By Gary Newman

Was COP26 a big success or a missed opportunity? Viewed positively, the conference represented a significant ‘shifting of the dial’ with new pledges and targets. On the other hand, it was not the transformative moment that many had hoped for. In reality, we will only be able to judge the significance of COP26 with the passage of time. Today, the increasing consensus about what needs to be done to limit climate change is finally shifting the focus onto delivering the actions in reality.

In Wales, we have increasingly ambitious policies and accompanying funding for two key climate change mitigation solutions – the expansion of tree planting and the creation of low carbon housing from timber.

Making investment promises count

In terms of housing, Welsh Government are investing £250m a year for the next 5 years to deliver their target of 20,000 new low carbon homes. A further £150m is being made available  to improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions by retrofitting existing homes. Furthermore, new standards for social housing introduced in October this year are encouraging low embodied carbon, the use of timber and proof of housing performance through measurement of outcomes. Our ongoing WoodBUILD 2021 programme is all about exploring how these new standards can be understood and implemented in a way that supports Welsh forestry and timber construction sectors.

In terms of tree planting, Welsh Government have a highly ambitious target of an additional 43,000 ha by 2030 and 180,000 by 2050. This would increase our forest cover from the current 15% of our land area to 24%. Financial support for new tree planting has increased from £1m in 2019/2020 per year to £5.5 million in 2021/22. Whilst certainly not enough to achieve our targets this is a definite statement of intent.

These promising policies are reinforced by a further 39 recommended actions emanating from the Trees and Timber Task Force led by Deputy Climate Change minister, Lee Waters MS. The development of a timber industrial strategy, which is hoped to be a significant turning point for the Welsh forest industries sector, features among these recommendations.

Turning good intentions into purposeful action?

More money and new policies and targets for tree planting, timber manufacturing and housing will undoubtedly help to create the conditions necessary for progress, but they do not in themselves ensure that change will actually happen and with appropriate haste. We all know reality is way more complex than that. There is no precedent or blueprint for the scale of the change that is needed.

Becoming a forest nation will require the participation and collaboration across all sectors from farming to housing and everything in between. This is what we’re striving to develop within the Woodknowledge Wales membership network, through our Communities of Practice and by enabling further knowledge transfer and shared learning through case studies, events and guidance documents that are freely available on our website. We firmly believe that collaborative approaches are essential to enable and accelerate change and we are very grateful for the active participation of our members.  But creating and maintaining such a coalition for change is not a simple task. The building of trust takes time, is hard won and easily lost. As with COP26 on a global scale, so with the participants in the forest nation agenda on a Welsh scale – to achieve a better outcome for all we have to understand the benefits as well as the nature of the compromise we are asking for.

With this in mind , we are increasingly focused not so much on the what and why but on the who and how within our work programmes. Who needs to be involved and how can good intentions be turned into purposeful action across all the relevant sectors of farming, forestry, wood processing, timber manufacturing and construction?

Overcoming social and economic land-use divides

Increasing the supply of timber means saplings not only have to be grown and planted, but also managed to ensure they survive and thrive. This means farmers, as custodians of 80% of Welsh land, also have to become informed foresters. In many ways the land-use debate of farming v. forestry has become an artificial divide which was maintained and exaggerated by the Common Agriculture Policy – which should perhaps have always been a common land-use policy encompassing both farming and forestry. Growing crops, managing cattle and sheep or managing woodland all require different knowledge, skills and equipment but are well within the capability of the Welsh farming and rural communities.

If we are to dramatically increase our forest cover in line with targets and provide timber for industry, then we certainly need to do this in a way that is embraced by our communities. That means trees grown by Welsh farmers and in a way that supports rural employment in forest management and wood processing. There is much work to be done to inspire farmers to grow trees and to make it economically viable for them to do so. We have recently produced a series of briefing notes on the economics of growing trees for timber that are designed to support farmers and their advisors in their decision making. We will run a webinar for the farming community on this topic in early 2022.

In the housing sector we continue to work with our members on new build and retrofit housing projects to reduce embodied carbon, increase building performance, and to advance the appropriate use of timber components and offsite timber solutions from the Welsh supply chain.

So, regardless of the global politics played out at COP26, our focus remains upon how we can better support our growing and committed membership to get good things done. For us, this means planting more trees, processing more wood into high-value timber products and creating more low carbon homes from timber. That way we can be confident that we are reducing Welsh carbon emissions whilst at the same time building a more vibrant and resilient forest economy for the benefit of current and future generations.