THE race to offset our carbon emissions cannot be characterised by a David versus Goliath approach to tree planting, which could destroy the social fabric of our rural communities.

I’ve attended some fascinating policy webinars of late, many of which addressed the hot topic of “net zero targets”, but with the clear and resounding message: that addressing climate change can’t solely be focused on carbon.

Nature restoration, improving our soils and tackling declining biodiversity must go hand in hand with net zero targets and before we enter down a path of tree tunnel vision, we need to stop and consider how our land is to be managed in the years to come and consider the best use for that land.

Political interest in tree planting ticks many boxes as it removes carbon from the environment now, which is critical if we are to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees this next decade, and is the reason why political parties were tripping over themselves this past election to offer the most ambitious tree planting targets.

However, blanket plantations can also be dead zones for biodiversity which is why the benefits of agroforestry must be explored and encouraged.

Integrating agriculture and forestry can be more biologically productive, more profitable, and more sustainable than pursuing one or the other.

Agroforestry practices may use only 5 per cent of the farming land area yet account for over 50% of the biodiversity, improving wildlife habitat and harbouring birds and beneficial insects which feed on crop pests.

The goal has to be to pursue a climate friendly solution which takes into consideration social and economic impacts, as well as the environmental outcomes, which means keeping people on the land and supporting the rural economy has to be a priority.

A farmer from Cupar recently illustrated this point perfectly, highlighting Scotland’s current approach to planting Sitka Spruce – a fast growing non-native species which in 2017 dominated over 70% of the total forested area of Scotland.

He compared a livestock farm which could be turned over to Sitka Spruce – which is favoured for providing a high-quality softwood timber product that can be felled in as little as 25 years – with a farm that could be integrated with native woodland and grazing animals, which better supports natural species diversification, provides shelter for livestock, year-round employment and protects the social fabric of our rural communities.

It is a no-brainer that the latter approach offers a multitude of benefits to wider society – and is increasingly being recognised by policy makers. However the stark reality is that the economic and social case for exploring the likes of agroforestry is being lost in the race to net zero.

Another area of concern is that of the currently unregulated and voluntary carbon market, with large companies looking to buy up credits to improve their green credentials, which is threatening the future of farming.

As Scotland’s president of the National Farming Union, Martin Kennedy, put it – the rug is being pulled from under the feet of hard-working farmers who have managed the land for generations, delivering green credentials in the form of carbon and biodiversity credits, which once sold, are like the family silver, once gone, it’s gone.

He recalled a recent trip to a farm where rough grazing which would normally be worth £500 an acre for agricultural purposes, was now saleable for £3,500 an acre for forestry. How can individuals expect to compete in this market? It is extremely worrying for future generations looking to buy a small amount of rough grazing to get them started in the industry, who will now struggle to see any route on to the farming ladder.

Once thriving rural communities, supported by farming populations, could soon become ghost towns if poorly managed tree planting efforts result in a mass exodus of people.

We must heed warnings from New Zealand where companies like Ikea are buying up huge volumes of land for planting and farmers are warning that the future of sheep and beef farming could soon become untenable.

The recent well-documented struggles facing our own farming industry – exacerbated by Brexit and the ongoing labour shortages – is already causing many to question the future viability of their farming enterprises and will make signing over their carbon credits in the current market, very attractive.

However, these decisions are being made without full awareness of the implications this has for individual land managers and what this means for offsetting their own business emissions in the future.

There is a risk that farmers could reduce the value of their land, making it harder to sell if they have already sold their soil carbon rights. And as pointed out in the recent Farming for 1.5 Degrees report, selling those rights out with Scottish agriculture means the credit does not appear on the national account or the farm account – so the farm can’t claim, for example, to be “carbon positive”.

With COP26 approaching and the weight of the climate emergency resting heavily on the shoulders of individuals and organisations, there is going to be a rush to capitalise on the green credentials on offer in rural Scotland.

But farmers must be protected in the process, and not pressured in to signing away their carbon rights without a full understanding of the long-term consequences of their actions. Actions which could threaten the social fabric of our rural communities.

It is more important than ever to focus the debate on tree planting around what trees are planted and where, and how in the process we can support a plethora of biodiversity, economic and social benefits as we look to address the climate crisis.