So which approach is best for the environment? Often the perception of cutting down trees in commercial forestry is wholly negative. Ongoing media coverage of the catastrophic deforestation of tropical forests leaves many with the understanding that tree felling is bad for the planet (Forest Research, 2021). Given the range of benefits delivered by conservation forestry, many people are left to conclude that conservation forestry is the only way forward to tackle the ongoing environmental crisis. Furthermore, in tropical regions, wood production has been unfavourably compared to restoration of natural forest (Lewis et al., 2019) as the benefits of supporting local economies are far outweighed by long-term carbon sequestration in natural (unharvested forests).
However, these conclusions are not necessarily transferable to a temperate context (Forster et al., 2021). The UK forestry industry is highly regulated, and all forestry must follow the UK Forestry Standard (UKFS). Recent studies astutely argue that long-term (90 years +) conscientious management of commercial woodlands in the UK can be more effective climate change mitigation strategy than planting conservation forests.
In a recent study by Forster et al. (2021), the GHG mitigation potential of commercial forestry was compared to that of conservation (i.e., unharvested) forestry practises. Assuming planting at a rate of 30,000ha per year in line with government planting targets, the research team used dynamic consequential modelling of a range of scenarios with varying conifer-broadleaf composition, harvesting, product breakouts, decarbonisation and substituted energy, and materials, to estimate 100-year GHG mitigation.
Despite harvested commercial forests storing 61% less terrestrial carbon than unharvested conifer forests and 42% less than mixed conservation forests, this is more than offset by GHG emissions mitigated through hard wood production carbon storage, concrete and fossil fuel substitution and bioenergy carbon capture and storage – Figure 2.