February 2021

Creating forests to combat climate change

Dr Cat Scott

In September 2019, the University of Leeds announced plans for bold action on achieving net-zero: reducing its own carbon footprint to net-zero by 2030 and focusing teaching, research and engagement on this grand challenge. Ahead of our Meet the Researchers event, Dr Cat Scott (MSc Energy and Environment 2009) explains how her research into UK woodlands highlights the role they can play in cutting the nation’s carbon emissions.

Dr Cat Scott’s passion for climate science grew while she was studying for a chemistry degree in Manchester: “I was interested in the chemistry but didn’t see my future in industry. I was much more interested in atmospheric chemistry and the environment.”

She developed this interest in a Masters degree at Leeds, before embarking on a PhD examining how forests affect the atmosphere and how changing them can have an impact on the environment. Now, as a University Academic Fellow based in our world-leading Priestley Centre, Cat leads research into how changing land use can best contribute to mitigating climate change.

“Most of the news about the climate is bleak – but the positive thing is that we are finally trying to do something about it. That hasn’t always been the case.”

Dr Cat Scott (MSc Energy and Environment 2009)

“When people think about forests capturing carbon, they tend to focus on the tropical rainforests, like the Amazon,” she says. “But forests in different parts of the world affect the climate in different ways. In the UK and other temperate parts of the globe, we have carbon stored in our own woodlands – and the capacity to capture more.”

A hallmark of the Priestley Centre’s research is helping society make practical changes which have a real impact on the planet – and Cat’s work is no exception. Though much of Britain’s ancient forest is long gone, Cat is working with partners across regional government and the charity sector to put more trees back on the landscape. One major project is the Northern Forest – a plan to plant 50 million trees, connecting existing areas of woodland across the north and creating a forest stretching from the Mersey to the Humber.

Hardknott Forest

It’s an initiative which supports the UK’s commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050: “While we must ultimately get emissions down to zero, in sectors like agriculture and aviation it’s going to be difficult to do this as quickly as necessary. We can’t currently fly without using fossil fuels. But by expanding areas of woodland you can take some of this carbon out of the atmosphere, and by combining this with reduced emissions elsewhere it is possible to achieve that goal of net-zero emissions overall.”

Cat and her team crunch the numbers behind reforestation programmes: “We can look scientifically at how much carbon trees and woodlands are likely to store. We can say: ‘if you plant ten hectares of woodland it will capture this amount of carbon’ – and you can build these calculations into a hierarchy of what the land could be used for. For example, could farmers introduce more trees to their land or do we need to convert other areas into new woodland?”

The work of Cat and her team is supported by funding from environmental charity the United Bank of Carbon. “We try to bring people together to build collaborations and help organisations make decisions that are underpinned by the latest science. Rather than doing the research in isolation, we work with external organisations – business, charities, regional governments and landowners to collectively work out the best way forward.”

That the University has itself committed to becoming carbon neutral offers further endorsement for her work: “The University has set out seven really positive principles to tackle the climate crisis – and now of course the question is how to turn these ambitions into reality. It would be more difficult for me to talk about the importance of reducing emissions if my own institution wasn’t doing it.”

Dr Cat Scott planting in a field

And it’s not just the climate which benefits from planting trees: “There are lots more good reasons to plant and restore woodlands. As well as capturing atmospheric carbon, trees and forests are a vital habitat for wildlife and we think they also help reduce flood risk for places downstream.”

They’re good for people too: “Providing areas for us to visit, to walk and enjoy is fantastic for our health and wellbeing,” says Cat. “This last year has shown us just how much we all value having places to go to where we can be surrounded by nature.”

Dr Cat Scott will talk more about her work at the first of our ‘Meet The Researchers: Achieving Net-Zero’ series of events. Her talk, ‘Capturing carbon through UK woodlands’ is on Tuesday March 9, from 6pm.


The Priestley International Centre for Climate brings together over 370 experts from all faculties at the University of Leeds to deliver research that underpins robust and timely solutions. Working across international, national, and local scales, and in collaboration with business, policymakers and civil society, the Priestley Centre is driving action towards a resilient, net-zero world.