Afforestation Plan Can’t See The Wood For The Trees

The Irish Government’s afforestation plan is to plant 22 million trees every year for the next 20 years. While this sounds ambitious it will do nothing more than reach quantitative targets as it currently lacks the substance and complexity to reduce our carbon footprint, says Ciara Murphy.

On the surface the Government’s plan sounds positive. Planting more trees has to be good news, doesn’t it? Yet nothing is this simple. Like any grand gesture or sweeping political statement, this policy requires further investigation. We need to question what type of trees will be planted and where, how will they be managed and, quite importantly, whether the plan considers an integral ecological approach. To be effective, it should be part of a more encompassing policy addressing afforestation comprising rewilding natural regeneration, broadleaf woodland generation and soil restoration and management.

Integral Ecology

Ireland’s current forest coverage stands at 11 percent, one of the lowest in the EU. However, the climate crisis is one of the biggest challenges of our time, and this environmental issue does not, and should not, sit alone and independent from other problems that plague society. We need a more holistic, integral ecology approach to environmental management.
We cannot just plant our way out of the problem without considering all of the natural environment or we risk treating the symptom but not the disease. The Irish Government’s plan, and other proposed solutions like this, almost never stand the test of scrutiny. Policy-makers must consider the complex interactions that make up ecosystems as well as the often intangible and unmeasurable value that we gain for our wellbeing when surrounded by nature.

“We depend on these larger systems for our own existence. We need only recall how ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, breaking down waste and in many other ways which we overlook or simply do not know about” articulates Pope Francis in his climate crisis encyclical, Laudato Si’ (§140). Managing an environment purely for one of these ecosystem services without consideration for the others can simply transfer environmental problems to other areas of our society.

Human interference can have often unknown, indirect effects which impact upon ecosystem functioning, As Francis mentions “Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation” (§34). This is highlighted by a recent report which found that industrial logging and the associated wood product manufacturing emits a huge amount of carbon dioxide, reducing the land’s ability to sequester and store carbon. So in addition to exacerbating the problem it is being promoted to help solve, industrial afforestation can also have a detrimental impact on soil and water quality, and biodiversity.

Similarly, creating an environment that does not have the full functionality of a natural ecosystem may not be as beneficial to our wellbeing as natural ecosystems. We can all experience this first hand – consider the feeling you get when walking through a monoculture plantation and natural woodland. The clinically straight lines of trees and the absence of other flora and fauna does little to calm the mind and sooth the spirit. While land use planning cannot be based solely on aesthetics and our well-being, we need to take an incorporated approach. If we don’t, we will end up developing a policy that does not and will not work, as a long-term holistic solution.

Lessons Learned?

The Irish Government should know this. A report was published this year on ‘The Socio-Economic Impact of Forestry in Co. Leitrim’. This report found that at least some of the forestry was likely planted on High Nature Value farmland with the dominant species being Sitka Spruce. It illustrated the consequential issues around water quality and biodiversity, as well as the use of chemicals and soil disturbance.
This report must also be considered alongside the social discontent that some people in Leitrim has expressed. A group called ‘Save Leitrim’ was created to communicate to the wider public and the Government that the forests are not only detrimental to the environment but also to their mental wellbeing. In this way we can see that ‘The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together’ (§48).

Save Leitrim is campaigning for the ‘right trees in the right places managed in the right way to benefit the environment, the wildlife, the communities, the farmers, the economy, the county and the future’. We must learn from the mistakes of the past. The complexities of these systems should be considered, and the scientific consensus heeded, that this type of large-scale afforestation of mainly monocultures could have a detrimental impact on the environment.

Laudato Si’ states that “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live”(§139) and that “Attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions can lead to overlooking the complexities of local problems which demand the active participation of all members of the community” (§143).

This advice, which contains within it the principles of integral ecology should be a guide to our environmental policy-makers.

Author: Dr Ciara Murphy, Environmental Justice Advocate, JCFJ