Northern Ireland is falling short on tree planting levels required to pave the way to net-zero ambitions by more than 90%.

Giving evidence at the Stormont Agriculture Committee on the private member's Climate Change Bill, Paul Armstrong, public affairs manager at the Woodland Trust, said the trust wanted to see an "ambitious target" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions "as soon as possible".

"We do acknowledge the 82% target stated by the Climate Change Committee [CCC] and we also note the CCC has highlighted the 94% reduction as a more ambitious target as well," he said.

We have recommended a more ambitious target, primarily to support the development of our understanding to drive further, research and development of solutions and understanding of how we can meet net-zero as soon as possible."

However, he explained Northern Ireland faced a challenge in terms of ramping up afforestation rates.

"Trees will play an important role... but it should be noted that Northern Ireland has the lowest percentage of tree cover in the UK and EU," he said.

"We are also working towards the target of 12% tree cover in Northern Ireland by 2050... We are consistently falling short of these targets... To meet 12% tree cover by 2050, we would need around 2,000ha of tree planting a year," he said.

The figure was set in the department's 2006 Northern Ireland Forestry Strategy.

Just 10% of tree-planting targets

According to the Woodland Trust in 2019, 240ha of new woodland was planted in Northern Ireland.

In 2020, the same figure was just 200ha, meaning the region is only reaching 10% of its target.

Woodland Trust explained its estate comprised 650ha, including two recent acquisitions - one in the Belfast Hills and another in Mourne Park. However, with just 10% of the 2,000ha/year target met over the last two years, there is still a long way to go.

At the moment, we are falling short of this each year, and as we miss the target each year, we are building that target further and further up."

Paul Armstrong, Woodland Trust

"The Climate Change Committee has recommended UK tree cover is between 17 and 19% by 2050, so 12% tree cover is even below that. So we would like to see an even more ambitious target but we would also like to see a renewed focus on woodland creation."

Avoiding a 'dash for carbon'

Armstrong said the organisation supported the inclusion of biodiversity targets, but stressed a "dash for carbon" reduction at the expense of other environmental factors must be avoided.

"We can't just address the carbon issue without making sure that we are looking after our environment at the same time," he said.

"We need to make sure that they capture both the climate emergency and the biodiversity emergency crisis together.

We shouldn't be creating new woods solely to meet biodiversity targets and ambitious targets shouldn't result in reducing tree planting standards to accelerate planting."

He also highlighted the importance of "appropriate" tree planting as well as outreach work with farmers and landowners.

He suggested work to support afforestation could include a combination of native woodland, natural regeneration, sustainable commercial plantations, agroforestry, and urban trees and hedges.

But Armstrong added that it was "not good enough just to simply plant more trees".

"We also need to better manage our existing stock," he said.