Beyond the climate emergency: Why Wales should grow trees for timber, jobs and affordable homes
Gary Newman, Woodknowledge Wales
Change is afoot. That much is clear to anyone who followed the COP26 proceedings. Encouraging words and promises must now be followed by action. Action at home to be precise. Research by Climate Action Tracker demonstrates temperatures are likely to rise 2.4-degrees Celsius this century, a long way from a 1.5-degrees Celsius future that we hope avoids the worst effects of climate change.
Wales is a country of immense beauty and cultural heritage. Wales is also one of the poorest countries in Europe, with some of the most deprived communities. Despite this, Wales – like all European countries – is a high consumption society and needs to assume responsibility for the climate emergency we find ourselves in today.
Sorting social injustice while acting on carbon emissions is something we owe to our communities.
None of this is new. What strikes us as different is the broad commitment to change and to co-create a better future for the people and the planet. This is where our land, our trees and our forests come in.
What if our homes are part of the solution?
The built environment – our homes, offices, streets – is a major contributor to Welsh carbon emissions. And is a key area where we urgently need to act. In fact, the recently published Welsh Development Quality requirements 2021 – which set standards in Social Housing – has significantly raised the bar for social landlords to deliver zero carbon homes.
What if we could change our built environment from a carbon emitter to a carbon store, and by doing so create local jobs in rural communities? What if we could use a natural resource that is readily available in Wales to achieve this today – and for future generations?
This is what the Home-Grown Homes Project set out to explore in 2018, and what we are currently working on with local councils, housing associations, architects and designers, manufacturers, sawmillers and land owners.
Why focus on tree planting and timber production in Wales?
Wales needs more housing and better performing housing. Wales needs local jobs for local people, especially in rural areas. Wales also has some of the finest forests, growing some of the best quality timber. Timber is a low-carbon material. High-performing timber homes can be constructed fast, at scale and at affordable cost. Welsh timber businesses – from sawmillers to joiners to housing manufacturers – are rooted in communities and have the potential to expand and innovate, thereby creating jobs and developing skills where they are needed.
To us, this sounds like a list of ingredients to create a resilient post-Covid post-Brexit economy, a recipe for positive change even without the urgency to act on carbon emissions.
So, what is missing to turn this into a nationwide success story?
Although we grow some of the finest wood in the world, Wales imports the majority of its timber. In fact, the UK is the second largest importer of timber products in the world after China. So far, we’ve been very comfortable with assuming other countries will provide our timber. We take pride in being a steel, beef and dairy nation without acknowledging that we are also a forest nation, with abundant woodlands in Powys, the Borders and North Wales and with an internationally acclaimed forestry research centre at Bangor university.
With current constraints on construction material, massive price increases and global demand for timber set to quadruple, we shouldn’t be relying on timber from other parts of the world. We need to invest in our own land and the people who work with it to ensure a reliable supply of the materials we need in our future low carbon society.
Growing a home every four minutes
Anyone will be forgiven for not associating Wales with forests and woodlands. Only 15 per cent of Wales is covered in trees against a continental European average of 37 per cent. Nonetheless, the existing Welsh forest grows enough timber of the right grade to create a new timber home, every four minutes. It would take 20 days for the 7,000 Welsh homes to grow that we need to build every year to meet our housing needs.
Unfortunately, at present, only 4 per cent of the Welsh harvest finds its way into construction. Using timber in construction, especially for structural purposes, is the most environmentally beneficial use for that timber.
Instead, our timber mostly goes into relatively low value products, such as fencing, pallets and garden sleepers – products with a much shorter lifespan.
Investing in those working with the land
Over the past 50 years, we have built relatively little with timber in Wales. More recently, the demand to deliver energy-efficient, zero-carbon homes at scale and at affordable cost has sparked an increase in timber construction, especially in the social housing sector.
This demand now needs to be reflected in higher investment in forestry – planting and growing the trees that will supply the timber we need in the future.
Investment and the call for grants is often mentioned. Yet, money is only part of the answer. Most of the land in Wales is owned by farmers. Farmers are key to our food supply in Wales and will be the key to any increase in tree planting for timber.
From a landowner’s view, the decision to engage in forestry is not to be taken lightly. Land needs to be suitable. Growing trees for timber needs to be commercially viable, compared to other land uses that provide income to farmers and their communities.
We urgently need to support our farmers in assessing if tree planting makes sense for them, as well as for society. Becoming a tree farmer requires knowledge and a different set of skills but is well within the abilities of people used to working with the land.
To grow enough timber for future generations and help Wales become a country with a thriving future, we have set out five essential strategies in our Home-Grown Homes Project.
But for any significant change to happen we will need all hands-on deck. From farmers and foresters, to sawmillers and joiners, building developers and designers, and finally communities and residents.
We will require bold policy decisions to enable action on all levels involved – and support from all political parties and all corners of the country.