Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Questions (62)

Bernard Durkan


62. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the extent to which he has identified the degree to which a specific area of forestry can offset carbon emissions by way of sequestration; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28581/19]

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Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

I am seeking to ascertain the extent to which various tree species can assist in carbon sequestration, thereby contributing in a positive way to efforts to deal with climate change without destroying the incomes of people in rural Ireland, particularly members of the farming community.

Forests play an important role in climate change mitigation by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This process is known as sequestration. The ability of forests to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere depends on a range of site parameters, including the species of the trees, the age of the forest and the type of soil.

The national forest inventory, which is compiled by my Department, collects a range of data on our national forests, including data on carbon. According to the most recent inventory, Ireland's forests removed or sequestered an average of 3.8 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere each year between 2007 and 2016.

The total carbon stock in Irish forests is approximately 312 million tonnes. This carbon is stored in trees, soils, leaf litter, dead wood and roots. It is important to note that the national forest inventory provides a statistical sample of a proportion of Ireland's forests and does not estimate carbon stocks in individual forests.

However, based on the results from the last survey and the total size of the forest estate, which measures 770,020 ha, we can say that approximately 5 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year, on average, is sequestered. This is an average figure and takes into account all different types of tree species and ages growing on a range of different soil types.

Sustainable forest management and the protection of forests from disease are important to ensure that forests continue to sequester and store carbon. Harvested wood products are also an important store of carbon and recent changes to accounting rules now mean that the carbon stored in wood products is to be included when determining overall net emissions. This change will help to promote the increased use of wood and allow the mitigation effect of carbon storage to be accounted for.

Considerable scope now exists for further expansion in wood use and processing. The all-Ireland wood production forecast anticipates that production on the island will increase from 4 million cu. m to nearly 8 million cu. m by 2035. This doubling of output is set to come, in the main, from privately owned, grant-aided forests in the Republic.

I thank the Minister of State for his interesting reply. I have carried out some experiments in this area. For example, much of the focus has been on native deciduous species, which are, of course, not the best at sequestering carbon. In fact, Sitka spruce is one of the most efficient in that area probably because of its growing lifespan. Interestingly, the sequoia, which is a fairly large tree with huge capacity and which grows quite rapidly at up to 60 ft over 25 years, is not to be sniffed at. We have an opportunity to be able to illustrate to everyone in urban and rural Ireland that this is an area where we can double or quadruple our capacity in terms of carbon sequestering.

There are various debates on the best species of tree to grow in order to sequester carbon. The more appropriate approach is to have the right tree in the right place being properly managed, taking into account all aspects. There are 12 different grant and premium categories under the afforestation programme. These range from basic conifer, which will include 15% broadleaves, right through to native woodland and woodland improvement. We also have a range of new measures, including continuous cover forestry, tending and thinning programmes and fencing to protect valuable crops from deer and rabbit damage. The motto should be that we have the right tree in the right place being properly managed, rather than focusing on specific species. Every tree, properly managed, can contribute.

I agree with the Minister of State up to a point. An argument has been ongoing for some time as to which species are native. The Caledonian pine, as evidenced by Professor Seamus Caulfield's work in the Céide Fields, was here 5,000 years ago. I am not certain whether it is a native species, but it has lived its time and I suggest it is a native species.

I believe there is a significant difference in the extent to which the various varieties can contribute to carbon sequestration. There is an issue in Europe and North America regarding Sitka spruce-type trees, which we are told are bad for the fishing industry. However, these types of trees are grown in North America and its fishing has never been better. It has no difficulty with them.

We need to remember that when any wood is burned the only carbon which escapes is that which was sequestered in the first place. Timber is carbon-neutral and I ask that everything possible be done to continue research in that area with a view to maximising its potential.