An official UK report has highlighted the potential of plantations of fast-growing conifers to sequester extremely high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere on an annual basis.

The report was compiled by staff at Forest Research and its publication has been welcomed by one of Northern Ireland’s leading foresters.

The organisation is the UK’s principal organisation, involved in forestry and tree-related research.

The aforementioned publication is entitled: ‘Quantifying the sustainable forestry carbon cycle’.

Specifically, it confirms that fast-growing sitka plantations (thinned) can sequester up to 14t CO2/ha/yr. Next in order of sequestration rate comes fast-growing conifer plantations (unthinned) at 11.1t, followed by conifer plantations (thinned) at 8.9t.

For comparison purposes, broad leaf plantations that are lightly managed can deliver a sequestration rate of only 5.7t.

Premier Woodlands managing director, John Hetherington commented:

“The Forest Research works nails the myth that fast-growing sitka and other confirm options do not have a role to play in the development of Northern Ireland’s forestry and woodland development strategies for the future.

“The fact is that they do. It makes absolute sense that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, in tandem with Forest Service, should take full account of this reality as they plan for the future.”

Fast-growing conifers and CO2 sequestration

The work undertaken by Forest Research constitutes a systematic analysis of the rate of net CO2 uptake over time as a result of creating a wide range of different types of woodland in the UK.

The study includes the potential to avoid emissions in the future through using wood products in place of other materials and fuels. 12 types of woodlands were analysed covering coniferous and broadleaf woodlands as well as naturally re-colonising woodland on abandoned land.

The results show that all the woodland types deliver significant net CO2 uptake over a 100-year period, and nearly all in the 2022-2050 period. None result in significant net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during this time.

In addition, wood products can provide a significant store of carbon and can avoid emissions when they substitute for other materials.

These effects are most apparent for new woodlands managed for production over longer timescales, when these woodlands start to produce timber.

These contributions can be almost as important as carbon sequestration in the woodlands over this timescale.

Moreover, modelling results were consistent with experimental measurements of CO2 uptake rates, where these were available.