FAST-growing conifer plantations soak up higher levels of CO2 in the short term than other species used in the UK.

But in the long term the difference becomes much more negligible, with broad-leaved woodlands all but matching some variations of conifer over a 100-year period. 

That's according to a major new study by Forest Research, which is believed to be the most definitive of its kind in the country to date. 

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The 'Quantifying the Sustainable Forestry Carbon Cycle' report is a technical ‘state-of-the-art’ analysis of CO2 uptake by woodlands over time, with 12 different types of woodlands analysed. 

While conifers soak up around five times the CO2 emissions of other species in the first 30 years, researchers found the figure was much closer over a longer time frame. However, fast-growing, thinned Sitka spruce remained well on top. 

Forestry Journal:

Mairi McAllan, Scotland's Environment Minister, said: “In Scotland we have an ambitious commitment to reach net zero by 2045. Expanding our forests and woodlands is key to achieving this as these trees will soak up harmful CO2 from the atmosphere.

“Currently, Scotland’s trees are sequestering 7.6 million tonnes of CO2 each year, the equivalent of 14 per cent of our gross greenhouse gas emissions. This demonstrates clearly how important our woodland expansion plans are in fighting climate change.     

“Our forests and woodlands are also vital in tackling another global crisis. Our woodlands are helping many forms of biodiversity thrive and are therefore crucial in helping reverse the damaging effects of nature loss." 

The woodland options examined in the report show that planting a hectare of lightly managed broadleaf woodland would result in an average CO2 uptake of 1.3tCO2 per year until 2050, and that a hectare of moderately growing coniferous woodland would soak up 4.9tCO2 per year for the same period.

Over the period from 2022-2100, average annual CO2 uptake from these broadleaf and conifer woodlands would rise to 5.7tCO2 and 6.7tCO2, respectively. These figures include carbon stored in wood products from harvested woodlands. High-yielding sites for coniferous production, and the addition of potential avoided emissions through using wood products, would increase these rates substantially.

Forestry Journal: Mairi McAllan Mairi McAllan

Good woodland design and management are critical to achieving early carbon uptake, for example by avoiding disturbance to soil and existing vegetation when planting. This is particularly the case for woodlands where the trees have relatively slow growth rates.

Ms McAllan added: “We need to fully understand the most up-to-date evidence on how we can get the best out of our forests for the future. This new piece of research will be of great benefit to foresters to help them do just that.”

A further and fuller assessment report will be released later in 2022.