now, capturing maximum carbon at a point when the world is in dire need. We are the ‘Tree -Generation’, and this is our time. A lot of good work has already been done creating new woodlands, but there is still so much more to do. If we are to put the brakes on climate change, then it is up to us all to do what we can!

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Rob Squires has over a quarter of a century of permaculture under his belt, and has been involved in a lot of urban projects in Northern England. More recently he moved to West Wales and is in the process of setting up a company called Treegeneration to support the creation of new woodlands.

For more information visit the Treegeneration web site at: https://treegeneration.uk or email: [email protected]

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