Protecting and restoring our forest land has emerged as a key part of the UK government’s mission to decarbonise – acting as efficient carbon sinks while also boosting biodiversity and even providing natural flood management solutions. Public opinion is also heavily in favour of this climate mitigation strategy, and the UK government has set a target of planting 30,000 new hectares of forestland every year to meet the Committee on Climate Change’s estimation that 1.5bn trees would be needed by 2050 to achieve a net-zero target.
But with our rising populations causing a race for land, how can we determine the areas that should be given over to afforestation? And how can we be sure the trees planted are best suited for the surrounding ecosystems? This is where Forest Creation Partners (FCP) comes in.
A recipient of the UK government’s Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Programme, the group uses geospatial data to analyse terrain and identify areas most suitable for planting trees – unique in that it is the only project selected under the programme to harness data science. Here, staff writer Scarlett Evans spoke with co-founder Dr Matthew Brown to get a snapshot of the group’s tech, and how it is helping bring forestry (and the biomass potential it holds) back to Britain.
Tell me about your project – what are its origins and what is its mission?
FCP is a green-tech startup, applying data science to climate and nature challenges. I have a nerdy background – I did a PhD at Cambridge in computational physics – and then I worked on climate science and policy. I ended up leading the climate change mitigation teams at the UK Environment Department and then the Confederation of British Industry, so I got an education in the global picture of environmental challenges. FCP was born out of wanting to do something that helps create positive impact on the ground.
Our first product is ForestFounder, a software system that draws on huge amounts of geospatial data to scan unlimited land areas and pinpoint optimal locations for forestry. We want to help unlock all the benefits that forest creation can provide – for carbon, biodiversity, communities, and economies.
Can you describe your technology? How does it set your company apart from other forestry initiatives?
We want to apply leading-edge technology to environmental challenges. ForestFounder is an example of that: it uses over 400 geospatial datasets to make its assessments, coming from sources like on-the-ground surveys, airborne lidar, and satellite imagery combined with machine learning.
ForestFounder can identify suitable land vastly more quickly and cheaply than humans poring over data, so it becomes possible to answer questions that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. For example, we scanned all of the land managed by National Highways, England’s roads agency, for tree-planting opportunities. And in projects for the UK Government and for private land investors, we have scanned the whole of England.
What will the funding under the UK’s Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Programme be put towards?
We’re very excited about this Government funding, which is supporting us to design an expansion of ForestFounder’s capabilities on two fronts. Firstly, our geographical coverage will widen from England-only to include Scotland and Wales – this is the start of our push to take our work to more and more countries over time. Secondly, we are broadening the range of forestry types we can find optimal land for. At the moment, ForestFounder covers “long-rotation” forestry using species like Oaks and Spruces. We are going to add the ability to find sites for Short Rotation Coppice (e.g. with Willow) and Short Rotation Forestry (e.g. with Eucalyptus).
It’s also brilliant to be doing this project in partnership with the world experts at Forest Research, the UK’s national forest science agency. They are planning to expand their forestry data tools to include the first-ever national datasets for the suitability of SRC and SRF species, and to use better projections of future climate change – vital when planting trees that will take decades to mature.
Why is reforesting an important part of global attempts to decarbonise?
The world needs to get to net-negative greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. That means stopping every sector of the economy from producing emissions, but we will also need a huge effort to suck the carbon dioxide we’ve already emitted out of the air.
Trees are only part of the solution to achieve that – there is some very cool machinery being developed to remove atmospheric CO2, including with UK Government funding. But trees are a proven method that will play a vital role, and they bring a host of other benefits for the environment and society too.
What other opportunities does reforesting pose?
The beauty of creating new forests is that trees can make the world better in so many ways. Done well, tree-planting can improve biodiversity, water quality, and air quality, reduce risks of flooding, and provide income and leisure opportunities for local communities.
But making the most of these opportunities requires choosing your sites and approaches to forestry carefully – and balancing it with other ways to use land. Our aim is to put cutting-edge technology to work helping people to solve these complex problems.