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Reforestation project will help Cambridgeshire achieve aim of reaching net zero carbon

Millions of trees could be planted in Cambridgeshire under plans to tackle climate change.

The county council has drafted an ambitious strategy to help it reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – a target set by the government.

Massive changes to transport and how homes and businesses use energy are also required.

“It’s an ambitious strategy but I do think it’s a realistic one,” Cambridgeshire County Council’s leader Steve Count told the Cambridge Independent. “We are not a council that rests on our laurels. We are looking towards the future and examining the decisions we must take today to address the urgent changes needed to protect our environment.”

Councillor Steve Count. Picture: Keith Heppell
Councillor Steve Count. Picture: Keith Heppell

The council tasked University of Cambridge researchers with finding the best ways to slash carbon emissions. They came up with detailed plans for transport, housing, industry and agriculture, which are out for public consultation.

These include vehicles moving to electric power, renewable sources for heat and power, and afforestation.

The strategy shows that greenhouse gas emissions in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough in 2016 were 6.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) – which includes other greenhouse gases. This accounted for 1.6 per cent of the UK’s total emissions.

But if emissions from peatlands were included, the county’s carbon contribution would rise by up to 90 per cent.

The researchers at Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange make it clear that the county should aim to be a world leader in restoring peatlands, which lock away huge amounts of carbon until they dry out or are disturbed.

Excluding peatlands, the county’s emissions are dominated by transport and industry, which contribute 68 per cent of total, with the rest coming from domestic energy use, agriculture and waste collection and storage.

The strategy modelled the impact of planting trees on 3,000 hectares – one per cent of land in Cambridgeshire and a third of the council’s rural estate – in 2020.

The source of Cambridgeshire's carbon emissions. Graphic: Cambridge Independent (25827228)
The source of Cambridgeshire's carbon emissions. Graphic: Cambridge Independent (25827228)

Cllr Count said: “As a council we have done lots already that we can be proud of to reduce our carbon footprint – planting 25,000 trees, investing £22million into carbon reductions and having a further £56million identified in our business plan to continue to support measures to protect our environment. We’ve got 34 acres of farm estate. We’re also responsible for all the highways in the county, so let’s identify what we can do.”

Other areas for planting trees and bushes beyond the council’s land have yet to be identified.

But Cllr Count said: “We’ve got our eye on a couple of areas where it might be more than interspersed planting and more the creation of a woodland.”

Responding to the proposals, James Murray-White, a Cambridge-based film-maker and ‘rewilder’, added: “Only indigenous trees should be considered in the planting debate. Also, this report mentions but does not seem to address the issue of the cost of land in the Eastern region, particularly the county council envelope.

“Nor does it look at the intrinsic value of community planting, and community land ownership, which would enable a greater sense of value and connection to, and care of, the trees.”

But Cllr Count said that the county’s strategy cannot be looked at in isolation, and they would look to work with other authorities and businesses to achieve their aims.

The strategy looks at what the council can do itself, where it can collaborate and how it can further encourage and support others.

He continued: “There’s no body – whether it be county council, unitary authority or government – that can fix this on its own. We’re all in this together and we’ve got to pull together.

“If we can get parts of our own house in order, then we can help lead, co-ordinate or work with others.”

After all the other measures have been implemented, almost 600,000 tonnes of annual CO2e emissions would still remain.

To abate through afforestation alone, trees would need to be planted on 34,000 hectares – some 11 per cent of Cambridgeshire’s land.

Cllr Count continued: “One thing is clear: we will not get to net carbon zero using afforestation alone.

Actions suggested to reduce Cambridgeshire's carbon emissions by University of Cambridge researchers. Graphic: Cambridge Independent (25827231)
Actions suggested to reduce Cambridgeshire's carbon emissions by University of Cambridge researchers. Graphic: Cambridge Independent (25827231)

“You’d have to keep on planting new trees ad infinitum to combat climate change. What you’ve got to do is reduce your carbon production.”

In homes, the main source of greenhouse gas emissions comes from the energy used for heating and appliances.

The researchers suggest a key way to tackle this is by ensuring all new homes are built to level A energy performance certificate (EPC) standards from this year.

All existing homes below EPC level C would have to be retrofitted to meet this minimum standard over the next 10 years. This could mean double glazing and insulation being installed, but could also include replacement of gas or oil central heating with renewable sources, such as solar or wind power, air source and ground source heat pumps.

A pilot study is already being trialled in Swaffham Prior to move village homes from oil central heating to a renewable district heating system.

Businesses would be urged to move to renewable sources of heating and power too, and electric cars would be encouraged, potentially through free parking spaces and charging points.

The net zero scenario requires all cars, LGVs, buses and motorcycles to be electric by 2050 as well as 91 per cent of HGVs. This would reduce transport emissions to 81,000 tonnes of CO2e by 2050.

However, the gases released by drained peat fields have not been taken into account yet.

“It is the most testing part of the strategy just because of the sheer volume of carbon,” said Cllr Count.

He said a project is already under way to restore peatland, which means stopping drainage and wetting the peat so it does not dry out and blow away.

“However, when we consider that peatland is one of the main agricultural parts of the UK economy – we’re often described as the bread basket of England – at this point in time, it doesn’t seem realistic to simply say let’s remediate all of our peatland,” he explained.

Cllr Count said the authority would turn to businesses and University of Cambridge researchers for alternative solutions, as well as other countries.

He added: “We’re trying to work with scientists to see if there are other options available that we could perhaps pilot with a government project.

“I’m sure other countries that have much more peatland don’t want to automatically remediate peatland so if we develop another solution

with help, we could become a world leader.”

Councillor Josh Schumann. (25818662)
Councillor Josh Schumann. (25818662)

Cllr Josh Schumann, chairman of the council’s commercial and investment committee, who seconded a motion to approve the consultation, said: “The message on climate change is clear – none of us can afford not to do this.

“This strategy sets ambitious yet realistic targets, based on clear research and highlights how we can achieve them.”

The council wants to understand what the community thinks of the targets and the actions it plans to set itself and its suppliers.

The consultation runs until January 31 and will include events across the county.

It can be viewed online at consultcambs.uk.engagementhq.com/climate-strategy.

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