Like so many environmental questions, the diverse threats facing the world’s trees tend to be overshadowed. But there are always new and specific problems, and two in particular seem now to be spiralling: tree pests and diseases and deforestation. National Tree week, from 29 November to 7 December is a good time to think about this.
The actual rate of new tree diseases has surged during the last twenty years, and still now more species face new threats. The global trade in plants is one significant cause, but equally important is the international timber trade. Britain depends on imports for almost all our hardwood alone. Several million cubic metres of timber are imported into the UK each year, the majority from temperate forests. With all these timber imports comes the threat that still more pests and disease will be introduced to our native trees.
All across the world, deforestation still persists – and now the surge in the use of biomass in energy generation (as in UK power stations) is exacerbating the problem, with some of the timber imported from primal forests in the USA. These ecosystems will be weakened, and these forests’ function as a carbon sink will also be lost. Moreover, the carbon footprint of transporting the timber to Britain will be considerable.
These two issues come together in the global timber trade, to which alternatives need to be developed. Strengthening the UK’s own timber production is one clear imperative, thereby reducing our dependence on imported timber for such uses as construction as well as biomass as a fuel. Sustainable British forestry – a move away from monocultures to more broadleaved as well as conifer commercial woodlands, using recognised ecological methods of forestry – could hep rural economies.
Waste agriculture material from within the UK, such as straw or crop wastes, can be used to limit the use of timber to generate electricity. But the real problem is the large scale. One large biomass power station uses more than one and a half times as much as all the wood produced in the UK every year.
Trees are vital for a healthy planet – ecologically, symbolically and spiritually. In a biblical vision of the future the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22.2).
(This article by Isobel Murdoch is part of Christian Ecology Link’s current letter campaign.)