How trees fight climate change

Credit: WTML
Credit: WTML

Global warming is happening at a faster rate than ever. Our polar ice caps are melting and our forests are burning.

We’re in a climate emergency and it’s threatening our planet. According to experts, we're on track for an increase of between 3°C and 4°C by 2100. And these are only global average temperatures. At the poles and over land (where people live), the increase may be higher – possibly even double.

Once we’ve reached the tipping point we’ll be powerless to intervene.

We need to act fast

There will be devastating consequences as temperatures soar. Changes will be irreversible as ecosystems collapse. Our planet will be unrecognisable.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that global temperatures need to be kept from rising by more than 1.5°C. We've already passed 1°C. We need to act now. The UK has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, but how can we achieve it?

We need to seriously reduce our emissions, and find a way of reducing the damage already done. Technology is being explored to remove CO2 – the biggest culprit – from the atmosphere, but they are expensive and complex.

There is a simpler solution – and it’s our most powerful weapon in the fight against climate change: trees.

Our most powerful weapon: trees

Trees are the ultimate carbon capture and storage machines. Like great carbon sinks, woods and forests absorb atmospheric carbon and lock it up for centuries. They do this through photosynthesis.

The entire woodland ecosystem plays a huge role in locking up carbon, including the living wood, roots, leaves, deadwood, surrounding soils and its associated vegetation.

400+ tonnes
carbon per hectare
That's how much a young wood with mixed native species can lock up in trees, roots and soil.
Putting a value on trees

In the UK, the value of trees for flood protection is estimated to be £6.5 billion, and £6.1 billion for urban cooling.

And trees do more than just capture carbon. They also fight the cruel effects of a changing climate. They can help:

  • Prevent flooding
  • Reduce city temperature
  • Reduce pollution
  • Keep soil nutrient-rich

It's not just new woodland. Carbon accumulation continues in woodland that's centuries old. Old-growth forests are actually carbon sinks, contrary to the long-standing view that they are carbon neutral.

Woods are our allies in the fight against a changing climate, yet just 13% of the UK’s land area is covered by trees (compared with an EU average of 37%).

The bottom line is, we need more trees and we need to protect the ones we already have.

Protecting trees and woods

The devastation continues

We recognise the importance of ancient woods in the fight against climate change, yet they are still being destroyed. The number of ancient woods threatened from built development has topped the 1000 mark for the first time.

See how we're fighting back

We need more trees

Climate change is a huge and complex issue and, as individuals, we can feel helpless. But there is something we can do and that's planting trees.

Trees are only part of the solution. Other changes have to be made to reduce global CO2 emissions and an effective response lies in the hands of world politicians. But we do need to plant more trees, quickly.

To help reach the UK government's 2050 target to become carbon net zero that’s removing as much carbon as we’re producing we need more trees. The reality is we need to increase the UK’s woodland cover from its pitiful 13% to at least 17%.

1.5 million
That's how many hectares of additional woodland are needed to help reach net zero carbon

We need to start planting

That sounds like a lot of trees, 1.5 million hectares is around the same land area as Yorkshire. But, there’s plenty of space for trees. In fact, scientists have already mapped areas that could be planted across Europe, all of which wouldn’t impact agriculture or urban areas.

We can also get trees in the ground while retaining unique non-woodland habitats. Keeping the landscape diverse is essential for resilience. There are also habitats that store even more carbon than woods, such as peat bogs, that are also in need of restoration.

Planting the right tree in the right place is vital. We plant native trees where they will thrive. By planting native, we make woods that are more genetically diverse and therefore more resilient against pests, diseases and the effects of climate change.

Credit: Wild Dales Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Tackling the nature crisis

Climate change is only half the battle. We are also facing a biodiversity crisis. The UK is ecologically damaged; we've lost 13% of our native species abundance since 1970 and this will only get worse if things go on unchanged. 

By restoring precious habitats and planting new native woodland with UK-grown trees, we extend and create havens for wildlife, boosting biodiversity. This goes hand in hand with our planting to mitigate climate change.

Credit: Phillip Formby / WTML

Looking after what we've got

Protecting old, established woods and trees is essential.

We lobby government and influence policy to protect what we already have.

Over the decades that we've been campaigning, we've saved thousands of threatened woods that are already working hard locking up carbon.

Policy paper

We’ve got a plan to make it happen

PDF  (9.63 MB)

We set out how the UK can tackle its climate and nature crises. We need to expand tree cover and protect and restore woodland on an unprecedented scale.

Read our Emergency Tree Plan

Planning for the future

Tackling this crisis now means leaving the world in a liveable state for future generations.

We want everyone to connect with and recognise the importance of trees and woods in our lives, from distant rainforests to the landscape on our doorstep. By working with schools and communities, we’re empowering people to take the fight against climate change into their own hands.

Looking up into canopy, Tring Park

Fight for our planet

Support our work to plant trees and look after the ones we have.

Become a member today

Other ways you can help

Woods and trees need planting and protecting, and there are lots of ways you can get involved and support us.

Keep exploring