I thank the Deputies and Senators for the opportunity to engage with them today. I joined Coillte as CEO just over one month ago and it is already very clear to me that responding to climate change will be one of the defining challenges of my leadership of this organisation and, for this reason, I welcome the opportunity to engage with the committee at this early stage of my tenure.
The 2017 Citizens' Assembly recognised the important role forestry has to play in tackling climate change in Ireland. Last April this committee published its report, and in June the Minister, Deputy Bruton, published the Government’s first climate action plan. Each of these valuable initiatives have highlighted the same core message, which is that forestry is a key enabler in Ireland’s response to climate change and I believe that there is a serious responsibility on all of us to respond positively to these clear calls to action.
What strikes me about the debate on the role of forestry in supporting climate action is that almost everybody agrees that we need to plant more trees and that we need to manage our existing forests responsibly. However, there are differing views on forestry practices and systems and on the direction of forest policy. I am very happy to be here with my colleagues today to listen to those views and to offer insights and perspectives from an organisation that has spent 30 years managing forests on behalf of the State.
Coillte is custodian of approximately 7% of our total land area, so we clearly have a vital role to play. We do not have all the answers but what we have within our organisation is a deep well of forestry knowledge and expertise and, as the largest manager of woodlands in the State, we are acutely aware of the threat posed by climate change and our role in helping society meet this challenge.
Ireland’s forests represent our largest carbon sink and store. They also offer solutions to many of the other challenges our society faces. Our forests support a vibrant forest products sector that employs 12,000 people in rural areas. They provide sustainable building materials to replace carbon-heavy products such as steel and concrete. They can also improve our biodiversity, clean our water, reduce the risk of flooding, and provide great places for people to get active outdoors and experience nature. On the latter point, Coillte’s forests are entirely open access and we have an estimated 18 million visits to our forests each year. We already have over 3,000 km of hiking trails, 12 forest parks and nearly 300 recreation areas. Looking forward, we will continue to enhance our outdoor forest recreation offering.
Ireland’s forestry is very young in international terms. When the State was formed nearly 100 years ago our country had almost no forest cover, but as a result of significant public investment over the second half of the last century, it has increased to approximately 11%. However, despite this expansion, we still have one of the lowest levels of forest cover in Europe. That said, Ireland has exceptionally good conditions for growing trees. Our soils and our mild, wet climate mean that some tree species grow faster on this island than anywhere else in Europe.
As a country, we have an opportunity to increase our level of forest cover and realise all the benefits that forestry has to offer. However, to achieve this we need a vision for the future of forestry that enjoys broad public support. Forestry is a long-term commitment and decisions taken today have consequences far into the future. We therefore need to focus on identifying a vision for forestry that responds to the challenges we face in the century ahead. In my view the vision of the future of forestry can, and should, be inspiring and appealing, but it also needs to be realisable and sustainable. This is where balancing the economic, social and environmental dimensions of forestry is crucial.
In this context it is important that we recognise that managed forests are highly efficient at sequestering carbon. As forests grow and mature the rate at which they sequester new carbon eventually begins to decline. The advantage of an actively managed forest is that when trees mature, they are removed and replaced by new young trees, which are more effective at absorbing new carbon, thus starting the cycle again.
Actively managed plantation forests have a really important role to play in tackling climate change. This is due to their triple benefit whereby in the first instance trees sequester carbon as the tree grows. This carbon is then locked away in timber products when the mature tree is harvested thereby providing a second benefit. Timber products substitute other carbon-heavy products such as concrete or steel.
As the transition to a low-carbon economy begins to take hold, we are already seeing innovative new applications of wood fibre and it is likely this trend will accelerate as the circular economy and the bioeconomy scale up and become mainstream. In continental Europe, we are already seeing engineered timber construction being deployed in high-rise structures and wood-based products being developed to replace plastics and synthetic textiles.
At Coillte, we are committed to building on the momentum we have achieved in recent years to contribute further to Ireland's approach to forestry, climate change and the use of our natural resources for the greater good of Irish citizens. The challenge, as we see it, is to continue to get the balance right between the commercial, environmental and social or recreational dividend from forests in the ever-evolving world in which we operate. We are always looking to strike the right balance and for us, it is about planting the right tree in the right place with the right objective.
Today, we manage one fifth of our estate primarily for biodiversity purposes. In order to underpin how we are responding to changing societal demands, we recently established a new non-profit entity, Coillte Nature, which will focus exclusively on increasing the delivery of non-commercial woodlands, undertaking major biodiversity projects and large-scale forest conversion projects. Forestry has never been more relevant than it is today. Our objective is to work collaboratively with the Government, the Oireachtas, this committee, our customers and the public to ensure we optimise the contribution Coillte can make in the years ahead. My colleagues and I look forward to elaborating further on the points made in this short opening statement and to answering any questions members may have.