The recent EPA report ‘Ireland’s Climate Change Assessment’ highlights Ireland’s underperformance in addressing climate change.

“Ireland has made limited progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to date and there is a very long way to go,” the reports states.

“Ireland is currently ranked second highest across the EU when all greenhouse gas emissions are considered on a per person basis,” it adds.

Referring to research on land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF), the report calls for “unprecedented rates of afforestation and the rewetting of organic soil along with a significant reduction in herd numbers”.

Role of wood

It omits any reference to the role of wood in displacing fossil based materials in energy and construction, which is the greatest global emitter of green house gas (GHG).

The most controversial elements of the report’s 23 co-authors is on levels of afforestation required to achieve climate change targets.

“Forests have an important role to play in achieving net zero,” they claim. “However, for forests to contribute to net zero, afforestation may require between 25,000 and 35,000 additional hectares of planting every year, which is a significant increase on the current target of 8,000 hectares a year.” There is no comment on how programmes of this magnitude will be achieved considering recent annual actual afforestation levels of 2,000ha.

The dramatic levels of planting called for, probably refer to recent studies carried out by Profs Cathal O’Donogue and David Styles, University of Galway.

However, O’Donoghue and Styles call for a high per cent of commercial conifers, which are the only species that can help decarbonise construction. Without quantifying the role of wood in displacing GHG in construction and energy, forestry is inevitably – and unfairly – forced into a collision course with agriculture, which needn’t be if carbon payments for farmers who plant are addressed.

The report makes a number of surprising comments on how tree species will fare as temperature increases in Ireland. All species mentioned are native apart from beech; “For forestry some species are likely to fare better in a changing Irish climate (e.g. Scots pine, beech and birch), while some are likely to experience decreased yields (e.g. oak and other deciduous trees).”

Research foresters have been discussing the impact of global warming on forest trees for some time but point out that introduced non-native coniferous species will have a major role to play. These include the western North American species with a natural range that extends 20° further south than Ireland.

Sitka spruce

All these, especially Sitka spruce and Douglas fir, adapt well to Ireland’s climate. Alongside Norway spruce and, to a lesser extent, Scots pine these are the only species that can play a major role in decarbonising construction as well as reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

The report refers to “the deployment of market-ready renewables (e.g. wind energy and solar photovoltaics) and low-carbon heating options (e.g. district heating), while our future choices include hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, nuclear energy and electrofuels”. It makes no direct reference to the role of wood (chips, pellets, sawdust and waste) in renewable energy generation. It also ignores the challenge that Ireland needs to district heat 200,000 homes and 2,500 public/commercial buildings by 2030, mainly with wood biomass.

Minister Ryan has gone on record as opposing wood energy – which needs to be challenged.

While wind energy has a major role to play in renewable electrification, wood is proving to be a major energy source in renewable energy, especially in countries that are serious about climate change. In Denmark, wind energy accounts for about 22% of total energy generation compared with 44% for wood. No wonder Ireland has only 13% renewable energy compared with 45% in Denmark.

The authors say the report is “a starting point for further dialogue on the findings and their utility for policymakers, practitioners, researchers, research funders and people”. Surely, it should be a starting point for action.

Forestry dashboard licences

Afforestation once again fares badly according to data issued by the Department for licences issued in January. Only 320ha were approved, when at least 1,000ha are required at this stage of the planting season.

Comparison with January 2022 illustrates the poor performance of afforestation. The total area planted that year was 2,273ha so at present planting levels, this performance may not be achieved. Comparisons with last year are irrelevant as the programme was stalled during the year as negotiations continued on achieving State Aid approval.

Stark contrast

The overall performance of afforestation is in stark contrast with years 2012-2014 when average planting was 1,247ha (Figure 1). On a more positive note, if the first week in January is discounted average weekly number of licences issued was 12. This translated into 100ha per week as the average licence amounts to 8.4ha.

This performance if maintained would at least provide annual licences for around 5,000ha, which would yield an annual planting programme of almost 4,000ha if 75% of licences were activated. It is still less than half the 8,000ha required (or 12% if the EPA recommendations are implemented). However, it would represent a vastly improved performance compared with recent returns.

There is better news in forest road construction as 26km of roading was approved compared with 29km in 2022, which was well up on 2020 (5km) and 2021 (20km) which reflects the increased areas now about to be harvested as a result of strong afforestation in the 1990s. Again, comparisons with January last year are immaterial as the programme had stalled during the year. Licences were issued for 2,523ha of thinning and clearfelling compared with 2,561ha last year and 3,507ha in 2022. Like roading licences, this reflects the increase in private felling as plantations established from the early 1990s are now being thinned or even clearfelled.

As a result, the average felling licences approved for January 2022-24 is 2,864ha compared with 1,330ha for the same month in 2012-2024. If this performance is maintained, total felling licences should surpass 8m m3 this year. These can be activated over the next 10 years.