In the last two UK general elections, just 2% of televised debates were dedicated to talking about the climate crisis, according to environmental campaigning organisation Possible.
This election campaign, however, is starkly different. 2019 has seen millions of climate protesters galvanised by Greta Thunberg’s global school strikes movement. Now, more than half of the British public reportedly say that the issue of climate change will affect how they vote.
Ahead of the leadership debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn on Tuesday evening, there have been calls from all the main opposition parties for a separate debate focused solely on the environment.
And possibly for the first time ever, it appears that tree planting has become a hotly contested issue.
Johnson, Corbyn, and Jo Swinson — leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats respectively — will have all laid out plans to increase tree planting by the end of this week.
Johnson has pledged 30 million new trees a year, while Swinson promised 60 million. Labour is set to unveil its manifesto on Thursday, with a plan for trees that will reportedly be “guided by the science”.
But environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth has shared new research that details how tree planting targets have been comprehensively missed in England every year since 2015.
Commitments to tree planting and increasing tree cover are welcome, but still nowhere near enough - we need greater ambition from all parties to urgently respond to the nature and #ClimateEmergency. https://t.co/U633t06xTF#TreesForClimate#MoreTreesPlease— Friends of the Earth 🌍 (@friends_earth) November 18, 2019
Friends of the Earth reports that government spending on tree planting in England was £13.5 million in 2017-18 — 43% lower than the previous year and almost half of what was spent 10 years ago.
If you add Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland into the mix, total spend for the planting and management of trees, woodland, and forestry was £60 million. Given that there are 66 million people living in the UK, that equates to less than £1 spent on trees per person every year.
The Guardian notes that this compares poorly to the money the government has spent per person on investments that increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, like roads (£90), the 9-year freeze on fuel duty (£135), and fossil fuel subsidies (£150).
“We’re calling for the next government to properly fund the doubling of tree cover,” said Emi Murphy, a trees campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “This is one of the key solutions to solving the climate crisis but has been shockingly underfunded for years. Faced with the climate emergency and the dire impacts it will bring, we simply cannot afford not to fund trees.”
Meanwhile, Scotland has reportedly been making up for lost time.
🌳 There's a bit of focus on tree planting today on the #GE19 campaign trail. Under the SNP, Scotland planted 22 million trees last year alone.— Fraser MacDonald (@fr4ser) November 16, 2019
The gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK is staggering - Scotland made up 83.6% of the UK's mainland tree planting last year pic.twitter.com/XPCBAyt0TP
Former Prime Minister David Cameron previously promised to plant 11 million trees between 2015 and 2020 in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. It was a pledge reinforced by Theresa May’s 2017 manifesto — adding an extra 1 million trees on top by 2020 specifically for cities and towns.
But Friends of the Earth points to data from the Forestry Commission that connects government funding to just 4,242,000 new trees planted in England since 2015.
While the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) has disputed the spending figures suggested by Friends of the Earth, arguing that investment is likely double what they’ve published, representatives from opposition parties have been quick to condemn the government’s record.
“The main Westminster parties must commit to further funding for tree-planting across the UK, and to match the SNP’s record and ambitious targets for the future,” said Deirdre Brock, the Scottish National Party’s environment spokeswoman. “Climate change will be one of the biggest challenges for any incoming government in Westminster.”
“This is shocking but sadly not surprising from a government that can’t be trusted to tackle the climate and environment emergency,” added Sue Hayman, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, while Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrats’ environment spokeswoman, reiterated that they’re “pledging to spend £6bn over the next parliament to fund tree-planting and restoring peatlands.”
The Guardian reports that the Conservatives agree with Defra’s response — and believe that the current government should be judged on Johnson’s promises, not May’s record. “There is nothing more conservative than protecting our environment,” Johnson said. “These measures sit alongside our world-leading commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050."