A fifth of land currently used for farming could be transformed into new woodland and forests as part of the government’s legal obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.
The recommendation is one of many from the climate change committee, which says nearly three billion trees need to be planted in the UK in the next three decades.
Trees and plants are second only to the ocean at generating oxygen and are responsible for locking in billions of tonnes of carbon.
The committee says 30,000 hectares of trees need to be planted every single year in the UK, increasing tree cover from 13% to 17%.
Director of programmes at The Tree Council, Jon Stokes, told Sky News although the target is ambitious, it is achievable.
“It doesn’t just have to be forests – we’re going to have to put trees everywhere,” he said.
“To make this work we’re going to have to think about gardens, because people can plant trees in their gardens. Everyone counts, you’re going to be talking about parks, streets, hedgerows. If you do all those different places we’ve got more than enough space.”
The UK has a long way to go if it is to plant 30,000 hectares of trees annually – last year only around 9,000 hectares were planted.
In the year to March 2019, 13,400 hectares of trees were planted.
If the planting target is achieved, the net amount of carbon trapped in UK forests and woodland would increase to 22 metric tonnes per year by 2050.
The climate change committee’s major report – which originally recommended the net-zero emissions target – says one fifth of our agricultural land must shift to alternative uses that support emissions reduction, including afforestation, biomass production and peatland restoration.
It says all government departments must be involved in reducing Co2 levels, and projects to plant new trees must be fully funded.
Forest minister David Rutley told Sky News he admits tree-planting needs to be increased.
“We’ve got a target of 11 million trees being planted by the end of this parliament and we have aspirations beyond that – and in our 25-year environment plan. We set out a target or an aspiration to move from 10% tree cover in England to 12% tree coverage – that’s the equivalent of an area the size of Dorset in trees so there’s real ambition there but we realise there is more we need to do.”
Experts say creating new areas of woodland and forest on such a large scale will involve the creation of vast new forests, as well as small community planting projects.
The projects will involve help from the near 6,000 tree wardens who volunteer across the UK.
Dick Walters has been a tree warden in Eastleigh, Hampshire, for 30 years.
He has helped transform an overgrown woodland into a managed area with fruit trees and public paths and now teaches children to help maintain the area.
“It’s not taught in school now,” he said.
“A lot of children at 10 or 11 don’t know where an apple comes from, haven’t seen an oak tree, and don’t understand the process of nature and what nature does.”
“They’re our answer for the future. With climate change, we’re noticing it here now, we’ve lost species because the area has warmed,” Mr Walters added.
But planting three billion trees by 2050 will also involve creating vast new swathes of forest – land which may have to come from farmland.
Environmental contracts between the government and farmers to make it financially viable to switch from agriculture to farming are still being formulated – made more complicated by uncertainty over farm subsidies post-Brexit.
The National Forest in the Midlands is a good example of transforming industrial land into forest.
Two-hundred square miles of land, which was used for mining until the 1990s, is now covered by millions of trees.
Sue Anderson from the National Forest helped plant the first trees.
She told Sky News: “We’re creating a whole new forest here and been going 20 odd years. We began with 6% woodland cover and we’re now at 20% and we’re heading for around a third.
“All around you you’ll see young trees, but also trees that are 20 to 25 years old that are beginning to look like a mature forest.”
The government’s commitment on greenhouse gas emissions coupled with Extinction Rebellion protests has injected new energy into tree-planting projects across the country.
Mr Stokes said: “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve never felt more excited than I am at the moment about this complete opportunity that exists that’s being realised by all age groups across the country.
“It’s fantastic to see the young people realising that they need to be thinking about doing something. One of the things they can do something about is they can do tree planting and get involved in that practical act in doing something that has a benefit for the long-term.”