The government did not sufficiently consider whether targets for a tree-planting scheme were realistic, according to a public spending watchdog.
It said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) looked set to miss its aim despite working quickly to set up schemes.
Defra has a target to plant at least 7,500 hectares every year in England by spring 2025.
But the new report by the National Audit Office has cast doubt over how this goal was established.
“Defra did not sufficiently consider whether its tree-planting target was achievable, particularly given the broad range of benefits it is trying to achieve,” the public spending watchdog said in its assessment on how the Nature for Climate Fund Treet Programme was set up.
It said tree planting rates have not reached 7,500 hectares a year in the past half a century, and has only surpassed 6,000 in three years in this time period.
The report said: “Defra told us that it determined the 7,500 hectare per year target is realistic based on available evidence about: historic woodland expansion statistics; potential sector capacity; land availability; and current policy drivers for woodland expansion.
“But Defra did not undertake a detailed assessment of this evidence or consider whether historical planting rates could be exceeded when also trying to achieve the programme’s multiple environmental objectives by ensuring the right trees are planted in the right place, which adds to the complexity of increasing tree-planting rates quickly.”
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “Defra has done well to launch new schemes to support landowners to plant trees. Yet despite its efforts, it is not expecting to achieve the amount of new tree-planting in 2021-22 that it set out to, and should have done more to make sure its targets were realistic.”
Trees, woodlands and forests play a key rome in removing greenhouse gases in the air, and can benefit communities by improving air quality and providing a flood barrier, according to the government’s own climate advisers.
Figures last year showed the rate of tree planting was falling in England despite pledges to boost it.
In November, the government said it had allocated funding to support the planting of 260,000 more trees in England.
George Eustice, the environment secretary, said in response to the public spending watchdog’s assessment: “The challenge of climate change requires stretching targets and high ambition.
“The NAO report acknowledges that we have worked at pace in difficult circumstances to rise to this challenge but we are under no illusion that there is more to do. That is why we will treble the number of trees planted rates by the end of this parliament, backed up by over £500m.”