As parliamentarians we are currently in the process of formulating our response to the proposed EU Forest Strategy.
As I see it, the strategy should first and foremost focus on the mitigation impact our forests can have in relation to the growing problem of climate change.
Secondly, the strategy should focus on the job protection and job creation potential of our forests and the wood they produce.
In relation to climate change, the strategy needs to clearly recognize the important roles that the EU's existing forests play in absorbing (sequestrating) 10% of our carbon emissions. If we could increase our forest cover from around 40% of our landmass to 45% we could absorb more carbon, creating jobs at the same time. The Republic of Ireland has ambitious plans to move from 10% forest cover to 18% by 2050.
We also know, though exact figures seem illusive, that managed forests absorb more carbon than those that are planted and simply left. They also have greater biodiversity, meaning a greater variety of plants, birds and animals. Managed forests by their very nature need people to look after and maintain them, which means more jobs.
Forests produce wood, which also embeds carbon. The more we can use wood in construction and manufacture, the more we increase demand for growing trees for industrial purposes, and so the more carbon we embed. By using timber or harvested wood products instead of oil-based or heat-intensive raw materials in industry, we will add to the overall climate change mitigation figure for the EU.
The English construction industry has traditionally been conservative about the use of wood, with wooden-framed houses being the exception. In Scotland, timber-framed houses are much more common. Scottish firm Robertson have a factory in Elgin, which produces timber frames. Some years ago they opened a second factory in Country Durham's Seaham, in my constituency, which led to the creation of new jobs. Unfortunately the UK recession saw a fall in orders and the Seaham plant had to be mothballed, but signs are hopeful that it will reopen soon.
Increasing the use of timber in the housing sector, including its application in the construction of more affordable houses built from sustainably sourced raw material, and using current technological developments to build high-capacity wood-based housing, would significantly reduce CO2 emissions in the building sector.
Wood can be increasingly used in new and different ways. Wood fibre is now used in car manufacture, as well as an alternative to polyester. Wherever wood is used it continues to embed carbon - carbon that would otherwise be in the atmosphere, exacerbating the problem of climate change.
Knowing this, the default position in construction and manufacture should be 'make it from wood' unless it can't be (or it threatens the sustainability of existing woodlands).
In addition to the climate change and job creation benefits of planting more forests there are further advantages in the areas of:
a) Health: a regular walk, run or bike ride in the woods does wonders for physical and mental health, and there are figures to prove it;
b) Improved soil quality, via rotating trees and crops - a process known as agri-forestry. This is a long-standing and widely-used practice in France;
c) Energy potential, as bio fuels, logs, wood chips etc. (but must be sustainable);
d) Preventing flooding: tree root systems trap and hold water, decreasing run-off;
e) And more...
Perhaps it's now time to change the old familiar saying about man's best friend being the dog: it's clearly the tree!
Paul Brannen MEP
North East England
Labour Agriculture and Rural Development spokesperson