Protecting and restoring our forest lands has become a key part of the UK government’s mission to decarbonize – acting as effective carbon sinks while enhancing biodiversity and even providing natural flood management solutions. Public opinion is also strongly in favor of this climate change mitigation strategy, and the UK government has set a target of planting 30,000 new hectares of forest each year to meet the Climate Change Committee’s estimate of 1.5 billion trees would be needed by 2050 to reach a net zero target.
But with our growing populations causing a race for land, how do we determine the areas to be devoted to afforestation? And how can you be sure that the trees planted are best suited to the surrounding ecosystems? It’s here that Forest creation partners (FCP) intervenes.
A beneficiary of the UK government’s Biomass Raw Materials Innovation Program, the group uses geospatial data to analyze the terrain and identify areas most suitable for tree planting. It is the only project selected under the program to harness data science. Here, editor Scarlett Evans spoke to co-founder Dr Matthew Brown to gain insight into the group’s technology and how it is helping bring back forestry (and the biomass potential it holds). in Great 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 natural challenges. I have a cheesy background – I did a PhD at Cambridge in computational physics – and then worked in climate science and policy. I ended up leading the climate change mitigation teams at the UK Department for the Environment and then at the Confederation of UK Industry, so I received training on the big picture of environmental challenges. FCP was born out of the desire to do something that helps create a positive impact on the ground.
Our first product is Founder of the forest, a software system that draws on huge amounts of geospatial data to analyze unlimited land areas and identify optimal locations for forestry. We want to help unlock all the benefits that forest creation can bring – for carbon, biodiversity, communities and economies.
Can you describe your technology? How does your company stand out from other forestry initiatives?
We want to apply cutting edge technology to environmental challenges. Founder of the forest One example is that it uses more than 400 geospatial datasets to perform its assessments, coming from sources such as ground surveys, airborne lidars, and satellite imagery combined with machine learning.
Founder of the forest can identify suitable lands much faster and more cheaply than humans poring over the data, so it becomes possible to answer questions that would otherwise be too costly and time consuming. For example, we scanned all of the land managed by National Highways, England’s road agency, for tree planting opportunities. And in the projects for the UK government and for private land investors, we scanned the whole of England.
What will the funding of the UK biomass feedstocks innovation program be used for?
We are very excited about this government funding, which is helping us design an expansion of Founder of the forestthe capabilities of on two fronts. First, our geographic coverage will expand from England only to include Scotland and Wales – this is the start of our effort to expand our work to more and more countries over time. Second, we are expanding the range of types of forestry for which we can find optimal land. At present, Founder of the forest covers “long rotation” forestry using species such as oak and spruce. We will add the possibility of finding sites for short rotation coppice (eg with willow) and short rotation forestry (eg with eucalyptus).
It’s also great to do this project in partnership with global experts from Forest Research, the UK’s national forest science agency. They plan to expand their forest data tools to include the very first national datasets on SRC and SRF species suitability, and to use better projections of future climate change – vital when planting trees that will take decades to mature.
Why is reforestation an important part of global decarbonization attempts?
The world must achieve net greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. This means preventing all sectors of the economy from producing emissions, but we will also need a huge effort to suck the carbon dioxide that we have already emitted from the air.
Trees are only part of the solution to making this happen – some very interesting machines are being developed to remove atmospheric CO2, including with funding from the UK government. But trees are a proven method that will play a vital role, and they also bring a host of other benefits to the environment and to society.
What other opportunities does reforestation offer?
The beauty of creating new forests is that trees can make the world a better place in so many ways. Properly done, tree planting can improve biodiversity, water and air quality, reduce flood risk, and provide income and recreation opportunities for local communities.
But making the most of these opportunities requires carefully choosing your sites and approaches to forestry – and balancing them with other ways of using the land. Our goal is to put cutting edge technology to work to help people solve these complex problems.