The Conservatives have been accused of “green grandstanding” after campaigners warned they risked missing a manifesto pledge to plant 30 million trees a year by 2025.
Figures from the department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) and the Forestry Commission reveal the government planted only 4.2 million trees in England in 2020-2021.
The rate of tree-planting has also declined to 2,200 hectares in 2020/21, down 7% from 2,340 hectares the previous year.
The figures come as the UK prepares to wind down the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, which has seen world leaders and activists come together to try to reach a consensus on how to tackle the climate emergency.
Trees are seen as vital tool in the fight against climate change due to their ability to absorb carbon dioxide emissions that are pumped into the air by the burning of fossil fuels.
The summit was initially projected to end in failure, due to major polluters including Russia and China failing to attend. However, agreements around ending and reversing deforestation by 2030 and reducing methane emissions have been warmly received.
During his 2019 general election campaign, Boris Johnson vowed to increase the rate of tree planting to cover 30,000 hectares, the equivalent of about 30 million trees, a year by the end of the next parliament in 2025.
The Glasgow summit tree-planting was at the centre of his strategy for reducing the UK’s carbon emissions, in which he said the world must take action on “coal, cars, cash and trees” to reach net zero by 2050.
But Emi Murphy, trees campaigner at Friends of the Earth, branded the targets “meaningless” and said it was “bitterly disappointing that a pledge made by government in order to get elected is so far off being met”.
“The prime minister and his cabinet are consistent in making ambitious promises to fix the climate and nature crises, but too often the delivery fails to materialise, making them meaningless,” she said.
“This is all the more embarrassing given the UK’s green grandstanding at the UN climate talks.
“The government could easily do much more by committing to doubling the UK’s tree cover, which would have the combined effect of replenishing nature and absorbing planet-wrecking emissions.”
Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrat climate spokesperson, said the government “must do better”.
“The message is loud and clear to Boris Johnson — it is time to take the vital steps necessary to save our country from the climate crisis and start a tree-planting campaign this country has never seen before.
“Time is running out. We desperately need trees to clean up our air, allow wildlife to prosper and help prevent flooding.
“The Tories promised the Earth on trees and they’re not looking good on that promise. Instead since then, we’ve seen tree planting decline each year, meaning they’re unlikely to hit their target.”
The government believes it is on track to meet the target to plant 30,000 hectares per year by 2025, which it stressed was a UK-wide target.
It plans to treble woodland creation to at least 7,000 hectares in England by May 2024 – 23% of the total manifesto commitment.
A Defra group spokesperson said: “We are committed to trebling tree planting rates by the end of this parliament.
“The government’s new landmark England trees action plan will deliver unprecedented rates of tree planting, backed up by more than £500m of nature for climate funding and new flexible grants to provide greater financial incentives for farmers and landowners for woodland creation.
“We are creating diverse treescapes across the country which will benefit wildlife, the environment and people’s wellbeing.”