Lawrence Solomon: Cash-strapped UK to sell its forests to stop climate change

(Jan. 16, 2011) The UK government plans to sell the country’s forests in order to raise money to fight climate change.

“a tree is just a very aged plant that, like any other plant, comes to the end of its life”

To raise revenue and stop global warming, the cash-starved UK government plans to privatize England’s crown forests. Environmental groups, unable to explain why climate change shouldn’t trump the preservation of forests, have to date been largely muted.

The UK policy, revealed in November by Jim Paice, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, would see a “very substantial disposal of public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it.”  In part, he explained, the decision is ideological, a belief that the private sector is more efficient than the government in managing forests. But the ministry’s decision to privatize assets – which will provide it with £100-million — is largely driven by the need to fund itself and its climate change priorities in these times of government austerity.

Under the government scheme, a more efficient private sector will increase the rate of cutting of forests, which will lead to more carbon being stored in people’s home.

“Forgive me, but I feel so strongly that we have to get people to realize that timber, in whatever form–including the desks we are all sitting at now–is carbon,” Paice explained. “Planting more trees and harvesting them sustainably, using that timber in furniture, construction and things like that, is fixing carbon and taking it out of the atmosphere.”

This “market relationship” to reducing the UK’s carbon footprint, however, requires cash, because forest companies in the UK need subsidies to operate. This cash, Paice explained, would come both from direct subsidies from UK taxpayers and indirect subsidies via “carbon offsets in one way or another–whether for social corporate responsibility reasons or any others.” In addition, electricity consumers would be forced to buy electricity generated by wood chips at above-market prices.

“We must understand that commercial forestry is what pays for all the other benefits,” he elaborated. “We have to get the whole lot into perspective. We have to persuade the general public that a tree is just a very aged plant that, like any other plant, comes to the end of its life. That is the point at which you harvest it, hopefully use it sustainably, and replace it.”

Environmental groups in the UK don’t like the scheme, which threatens the scant forests that remain in England, but also are reluctant to confront its climate-change rationale, which they support. Local groups are decrying the loss of forest amenities, as is 38 degrees, a lobby organization that has been organizing a hyperbolic petition with feeble results: It has failed to obtain even 150,000 signatures because its claims haven’t rung true. States the petition,  without once mentioning the government’s climate change rationale: The government is planning a massive sell off of our national forests. They could be auctioned and fenced off, run down, logged or turned into golf courses and holiday villages.”

Elements of the new scheme, now in pilot project form, are scheduled to be introduced this summer.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and the author of The Deniers.

Financial Post, January 16, 2011

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