9 December 2022

UK researchers investigate carbon sequestration capacity in forests


British forests can contribute significantly to climate mitigation. A project aims to define the potential of agroforestry and open the way to a new market

by Matteo Cavallito


Assess the potential for carbon sequestration in UK forests to better support climate mitigation strategies by engaging operators, managers and funders. That is the goal of the Woodland Carbon Code project, sponsored by the Soil Association, an Edinburgh-based environmental body, along with other organizations such as the Woodland Trust, Finance Earth, Organic Research Centre and the Scottish Rural College (SRUC).

The program, which was discussed at a webinar in recent weeks, “is investigating the carbon sequestered by in-field agroforestry systems and the feasibility aand opportunity to generate robust carbon credits,” Clive Thomas, Senior Policy Advisor to the Soil Association, explained. These “might be used for either insetting, as a contribution to a landowner/supply chian net zero strategy or for sale to 3rd parties, as credits for offsetting of unavoidable emissions within a robust emissions reduction strategy.”

The benefits of agroforestry

Agroforestry involves the establishment of an agricultural system that combines traditional activities such as crops and livestock with the planting and management of trees. This practice, says a recent report by Woodland Trust, an organization promoting the restoration of British forests, results in several benefits.

“Bringing more trees into farmed landscapes will make them more resilient economically and environmentally,” says the research. “Trees on farms combine productivity with support for biodiversity, increasing the carbon stored in the land and helping us meet our commitments on climate and nature.”

On average, cultivated land in the UK releases nearly 2 tons of CO2 per hectare each year; land used for livestock almost four tons. In contrast, the report notes, “Over 30 years, silvoarable systems can sequester the equivalent of eight tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year.” Moreover, “Establishing silvopastoral agroforestry on 30% of UK grassland would result in net zero emissions from the grassland sector by 2050, and a net sequestration rate of 21 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year by 2062.”

One year of studies on forests

In addition to identify current opportunities for carbon measurement, the 12-month project aims to test agroforestry activities at a number of pilot sites in England. Researchers will need to figure out how to define requirements for measurements of the amount of element sequestered until an Agroforestry Carbon Code is produced.

Then key aspects will need to be defined including the type of credits that can be produced, who is required to monitor and certify operations, potential revenues, and potential investors. As a carbon farming strategy, in fact, agroforestry activities generate emission credits that can be traded in the market thus attracting the interest of financial players.

The role of private investors

“Public investment is not enough to fund UK’s nature recovery,” explained in fact Sarah Darrah, natural capital advisor at London-based consultancy Finance Earth. “Additional private investment of £44- £l97 billion is needed over the next 10 years to deliver the 25 Year Evironment Plan.”

Morever, she says, in order to open the way for the market, we will need to answer three questions. “What role can private finance play in UK agroforestry projects if we could sell Agroforestry Carbon Credits based on the latest available science? Is there a market for Agroforestry Carbon Credits? What carbon price is needed to make a project viable based on carbon sequestration rates and project delivery cost?”. This will also make it possible to quantify the risk of operations by defining the price to attract investors.

A promising scenario

Not surprisingly, says Ilona Coulson-Ashworth, Carbon Projects Manager at Woodland Trust, the pilot initiatives aim to “test the code on a range of scale and system approaches to understand its effectiveness, the accessibility for farmers and the investment potential for buyers.” The scenario for the UK agroforestry sector, in any case, looks promising.

According to a research by Cumulus Consulting, “more than 80% of the proposed Environment Plan target of 420,000 hectares of new woodland/new woodland canopy by 2050, could be achieved, without significant disruption to farm tenure.” In any case, “financial support will be vital to achieve this level of uptake (circa. £90 million/annum through to 2050).”