Lewis Blackwell: Copenhagen might dither, but the rest of us can get planting

Never mind Copenhagen, we can involve ourselves as growers and volunteers
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The Independent Online

As hopes fade for a convincing Copenhagen climate-change summit, we can expect public cynicism around environmental issues to grow. Especially if it involves putting a hand into a recession-tightened pocket.

It's been unedifying to see thousands of politicians and their hangers-on flying around the world, carbon offset at our expense, just to prepare for a meeting that is now likely to be indecisive. Even if positive-sounding statements emerge, we can expect that there will be plenty of opportunity to wriggle out of binding agreements.

Of course climate change is horribly complex in its science and its politics, but in all this confusion the public are taking in a dangerous message. Uncertain leadership makes us as individuals feel we are powerless to really effect change.

In the media, we do our bit to foster this cynicism. There is a keen appetite to produce "counter" stories to environmental action. Counter-trends are harder news. How else to interpret a Today programme item on Saturday morning that cited a mysterious report (apparently seen by the BBC Countryfile programme) in which "some of Britain's leading conservation charities say that cutting down trees and burning them can be good for the environment".

Apparently the Forestry Commission, Woodland Trust, and other conservation bodies want to harvest two million tons of wood a year so as to fuel up to 250,000 homes. This will help flora and fauna too, as the poor birds and flowers are all too often lost in thick forests that need thinning out. There was no mention of the more urgent focus of these organisations on planting millions of trees in the United Kingdom to repair the massive deforestation which has stripped the countryside of all kinds of biodiversity.

As the tail to a news bulletin in which Cumbrian floods were the headline story, this distortion of conservation values seemed grimly ironic. While the devastation in the Derwent Valley is not a straightforward story of deforestation, lack of well-established diverse tree cover is a common reason for the rapid run-off of rainwater that leads to flash floods.

In the UK there is less than 12 per cent woodland cover against an average of 40 per cent across the European Union, and 30 per cent worldwide. We live in a land that was once heavily wooded. We are in no position to be cavalier about chopping down trees.

If we are to have a sustainable source for harvesting a meaningful supply of "green fuel" we need to get planting fast, rather than over-rate what we can extract. We need to massively increase our forestry in order to lay a scale-able, sustainable base for the green fuel supply that the BBC report intimated was there for the taking.

For all this confused messaging, we must remind ourselves that we can make a difference as individuals. Change is deliverable one small step at a time – one tree at a time. From what we nurture in gardens, to supporting organisations such as the Woodland Trust, to donating to rainforest rescue actions, we can each increase the capture of carbon on a daily basis.

It is time this became a basic tenet of personal and social morality. Trees are good for the environment, good for the economy and, research shows, good for the soul. Housing, schools and hospitals perform better – creating healthier, smarter people – when they are in environments where trees are close at hand and plentiful.

Saving the rainforests and planting more trees will do a lot to fix climate change. Never mind Copenhagen, we can involve ourselves as growers, as volunteers to environmental organisations, or by simple acts such as donating a tenner to the WWF/Sky Rainforest Rescue project, for example. With that modest action you can protect a thousand trees in Brazil.

In my new book on trees, I quote Warren Buffet, a businessman who famously tends to think long-term. We all need to do that when it comes to understanding our investments in the environment. As he puts it: "Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago."

You don't have to be an investment genius, or a politician, to understand the multiple returns – global, personal, economic – to be had from planting trees.

Lewis Blackwell's latest book, 'The Life And Love Of Trees', has just been published by Chronicle