Wales’ legacy emissions. A tale of Wales’ dirty past.

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Guest blog by Ru Hartwell

Have you ever asked yourself:
Why should a little green country like Wales be doing anything to help conserve 4 million hectares of trees down by the Equator?

Well I have the answer. We’ll have to go over some good news and some bad news. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.


A Carboniferous History – Mines of the South Wales Coalfield

It’s true that our record on sustainability these days is pretty positive but if we go back a few years it’s a rather different story. Most people think the Industrial Revolution first began in England but the National Museum tell us that Wales was in fact the ‘First Industrialised Nation’(1). Yes, it happened here folks, a good 10 years before the English got around to copying us. Great to be ahead of them for once but the downside is that it means we’ve been releasing CO2 longer than any other country in the world (oops!) and this map on the right shows where it all came from.


300 million years ago, the Equator ran though Anglesey(2) and South Wales was basically one super massive carbon-hungry tropical forest! Gradually, those trees turned into coal, and later some plucky Welsh miners came along, noticed this black stuff near the surface and the rest is history (with a rather heavy legacy footprint).


One of the really annoying things about CO2 (along with the fact that it is odourless, colourless and poisonous) is that it likes to hang around. Each time I turn on the ignition in my car, 40% of the CO2 coming out of the exhaust will still be hanging around in 2118 and 10% will still be around 10,000 years after that!(3) It’s like the guest that comes to party but never ever leaves! And when you do the maths, it turns out that our legacy emissions from all that lovely Welsh coal are probably warming the planet as much as our current emissions, if not more(4).


We all tend to focus most of our attention on reducing our on-going release of CO2 and because of the carbon intensive way we live, there are so many ways we can do that – turn down the fridge, get in your Nissan Leaf, cycle to work, put on those furry long johns etc., but (and this is where we finally get on to the good news) there is only one absolutely proven way of dealing with legacy carbon. If you want to absorb some of that stuff you have to plant or protect trees in the tropics.


The scientists tell us that our tropical forests are currently clearing up around 6 Gigatonnes of our carbon mess every year(5). That is more than the entire emissions from the United States(6). The world’s tropical forests really don’t give a hoot that Trump has left the Paris Accord. In terms of climatic influence, they nullify him totally and the main reason for their enormous cooling impact is that tropical trees grow, and absorb carbon, unbelievably quickly.


It’s always hot over there, the sun is shining directly down on the leaves and there is no winter dormancy as we have here, so it’s like having a perpetual full-on growing season that never slows. Trees in temperate regions like Wales or those up in Boreal latitudes such as Siberia are great for loads of different reasons like bio-diversity, sustainability and buffering extreme weather events but in terms of cooling the planet, it’s only really tropical trees that will do it for us.


The image on the left shows some newly planted trees, on our forestry project in Boré, Kenya that has had lots of support from Size of Wales over the years. The image on the right shows the same trees just 11 months later!








If you happen to be anywhere within 20 miles north of the M4 in South Wales at the moment, you are almost certainly standing on the remains of a part of the biggest carbon-absorption system this planet has ever had. It turns out that, at their peak, those ancient tropical forests were responsible for removing around 100 Gigatonnes of the bad stuff from the atmosphere every year(8) – that’s about 3 times the current total human annual emissions. If only we had them now!


Well, unfortunately we don’t. But with our current tropical forest we still have at hand an incredibly powerful weapon in the fight against climate change and thanks to Size of Wales we also have a unique national initiative to protect that weapon.


So, let’s all get out there and recapture some of that old Welsh carbon. It’s the only way we’ll ever get it back down and it’s going to be around for quite a long time if we do nothing.




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