Seeing the wood for the trees: the contribution of the forestry and timber sectors to biodiversity and net zero goals – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Environmental Audit Committee

Related inquiry: Sustainable timber and deforestation

Date Published: 19 July 2023

Download and Share


The World Bank estimates that global timber demand is set to quadruple by 2050. Demand in the UK is also expected to rise, in part because of the Government’s commitment to promote timber use in construction as part of the UK’s Net Zero Strategy. The UK imported 81% of all its timber in 2021, making it the second highest net importer of wood in the world. Against this backdrop of increasing demand, the UK’s softwood timber supply is set to fall even further behind demand, with production forecast to peak in the late 2030s before falling back to current levels in the 2040s.

Not only are trees and woodlands vital to the provision of timber, but creating new woodland is also widely agreed to be crucial for the UK to meet its 2050 net zero target and nature recovery targets. Trees and woodlands have an important role to play in providing other ecosystem services including climate regulation, soil conservation, the removal of air pollution and urban cooling.

Given the UK’s heavy reliance on timber imports and the potential negative impacts that increased UK and global demand could have on the planet’s most ecologically sensitive and biodiverse forests, we examine how the UK could deliver a higher proportion of its timber consumption through domestically grown timber, while also helping to deliver benefits for climate and nature.

As different tree species and woodland types deliver different benefits, a range of woodland types—including ancient woodlands, majority-broadleaf woodlands and mixed-species productive woodlands—is needed to support native biodiversity and to produce softwood timber. Significant expansion of the UK’s woodland cover is required to compensate for predicted shortfalls in the supply of domestically-produced softwood timber and to deliver the UK’s nature restoration and net zero goals.

We therefore welcome the Government’s UK-wide target to create 30,000 hectares of new woodland every year by 2025, including planting at least 7,500 hectares per year in England by 2024–25. But we are extremely concerned by the consistently poor progress made in increasing tree planting rates across all four of the nations in the UK. In 2022–23, tree planting rates across the UK were at similar levels to the previous four years and remained below half the rate required to meet the overall target of 30,000 hectares per year by March 2025. At this rate it is extremely unlikely that current tree planting targets for England or the UK will be met. So it is time for concerted action in both the public and private sectors in order for these targets to be met as soon as possible.

The Government is relying on third parties to plant the lion’s share of the trees required to meet its targets. It is therefore crucial that the Government is clear on what it requires prospective planters to do, and that it provides competitive and targeted incentives to encourage planting by private landowners.

Stakeholders require greater clarity from Government about its long-term vision and objectives for forestry and timber production in England. We identified no single strategy which clearly articulates the Government’s vision for the timber sector and it is by no means clear how Government intends to integrate the delivery of its policy objectives for timber with delivery of its nature recovery and climate change mitigation goals. To give greater clarity to the whole forestry sector, from nurseries through to foresters, land managers and end-users of timber, we recommend that the Government divide its overall tree planting targets into sub-categories for the types of woodland needed to achieve different goals. Future strategies for forestry should be fully integrated so as to establish a clear and holistic long-term vision for all woodland creation types.

We find that Forestry England, the government agency responsible for the management of the public forest estate in England, is not playing its part in meeting the national tree planting targets: to date it has planted 303 hectares against its target of 2,000 hectares of new planting between 2021 and 2026. Forestry England must take decisive action and develop a clear delivery plan to meet this target, to contribute to future timber supply and to the Government’s wider nature and climate objectives. As a major landowner, central government could be a significant contributor to meeting the UK’s tree planting goals. Ministers should commission work to identify opportunities for woodland creation on the Government estate so as to advance nature recovery and increase timber production.

Given the UK’s heavy reliance on timber imports and the potential negative impacts that increased UK and global demand could have on the planet’s most ecologically sensitive and biodiverse forests, it is right that the UK should do more to meet a higher proportion of its timber consumption through domestically-grown timber. It is unlikely that the UK will be able to supply fully all its timber needs domestically, especially against a backdrop of increasing demand and limited land availability. There is nevertheless scope to increase domestic timber production. The Government should set a realistic long-term target for the amount of timber to be produced domestically, informed by the analysis being undertaken to produce Defra’s forthcoming Land Use Framework. This target would give greater medium and long-term certainty over timber supply to the UK sawmilling sector, which currently relies upon domestically grown timber for 95% of its softwood consumption.

The Government’s aim to increase the uptake of timber in construction is welcome. The long-term use of timber in construction offers longer term carbon storage potential than other uses of harvested wood products and therefore has an important role to play in helping the UK to meet its net zero targets. Domestically grown timber resulting from the current drive to plant must be available for use in construction as far as possible.

The Government’s Timber in Construction roadmap should therefore be issued without delay. This must comprehensively address the afforestation commitments made in the England Trees Action Plan. It should address how the Government will support the sawmilling sector in its transition to production of a higher percentage of construction grade timber products, and how the Government can incentivise the safe use of domestically grown timber in construction, including through innovation in engineered timber products.

For as long as imported woody biomass continues to be a major bioenergy feedstock, it is important that the biomass used in UK power generation, whether from the UK or overseas, is genuinely sustainably sourced in a way which minimises the impact on forest biodiversity and carbon stocks. The Government must urgently address current sustainability concerns through improvements to its governance framework for biomass and in the forthcoming Biomass Strategy originally scheduled for release by the end of 2022. The amount of biomass used by the UK power sector should be constrained to match the availability of low-carbon sustainable feedstocks, factoring in potential domestic supply and rising trends of bioenergy use globally.

As demand for biomass feedstock grows globally, sourcing more biomass domestically could increase the security of UK biomass supply. In its forthcoming Biomass Strategy and Land Use Framework the Government must determine the capacity of the UK to supply bioenergy feedstock from its forest resources—including forest residues, short rotation forestry and coppicing—analysing the risks to sustainability of drawing upon these resources, and ought to model land-use trade-offs with regard to the future security of food supply and recovery from the current biodiversity crisis.