This November, world leaders will meet in Glasgow for the UN climate summit known as COP26. The talks must unlock more ambitious and co-ordinated global action to tackle the climate emergency. We must curb emissions in every sector of society, and as the host nation of COP26, the UK needs to lead the way. As the landmark event approaches, we explore how tackling climate change must also prioritise protecting our oldest woods and trees for their exceptional carbon storing capability. 

What is COP26?

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP26, is a major international meeting of world leaders. It will be held in Glasgow 1-12 November 2021. The meeting aims to agree a global, co-ordinated response to the climate emergency which keeps within reach the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. It will cover all areas of the global response, from phasing out fossil fuels to protecting and restoring nature to boost resilience.

What is the Climate Change Committee?

The Climate Change Committee is an independent public body formed under the Climate Change Act to advise UK governments on tackling and preparing for climate change.  

Nature-based climate solutions 

Trees and woods are one of the key ‘nature-based solutions’ to tackling the climate crisis, along with looking after other natural habitats that store a lot of carbon, like peat bogs and saltmarshes. In light of this, the Climate Change Committee recommended a significant increase in UK tree cover, from 13% to 17-19%.  

Planting trees and helping woods to expand naturally will help to mitigate the emissions we can’t cut fast enough and those already in the atmosphere. They absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, storing it in their leaves, branches, trunks and roots. Carbon can also be stored when sustainably grown timber is used in the construction of buildings and other products society needs. Tree planting is a way everyone can get involved in fighting climate change, and it brings lots of other benefits to society too. 

Alongside other measures, like improving energy efficiency of buildings and a shift to zero-emission vehicles, this planting increase will help mitigate the UK’s carbon emissions and keep the planet habitable. 

Planting trees can’t be the only answer

We must also address the continued destruction, loss and neglect of our existing woods and trees. Protecting our oldest woods and trees must be a priority for tackling the nature and climate crises – both overseas and at home in the UK. These trees play a role that’s often overlooked and underestimated. Our existing ancient woods, hedgerows and trees are critical to carbon capture.

Did you know?

The older the tree, the more carbon it can capture and store. The UK is home to an exceptional number of ancient trees - England alone has 115 living ancient oaks over 9 metres wide. These incredible trees must be given better protection.  

Ancient woods are carbon-eating machines 

Our ancient woodlands are crucial to the climate change effort. These woods date back centuries and are some of our richest and oldest wildlife habitats, as well as places full of human history and stories. 

Ancient woodland makes up 25% of all UK woodland, but it holds 37% of all the carbon stored in woods and trees. It’s doing some serious heavy lifting. 

77
million tonnes
carbon already stored in ancient and long-established woodland
1.7
million tonnes
carbon absorbed by UK ancient woodland every year

Our State of the UK's Woods and Trees 2021 report revealed that our ancient and long-established woodland stores an estimated 77 million tonnes of carbon. That’s roughly equivalent to the carbon emissions from a whole year’s electricity use in every home in the UK. That volume is set to triple over the next century too, as ancient woods continue to soak up and store an extra 1.7m tonnes of carbon each year. 

These figures only count the carbon stored in living trees. If the undisturbed soils of ancient woodlands are also taken into account, the figures would be even higher. 

But unprotected by law, these vast resources are under threat from damage and destruction.  

State of UK woods and trees

State of UK woods and trees

The first-ever report that focuses on the UK's native woods and trees. It outlines their current extent, condition and wildlife value, benefits and threats.

See the story at a glance

Saving the UK’s rainforests

Did you know that we have rainforests here in the UK, and that some are also classified as ancient woodlands? These amazing places are home to rare plants, lichens and fungi - some not found anywhere else in the world. Like other ancient woodland, much has been damaged or destroyed, and what's left faces constant threat, mainly from overgrazing and invasive rhododendron.

The Alliance for Scotland’s Rainforest is taking action to protect and restore these unique habitats. But more must be done to keep them safe for the future.

In February 2021, the UK Government announced a welcome new initiative to protect global rainforests as part of COP26. Now governments across the UK need to step up to protect our own rainforests and ancient woodland.

Ancient woodland loss and damage has to stop

In the UK, most of our old woods and trees are only protected by the planning system, rather than by law. They remain vulnerable to development, to policy changes and poor policy enforcement. It’s a stark contrast to the legal protection we give to our old buildings.

288
ancient woods under threat we fought to save in 2020 alone

In January 2021, an update to England’s National Planning Policy Framework (Paragraph 131) stated that developers should keep existing trees wherever possible. It’s a step in the right direction, but poor enforcement means too many old trees are still being lost.

When it comes to trees and woods, global leadership starts at home. Government has said trees are one of its top priorities in fighting climate change. It has two big opportunities to demonstrate its commitment this autumn:

  • The UK’s forthcoming net zero strategy needs to show global leadership when it comes to the protection and restoration of native tree cover.
  • Pass the Environment Bill amendment that introduces a new ancient woodland standard and gives our oldest woods and trees legal protection. Already supported in the House of Lords, the change must be retained by MPs as the bill - set to legally protect and recover the environment in England - is finalised. 

Governments must take action

Our governments must improve the policies and laws protecting these habitats and carbon sinks. Environmental and planning laws must put ancient woods and trees out of harm’s way. We cannot hope to lead COP26 to a successful outcome without having our own house in order first. Loss of ancient forests is a problem at home as well as overseas and we can’t ignore it.

Cutting emissions is a non-negotiable fact if we want to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown. We want UK government to be able to say that it’s leading the way. That it has implemented policies at home for others to aspire to. That it’s making a difference.

March with us on the Global Day of Action

On Saturday 6 November, we’ll be joining thousands of others marching in cities across the UK to call for action on climate change. We want to demand cooperation and ambition from governments as they meet to agree the global response to the climate crisis at COP26.

Join us in Glasgow, Nottingham or Cardiff to stand up for trees and climate action.

Find out more and register your interest.

Don’t live near Glasgow, Cardiff or Nottingham? Find your nearest march organised by the COP Coalition.

Learn more about climate change

Discover how trees can help fight climate change and what you can do to make a difference.