“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today.”

May 28, 2023

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago”, Stephen told me. “The second-best time to plant a tree is today.”

We stood in a forest of young trees planted by Stephen and his team. Conifers. Broadleaf. All around, brilliant yellow gorse flowers glowed in the sun. Punctuating a sea of green. Butterflies fluttered. Birds sang. Close by, a pheasant loped through the undergrowth.

There were none of the towering firs, pines, or sequoias that you might see in a place like Cragside. The oaks were barely taller than me – not the majestic, almost mystical, oaks that you so often find in British countryside. Still, this place is something special. I felt like breaking into the lumberjack song….

It’s in Doddngton, Northumberland. Just a few years ago, the site was unused low-quality grazing land, unsuitable for crops. That’s key, Stephen told me. He and his business partner, James, co-founded Forest Carbon and helped to transform these fields into one of the largest productive planted forests in England.

Some of the trees are ours – the North of Tyne Combined Authority’s. We bought them early in my time as Mayor, as saplings, and they’ll sequester carbon out of the atmosphere as they grow. We reduced our emissions as low as possible, and offset the rest.

“It’s about additionality,” he said. Stephen’s an ex-head teacher from Zimbabwe. Thoughtful and sophisticated in his thinking. “If this forest was commercially viable, your money wouldn’t make any difference – it would have been planted anyway.”

Carbon offsetting has rightly come under scrutiny. So we invested in creating woodlands here, in the North East. Fully validated under the Woodland Carbon Code. I won’t be claiming we’re operationally net-zero until these trees have actually grown.

The scale of the climate emergency can feel overwhelming. The need to act.

I’m a young(ish) non-disabled person who doesn’t need a van full of tools for work, so I switched my old car for an electric bike. My wife and I are lucky enough to be homeowners with good jobs – we put solar panels on our roof. I have friends in rented accommodation who’ve made a small investment in a solar farm in the countryside. It’ll still help with the bills, and they use more renewable energy.

In fact, some of the trees at Doddington are mine – as a family, we offset with UK schemes. Soon Forest Carbon will be making it easier for private citizens to offset in North East projects. Watch this space – I’ll be helping them with the publicity push.

But if you’re struggling to pay your bills, the climate emergency will not be top of your list of priorities.

We need system change. Personal offsetting seems futile while the likes of Shell and BP are getting £billions in fossil-fuel subsidy.

I recall a Tour of Britain cycle event in 2019. The sponsor implied they were net-zero. I said that was truly impressive, given there’s a team of support vehicles following the cyclists – how did they manage it? “Well, net-zero is our aspiration,” was the answer, “we’re not there yet.” In other words, they lied.

If any politician talks about “beyond net-zero”, ask them what they’ve done. Not what their “values” or “aspirations” are. What they’ve actually delivered in their time in office.

I launched our £18 million Green New Deal fund – investing in low carbon projects – giving organisations and communities access to capital to reduce their emissions now.

We’ve invested in skills. Building an army of green trades people. Heat-pump installers who can retrofit our homes. Mechanics who can fix our electric vehicles.

It’s why I negotiated long and hard with central Government to get control of our transport networks. To build a low-carbon transport system so good that thousands of people will voluntarily give up their cars. Fully integrating bus, Metro, network rail, along with bike hire and car clubs. Right across Tyne & Wear, Northumberland and County Durham.

We can’t rewind the clock to twenty years ago.

We can’t go back and plant the trees we should’ve planted then.

We can’t change the past.

But together, we can change the future, if we act now.

Indeed – there’s no better time to do it.