How trees can help the UK reduce greenhouse gas emissions

The University of Strathclyde is a partner in two research projects for the development of new tools which will help trees and woodlands adapt to climate change and enable the UK to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The research will also improve understanding of the value of trees to people and the planet, and support the expansion of treescapes across the UK.

The projects will explore the delivering of public benefits from UK treescapes in rural-urban settings and the question of how quickly trees can genetically adapt to change.

They are among five projects funded by the £14.5 million Future of UK Treescapes programme, which is seeking to improve significantly the environmental, socio-economic and cultural understanding of the functions and services provided by UK treescapes, in order to inform decision-making on the expansion of future treescapes for the benefits of the environment and society.

Professor Adam Kleczkowski, of Strathclyde’s Department of Mathematics & Statistics, is the University’s lead on the projects. He said: “The role of trees is essential to tackling climate change and to improving the population’s well-being and mental health. With over 22 million new trees planted in Scotland in 2019, we need to ensure they are well-managed and continue to thrive in a rapidly-changing environment and under increasing threat of pests and diseases.

“Our research will be aimed at supporting sensitive and prudent stewardship of trees, now and in the future, and at safeguarding trees so that any human involvement is to their benefit.

“The imminent COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow is a reminder of the urgency of the global situation. Our projects, and the overall Future of UK Treescapes programme, will contribute to the international effort.”

One of the projects is Connected Treescapes, which will evaluate how treescape form and function affects public benefits. Focusing on five community forests, it will address the role of landscape-level partnerships in delivering public benefits from UK treescapes. It will demonstrate how decision-makers, and those responsible for treescapes, can ensure that these benefits can be secured for the future, in the context of increasing uncertainty.

Integrating historical and ecological approaches with applied health science and economic analysis, the project will provide evidence of how UK treescape management decisions are being defined and constrained by past histories of land use and ownership, traditions of management, and changing expectations of treescapes. It will also look to the future by demonstrating how collaboration and decision making around treescapes can be influenced through policy and regulation.

The other project is NewLEAF, which is taking an interdisciplinary approach to the issue of trees adapting to change, whether human intervention is needed to accelerate adaption, and how best to intervene if so.

Drawing together an academic team with expertise from ecology, evolutionary biology, forest pathology and epidemiology, economics, social science, data science, mathematics and the arts, NewLEAF will combine evidence from the UK but also from other countries, where historical and current regeneration of tree populations is being driven by human and climatic change.

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, Executive Chair of the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC), which is part of UK Research and Innovation, said: “Our trees and forests are a precious resource and part of the solution to tackling the climate and ecological emergencies we face and helping the UK reach net zero in 2050.

“This research will increase our understanding of the huge societal, economic, cultural and environmental benefits associated with treescapes. This includes the importance of trees in urban spaces, why we connect with forests, and how we encourage landowners and farmers to plant more trees.

“This knowledge will help us identify where and how we can expand our woodlands and ensure their resilience to pressures and stresses over decades and centuries.”

The Future of UK Treescapes Programme involves: NERC; the Arts and Humanities Research Council; Economic and Social Research Council; Defra (Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs); the Welsh Government; the Scottish Government and the Forestry Commission.