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Land Use for a Low Carbon Future: Forestry and Peat versus Wind Power

When there is a collision between different government policies with the same purpose the result is sure to be messy, and the chances are that the benefits arising from both policies will be compromised and perhaps lost altogether. The Scottish Government, for example, aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions through the enhancement of carbon sinks, such as forestry and peat, while also encouraging the generation of electricity from industrial wind power. Since both projects are land hungry and the United Kingdom’s geographical area is finite or even diminishing, it is highly unlikely that targets for forestry and peatlands, on the one hand, and renewables on the other can be simultaneously approximated, let alone met and maximised.

tree clearance stroupster wind farm

The first turbine installed of thirteen comprising Stroupster Wind Farm, Caithness. Image : Claire Pegrum 

This problem, long known to specialists, has been brought into sharp focus this week by the coincidental publication of two documents, first a study by the Committee on Climate Change, Land use: Policies for a Net Zero UK, and secondly the Scottish Government’s response to Freedom of Information request relating to deforestation caused by wind farm development.

In in its press statement, “Major shift in UK land use needed to deliver Net Zero emissions”, the Committee on Climate Change called for

New funding and revenue raising actions – a new market-based measure to promote tree planting, either through auctioned contracts similar to those offered for renewable electricity or with the inclusion of forestry in a carbon trading scheme…” 

On this matter the Scottish Government could reasonably claim to be already making progress. Indeed, last year Scottish Forestry, the new agency that has replaced the Forestry Commission as the administrator of publicly owned forestry in Scotland, announced that

Scotland’s national tree planting targets have been surpassed, making a critical contribution to the global climate emergency. 11,200 hectares of new planting has been undertaken in Scotland last year comfortably beating the current 10,000 ha annual target."
"The Scottish forest industry is also outstripping the rest of the UK as 84% of all new planting took place in Scotland

Forestry Scotland, “Tree planting targets “smashed” says Ewing” 13 June 2019

However, things are not quite as straightforward or as satisfactory as this press statement suggests. A member of public recently submitted a freedom of information request to Scottish Forestry, asking for data on land use and tree felling to facilitate windfarm development, specifically requesting:

a) the number of trees felled for all onshore wind farm development in Scotland to date.
b) the area of felled trees, in hectares, for all onshore wind farm development in Scotland to date.

Taking the relevant time range to be that between 1 January 1995 and 31 December 2019, Scottish Forestry was obliged to answer this request under the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (EIRs), which are stronger in some respects than the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA), and replied:

“The area of felled trees in hectares, from 2000 (the date when the first scheme was developed), is 6,994 hectares. Based on the average number of trees per hectare, of 2000, this gives an estimated total of 13.9M.”

To put that in context, Scotland’s total forestry area is approximately 1.4 million hectares, of which 425,000 hectares are publicly owned, so about 1.7% of the available public forestry has been cleared for wind farms, with a loss of about 13.9 million trees. This is clearly significant, but it will not be the whole story; there will also have been an unknown quantity of private forestry felled for wind power development, though this is very difficult indeed to estimate.

Ironically, the Scottish Government’s policy of replacing some forestry with wind power development may well be misguided. Assessment of the impact of surrounding forestry on wind flows in cleared forestry areas, using the well-recognised research tool of the Carbon Calculator, suggests that such developments could have poor productivity (load factors), with a correspondingly poor carbon balance.

Of course, and in fairness, it must be granted that some of the forestry cleared for wind development would have been mature timber and due, in any case, for felling. In addition, it should be noted that while this felling would obviously not be followed by replanting planned to maximise regrowth, there frequently is compensatory replanting associated with felling for development. However, the quality of this mitigatory planting is questionable, and sad examples of this can be seen all around the Scottish countryside, many being schemes of small saplings planted geometrically a metre apart in small areas of waste land, untended over the years, with long-term polluting and growth-hampering plastic tubing to prevent deer damage to the sapling left in situ.

Any reasonable person has to ask: Was it in the environmental interest to clear over 17 million trees and replace 7,000 hectares of forestry, nearly 2% of Scotland’s public forestry, with industrial wind turbines? No one really knows the answer to this question, but with both Scottish Government and the Committee on Climate Change urging the importance of forestry in a long term carbon strategy, it is not sufficient to simply hope that the balance is favourable. Did the Scottish Government make a careful quantitative assessment before permitting wind development in forest areas? If so, where is it?

And then, of course there is peatland, which dominates Scotland's wild land areas and is the country's most significant carbon store, as well being home to a unique ecology of flora and fauna. Internationally significant because of the large share of the world's soil carbon that is held in it, the healthy condition of peatland is crucial to the long term sequestration potential that the CCC study highlights. Indeed, the CCC mentions damage to peatland by extraction for sale to gardeners. Here again, the Scottish Government has been pro-active, specifically in funding peatland restoration in areas damaged by farming practices and other uses. But, in spite of this restoration activity, there is little discussion or action directed towards peatland protection for healthy or recovering peat. Indeed, on the contrary, much of the talk in regard to tree planting schemes specifically mentions doing so on wild lands, which are largely peatland. However, the terms “rewilding” and “expanding our national forests” are often used almost interchangeably. But an area of peatland which is planted with forestry dries out and does not retain its natural state. This is a well known problem, and in fact, many environmental organisations are now being awarded considerable grants for the re-naturalisation of peatlands in the north of Scotland, which were planted with forestry under generous tax relief government schemes in the 1980s, schemes famously used by Terry Wogan and other celebrities.

Furthermore, it is these same areas of significant peatlands, such as the Flow Country and the central Highlands, that are increasingly the target of planning applications for very large industrial scale onshore wind farms, some with multiple wind turbines up to 200 metres in overall height. There has long been an academic debate, hitherto inconclusive, about how much this construction, and particularly the cable trenches and access tracks, damages the peatland and impairs its value as a carbon sink. Like the forestry question, the true carbon balance of wind farms on peatlands is still a genuinely open question. Nevertheless, and in spite of a lack of a satisfactorily reasoned case in its favour, wind power development continues at a rapid pace.

Of course, we have to be realistic: All policies involve trade-offs. But, the trade-offs need not and should not be conducted in the absence of clearly reasoned analysis. The scale of deforestation involved in wind turbine development, as revealed by the Scottish Forestry’s response to the EIR request, and the ongoing concerns about peatland damage, bring this need into sharp focus, particularly in the context of the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendations. It isn’t sufficient for the Scottish Government simply to close its eyes and pray that industrial wind development in the rural areas of Scotland is compatible with the organic sequestration of carbon. This substance of this claim, which is highly questionable, needs to be clearly demonstrated.