And if it wasn’t already clear to us all, the pandemic has shown just how important nature is to our lives, and why we need to do everything we can to protect and nurture the natural world around us.
It is a gigantic task. In every region of our planet, we are seeing biodiversity plummet and nature in retreat. You don’t need to be a mathematician or a scientist to know that if we continue to lose tropical forests at a rate of around 30 football pitches every single minute we will all pay a terrible price.
As hosts of Cop26, the UK has both an opportunity and a duty to make this the year where we collectively turn that grim trajectory around and put nature on a path to recovery.
We are leading global alliances to protect at least 30 per cent of the world’s land and ocean by 2030, and over the next five years we’re investing at least £3bn of UK international climate finance in solutions that protect and restore nature.
We’re also asking other countries to step up, to shift their land use subsidies away from destruction and towards supporting the environment, and to work with us to clean up the global commodity supply chains that are responsible for deforestation.
Because while technology has a big role to play, we know we cannot solve climate change without protecting and restoring nature – on a massive scale. And from the Amazon to Yorkshire’s White Rose Forest, trees provide answers to so many of the biggest challenges we face – restoring biodiversity, reaching net zero, conserving water during drier months and slowing run-off in wetter seasons.
Firstly, we need to protect our existing woodlands, in particular our valuable ancient woodland – so veteran trees that have seen centuries pass can watch over generations to come. Anyone who has seen the wonders of Knepp will understand why we need to harness the extraordinary power of natural regeneration as well. And we are absolutely committed to planting 30,000 hectares of trees a year across the UK by 2025.
Our tree-planting push is an essential part of the Prime Minister’s plan to build back better and greener, and we have established a new Nature for Climate Fund to do it – investing over £82m in trees in 2021 and 2022. Our legislation requiring all new developments to add at least 10 per cent to existing biodiversity is a world first.
Part of our plans to incentivise tree-planting on an unprecedented scale are the ambitious new programmes we’re developing to regenerate land alongside our watercourses – creating a network of wildlife corridors and slowing the flow of water through the landscape.
And it builds on work already under way in Yorkshire. In the Ure and Wharfe catchments, we’re planting over 10,000 trees. Above Leeds, trees in the cloughs are helping to protect the city.
I know that people care passionately about the future of our woodlands. When we asked people to send us their views during the England Tree Strategy consultation, we received an astonishing 20,000 responses.
That’s why I have launched a new Local Authority Treescapes Fund. It will open in April and will provide up to 50 grants of between £50,000 and £300,000. Anyone can access it if they work with their local authority, and the criteria are deliberately broad – we want to help community groups, volunteers, and NGOs kick-start local tree-planting and regeneration projects across the country.
Perhaps you’re determined to restore that forlorn corner of your local park – or establish hedgerow trees to provide shelter for wildlife, nesting sites for birds, berries for small mammals, and nectar for our beleaguered pollinators.
There may be a patch of vacant, neglected land where you and your neighbours want to plant trees. Whatever your ambition, I urge you to get involved and work with your local authority in Yorkshire to design projects and apply for funds.
If we work together to plant the right trees in the right places – as well as taking care of treasures we already have and helping land regenerate naturally – I have no doubt that we can make our country even more beautiful, more connected, and more resilient for the future.
Zac Goldsmith is the Forestry Minister and a Tory peer.
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