Boris Johnson wants to copy Franklin Roosevelt and plant billions of trees

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Civilian Conservation Corps

NEWS AND VIEWS (COMMENT): Shortly after taking office in 1933 the then US president, Franklin Roosevelt, set up the Civilian Conservation Corps with the intention of providing work for jobless young men. The project was successful in that 3 billion trees were planted and 800 parks created over the nine years of the programme.

Civilian Conservation Corps

The Oregon Civilian Conservation Corps via Flickr

It appears that Boris has taken inspiration from this historical scheme and decided to tackle Britain’s jobs crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic and at the same time unlock future growth by employing Britons to plant a lot of trees.

The Bennett Institute for Public Policy based at Cambridge University, wrote a report in which they argue that the government should set up a National Conservation Corps to help meet the government’s target of planting 30,000 ha of woodland annually.

In the Conservative manifesto there is a pledge to increase treeplanting. The target is 74,000 acres a year by 2025. As usual, the government has struggled. In the year to the end of March, 33,260 acres of trees were planted which is a very similar amount to the year before. Eighty-one percent of the trees were planted in Scotland. In England treeplanting increased to 5,758 acres compared to 3,509 acres the year before. It is below the target.

The Woodland Trust plans to plant 50 million trees over the forthcoming five years. This has helped to boost the government’s efforts. In addition, the Forestry Commission is funding a £50 million incentive scheme for landowners to plant trees.

The government can support economic recovery by investing in natural and social assets. This, as I understand it, is a connection between improving the environment and nature while also benefiting economically. There is a trend towards this mindset. It’s a bit like making money out of preventing global warming. There’s lots of money in that in terms of technology and commercial enterprises.

Scotland is an example of catastrophic deforestation over hundreds of years. It is mostly devoid of trees when at one time it was totally covered in them. Perhaps that’s why most of the planting takes place in Scotland or it’s a way for the British government to bribe Scotland to stay in the union.

Over the past hundred years woodland cover in the UK has doubled to 13%. It was at 5% in 1919. However, the UK lags far behind the European average at 38%. In England there is 10% woodland cover and in Scotland it is 19%, while Wales has 15% and Northern Ireland has 8%.

The chief environmental economist and senior economic adviser at the United Nations Environment Programme, Pushpam Kumar, has used a nice buzz phrase, “natural capital”. He says that countries need to think about natural capital as they emerge from the pandemic’s forced recession. I’m not sure what natural capital means but it probably means what I’ve discussed above. He refers to Roosevelt’s scheme also referred to above. That scheme was designed to help the American economy get over the recession of the 1930s.

The author (and economist) of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy report said that the coronavirus pandemic crisis forcing heavy government expenditure should not stand in the way of investment in social cohesion, health skills, the environment and strong communities.

Postscript: in case you were wondering about the connection between trees and animals, woodland is a natural habitat for wild animals. One of the great crimes of the modern era is mass deforestation causing the gradual extinction of a huge swathes of species who rely on the forest for their home.