As we watch the effects of climate change become more severe each year, our responsibility to the planet and its inhabitants grows. Since 1970, global emissions have increased by 90%, and the great garbage patch continues to expand in what is now known as the Pacific trash vortex. But what can we do as consumers to reduce our impact and slow climate change?
Many researchers and climate-forward organizations are trying to develop new technologies to help suck carbon from the air. However, some may argue, nature has already evolved the perfect tool for the job: trees.
Trees are excellent at sequestering carbon, their leaves extract CO2 from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis, fueling their growth and the storage of carbon in their biomass and surrounding soils. Through this process, they also help enrich the soil and protect waterways.
In short, trees are the badass climate warriors we’ve been looking for, all along.
The technology does exist to capture carbon and store it deep underground. The three main types of carbon sequestering technology are pre and post-combustion capture and oxyfuel combustion carbon capture.
The first captures CO2 after it has already been burned, the second removes it as a fossil fuel before it is burned and the third, oxy-fuel carbon sequestering technology, mixes CO2 with a large amount of pure oxygen.
The reason these technologies are not widely used is simply that it’s cheaper to let the carbon dioxide go straight back into the atmosphere than it is to pay for the technology.
To change that reality, there must be economic costs to releasing carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere. As technology continues to improve, the costs become lower, but still are not enticing enough unless companies are charged for the carbon they release into the atmosphere.
A carbon tax, for example, would charge companies for each metric ton of carbon released into the atmosphere and in turn, incentivize companies to invest in carbon sequestering technology or adopt greener methods.
Global forests absorb a net 7.6 billion metric tons of CO2 per year combined with more than 2 billion tons absorbed by the ocean. In 2019, across the globe, about 43.1 billion metric tons of CO2 was released into the atmosphere as the result of human activity. That leaves a whole lot of emissions that are not offset by the earth’s natural resources, leading to global warming.
One hectare (or 2.47 football fields) of trees can sequester about 35 metric tons of carbon per year, so in all it would take about 1 billion hectares or 2.47 billion football fields, to cancel out current emissions; not including what established forests already do.
That means it would take 3 million square miles of new forest planted, and that is a lot of trees. For perspective, the United States is about 3.8 million square miles in total. This sounds like a lofty goal, but it may not be as unrealistic as it sounds.
At this point in time, there are huge swaths of land across Russia (151 million hectares); USA (103 million); Canada (78 million); Australia (58 million); Brazil (50 million); and China (40 million) available to be replanted and, if done, would be able to cut carbon in the atmosphere in half.
All this ultimately adds up to half a billion hectares of land primed for reforestation, which is roughly the amount needed to offset all emissions—if countries are able to achieve their Glasgow goals and cut emissions in half.
So, if we, as a species, mobilize to replant the millions of hectares of forests ripe for reforestation, we’ll be left with the goal of cutting emissions in half, to be at net-zero emissions, which suddenly starts to make this lofty goal seem not so far off…
Some of the places recently identified as prime tree-planting locations are in Africa, specifically Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Togo, South Sudan, and Madagascar.
Reforestation of these areas can bring great opportunities to protect diversity and bring a range of benefits to local communities including jobs, erosion prevention, and habitat preservation. In these areas, reforestation can mean enriching pastures with crop-bearing trees.
All plants use the energy from sunlight through the process of photosynthesis; they take carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and water from the ground, but due to their size and rapid growth, trees are the real stars. As the tree grows and begins to convert energy―nutrients from the soil and CO2 from the air―into wood, they simultaneously release oxygen into the atmosphere.
In addition to the CO2 that trees capture, they also help soil capture and retain significant amounts of carbon.
By planting trees, we’re giving back to the earth, reducing our impact, and creating a better future for generations to come. Although every tree has evolved to remove carbon from the air we breathe, there are a handful of trees that are best suited for the job.
The best trees for capturing carbon vary based on location, but there are some that are more impressive than others. Luckily, trees that are ideal for carbon capture are relatively easy to find:
Numerous species of pine trees are known for absorbing copious amounts of carbon from our atmosphere, including traditional white pine trees. These bad boys are super common and can be found at any local nursery.
Other types of pine trees that are a great addition to the cause are the Ponderosa pine tree and red pines. Ponderosa pines need a lot of room to grow, but if you have the land, they can reach 200 feet tall.
Pine trees are native to the Northern Hemisphere and can appear on the East and West coast of the United States. But they can also be found in different areas across the globe.
For example, the Pinus Radiata, which translates to the Monterey pine, is indigenous to California. But made its way to New Zealand and now is a fast-growing inhabitant of their forests. In 2017, New Zealand’s forests removed 24 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which offset roughly a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Mangrove trees are hyper-efficient at capturing carbon. Located along inter-coastal environments and scattered along various beaches, these salt-tolerant trees may be a cost-effective and easy way to reduce carbon emissions.
While only making up roughly 0.7% of the planet’s forests, mangrove trees have the potential to capture 2.5 times the amount of carbon dioxide released by humans into the atmosphere each year than the average tree.
The major challenge with leveraging mangroves to reduce carbon is that the species and the areas they thrive in are under threat. With global warming has come a rise in sea levels, causing these trees to lose ground, literally, to erosion.
This makes protecting established mangrove forests and reclaiming land by planting new ones imperative to the survival of these carbon neutralizing specialists. Luckily, mangrove restoration projects are affordable and a great way to preserve the existing mangrove forests while increasing carbon capture.
Bonus: mangroves are part of a larger ecosystem that works together to capture even more carbon, known as a blue carbon ecosystem.
Blue carbon ecosystems go beyond mangroves to include tidal marshes and seagrass, but mangrove trees help keep all of these elements together and work simultaneously to remove carbon from our atmosphere.
If you’re looking for a new conservation cause that needs help and makes a massive impact, focus your eco-warrior attention on mangrove restoration.
Empress trees are making a name for themselves when it comes to carbon capture. One square mile of most tree species can capture and store between 704 and 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, one square mile of empress trees can absorb 65,920.
Originally from China, these hyper-growing trees are deemed carbon-sequestering champions because of their ability to grow at a rapid rate that’s more similar to grass than it is to trees.
However, unlike small blades of grass, the empress tree has large leaves that seem to have evolved with the sole purpose of removing carbon from the atmosphere. There are a lot of benefits that these tall canopy-producing trees have to offer.
These quick-growing, sustainable, trees are truly nature's solution to combating climate change.
The bad news is the planet is in jeopardy and most technological solutions to global warming, so far, are realistically out of reach. The good news is that trees can do the job, they can do the job better—and are made even more effective when paired with other strategies for reducing emissions, all together.
And trees aren’t just good for the planet, they also make the lives of the people around them better through job creation (the actual planting of the trees) to profit from planting crop-bearing trees, such as coffee.
The numbers that go into backing these goals are even more promising. According to the World Bank the global GDP hangs out between 80 and 90 trillion. If companies committed to setting aside just 1 percent of their earnings to the planet, we would have 900 billion dollars annually to combat climate change—more than enough to reforest all of this area and more in a matter of a few years or less.
This is why we are members of 1% For The Planet and are calling all businesses, big or small, to match this commitment. A sustainable future is not far off as it may seem if we can all work together and support sustainable solutions with our purchases and practices, and demand action from the companies we support to make a commitment to the future.
Ultimately, no. They aren’t. If recycling plastic was a solution to tackle plastic pollution, we wouldn’t have a problem in the first place. We’ve been recycling plastic since it was first created, yet our oceans, rivers, and landfills are drowning in plastic pollution.
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