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What is the UK Woodland Carbon Code?

In this article we’ll explore how woodland projects benefit the environment and how the Woodland Carbon Code facilitates carbon sequestration.
woodland with sun shining through the trees

Creating new woodland areas to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a cost-effective way to reduce harmful levels of greenhouse gases, whilst also providing a number of other social and environmental benefits. The Woodland Carbon Code is a UK Government backed voluntary standard for UK woodland creation projects. It offers independent validation and verification, providing quality assurance and transparency when it comes to the carbon emissions savings of woodland projects. 

👉 In this article we’ll explore how woodland projects benefit the environment and how the Woodland Carbon Code facilitates carbon sequestration.

What is the Woodland Carbon Code?

In 2011, the Woodland Carbon Code (WCC) was established to provide a quality assurance standard for woodland creation projects in the UK. Backed by the UK Government, it provides independent verification and assurance on the levels of carbon sequestration from woodland creation projects in the UK in the form of carbon units. Based on reliable carbon prediction tools and monitoring protocols, the woodland projects are independently verified and the carbon credits are held in a credible registry. 

The Woodland Carbon Code is an internationally recognised standard and is endorsed by the ICROA (International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance) which is the global overarching organisation for carbon reduction and offset providers. 

The Woodland Carbon Code not only ensures the validity of carbon offsets, but also provides other social and environmental benefits for the UK, for example woodland projects also benefit the countryside through biodiversity and habitat creation, help to improve the health and wellbeing of the UK population, and result in local employment and educational opportunities. 

forest with sunshine coming through the canopy

What are woodland carbon projects?

As global temperatures continue to rise and the effects of climate change are increasingly felt around the world, it’s important that society makes every effort to reduce CO2 emissions. However, most individuals and businesses will find that even if they take every possible step to cut down on their carbon footprint, it will be incredibly difficult to eliminate emissions completely. This is where projects such as carbon sequestration come into play.  

Trees are a natural carbon capture and storage mechanism. They absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and then store the CO2 for long periods of time. For this reason, the planting of woodland is often cited as one of the most effective ways to combat global warming. 

What’s more is that forests don’t just bring benefits in the form of carbon capture and storage, they also result in a range of additional benefits - known as ecosystem services. For example, woodlands also bring benefits of improved biodiversity, they create space for local communities, help with flood mitigation, soil protection, water filtration and contribute to cleaner air. 

The benefits they bring in terms of flood mitigation are particularly significant given the increasing incidences of flooding that have been experienced in the UK. More intense and more frequent rainfall means that the risk of flooding is increasing. However, planting trees alongside rivers and other bodies of water can help to reduce the risk of flooding. The trees and their roots absorb some of the excess water, and their leaves and branches also work to intercept heavy rainfall, thereby reducing the amount of water that reaches our rivers in the first place. An added benefit is that the tree roots also help to bind the soil and prevent erosion. 

Other ways that woodlands help to improve the UK’s biodiversity and reduce the impact of global warming is by providing shade, reducing water temperatures, and reducing the amount of agricultural pollution that reaches our water systems. 

Additionally, the creation of woodlands creates jobs - as it stands there are about 40,000 jobs in the UK that are linked to forestry services, and as the UK strives to create more woodland areas as part of its strategy to tackle change we can expect this number to increase.

rows of conifer trees

Why proper woodland management is crucial

Not all woodland is created equal! Reforestation and afforestation projects can actually cause more harm than good and even increase emissions where they are not planned and managed properly.

Even where the intentions behind the planting of woodland are honourable (for example it is initiated with the aim of capturing carbon emissions to help in the fight against climate change), the forests can actually cause significant harm to biodiversity, landscapes and local communities where care is not taken to ensure that they are sustainably grown and managed. It’s important that new areas of forest are not planted on areas of pre-existing carbon storage - for example grasslands, which already act as carbon sinks. Disturbing such an area could actually risk releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

It’s also very important that the species of trees are also carefully selected. Fast-growing, non-native, monocultures end up creating so-called ‘silent forests’ that are unable to support life. It’s therefore crucial that forest projects not only focus on carbon capture, but also take into account biodiversity.

The UK Woodland Carbon Code in more detail

The Woodland Carbon Code provides assurance to those investing in carbon offsetting projects that the scheme will actually deliver on the carbon savings that it claims - and that the woodland project is being managed in a sustainable way that also benefits UK biodiversity. Where a project has been accredited by the Woodland Carbon Code, this means that: 

  • The project is responsibly and sustainably managed to national standards;
  • Can provide accurate estimates on the amount of carbon dioxide that will be sequestered or locked up as a result of the planting of the forest; 
  • Must be publicly registered and independently verified;
  • Meet transparent criteria and standards to prove that the claimed carbon benefits are actually delivered.

All projects are placed on the UK Woodland Carbon Registry and their claims about carbon sequestration are validated by an independent certification body. Validated projects will continue to be validated on a regular basis to confirm the progress of carbon sequestration - projects will be checked after five years and then every ten years thereafter to monitor progress and to confirm the amount of carbon sequestered. 

In order for a woodland project to satisfy the requirements of the code, the project must: 

  • Be registered, with the precise location and long-term objectives declared;
  • Meet national forestry standards to ensure that they’re sustainably managed;
  • Enact a long-term management plan;
  • Use standard methods for estimating the levels of carbon dioxide that will be offset;
  • Demonstrate that the woodland project results in carbon benefits that would otherwise not have been achieved;
  • Maintain verification of the above for the duration of the project.
trees next to river and fields

Carbon offsetting and carbon credits

When new trees are planted, the carbon capture potential lies in the future - ie. the trees need to grow first before they can capture and store any carbon emissions. This means that technically speaking there aren’t any carbon offsetting benefits until they start to grow. In fact, because there are usually emissions involved with the actual planting of the forest itself, it’s often not until the 10th year of growth that an average forest will actually start to see some carbon benefits. 

The Woodland Carbon Code uses a methodology that enables accurate estimates to be made as to the overall carbon capture potential of the forest, and when we can expect to see benefits from this. This allows the carbon credits for a particular project to be calculated before the forest really starts to see any significant growth. 

The majority of the costs and work associated with the creation of a forest are upfront, before the forest even starts to grow. Because of this it’s often necessary to sell the carbon credits related to the forest at the time of planting. The Woodland Carbon Code was created to track such carbon credit sales in a transparent manner. 

The carbon offsetting value of the forest can be more or less accurately calculated before the project even begins and so a special type of carbon credit, called a Pending Issuance Unit (PIU) (think of it like an ‘I owe you’), is offered at this point. The PIU confirms the purchase of a given amount of the woodland’s future carbon capture based on predicted tree growth. It should be noted that it’s not guaranteed and can’t be used to report against emissions until verified. However, it does allow companies to plan to compensate for future emissions. 

After a period of ten years, the project advancement is checked and if the woodland is developing well the project can become verified. What this means is that the PIU is converted into what’s known as a Woodland Carbon Unit (WCU) which represents the actual carbon captured. This type of carbon credit can be formally retired against emissions which means that the value of the carbon credit (one credit represents one metric ton of CO2 emissions) has been reduced from the purchaser’s overall carbon footprint and the credit can no longer be sold or traded.

arial shot of large forest

The UK Woodland Carbon Registry System

The UK Land Carbon Registry is the database that houses the credits from the UK Woodland Carbon Code. Verified carbon units can be used by companies in the UK to offset their carbon footprint as per the UK’s Environmental Reporting Guidelines

The UK Land Carbon Registry stores and displays data on carbon offsetting projects and also the owners of carbon units. It can be found on the Markit Environmental Registry. The environmental registry is the largest global voluntary registry for carbon, water and biodiversity. It tracks environmental projects and issues credits, registers transactions, and retires serialised credits.

The benefits of the Woodland Carbon Code

Companies are increasingly looking for ways to compensate for their carbon emissions. Greenhouse gas reporting is now mandatory for all companies operating in the UK over a certain size  - approximately 12,000 companies in the UK are currently subject to these mandatory reporting requirements, and this is expected to grow in coming years as reporting requirements expand. The Woodland Carbon Units can be purchased to compensate for any unavoidable emissions. 

The Woodland Carbon Code offers a number of benefits to businesses who want to offset their unavoidable carbon emissions. The Code ensures that the carbon credits purchased are real and verifiable, and you can be confident that the woodland project will not result in any harm to the environment. 

Not only does the Woodland Carbon Code offer a transparent and evidence based approach to carbon offsetting woodland projects, but it also allows the tracking of purchase, ownership and the use of credits on a trustworthy and reliable registry. It provides an effective an means of reducing emissions while also bringing about other benefits to the UK’s environment and countryside.

fields and countryside at sunset

What about Greenly? 

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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