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Why Do We Need Trees?

Life on Earth depends on energy coming from the Sun. The greenhouse effect has protected life on Earth from unlivable cold conditions for as long as life has been here. To keep greenhouse gases in perspective, we need to remember greenhouse gases are a good thing, but only if there are not too much of them. The culprit of greenhouse gasses growing the fastest and upsetting the balance which nature has maintained is carbon dioxide (CO2).

The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has been rising since the Industrial Revolution. Data collected by NASA’s orbiting satellites and other measurements indicate CO2 has reached a dangerous level not seen in the last 3 million years. Human sources of CO2 emissions are much smaller than natural emissions, but the growth of human created emissions has upset the natural balance which had existed for many thousands of years.

The natural sources of CO2 which add to the atmosphere include when organisms respire (exhale) or decompose, carbonate rocks, mostly limestone, which break down by weather, from forest fires, and eruption of volcanoes. The human sources of carbon dioxide emissions include the burning of oil, coal, and natural gas, cement production, and deforestation with up to 10 billion trees cut down per year. Almost 90% of all human-produced carbon dioxide emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels.

If you go along with the scientific consensus, the logical question is what can we do personally to reduce our own carbon emissions?  The starting point is to calculate your personal carbon footprint. To get a footprint calculation which is actionable, you use a footprint calculator. There are many of them. I recommend using the one from carbonfootprint.com. It will ask you about how you heat and cool your home, what kind of car you have, what you eat, and several other factors. I view the calculation as a crude estimate. The footprint for my wife and I is somewhere between 5 and 10 metric tons of carbon per year.

I decided some years ago, I wanted to be carbon neutral. That means my net carbon footprint is zero. There are two ways you can reduce your footprint. There will be many new choices coming for electric cars. EVs are not zero emissions because you must use electricity which is made by an electric company which may burn coal to produce the power. However, the carbon emissions are much less than from internal combustion engine cars. The ideal offset is to get an EV plus a solar roof and charge your car from the sun.

In addition to using less fossil fuel for transportation, there are several things you can do including using only Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) throughout your house, reduce your garbage, bring reusable bags to the grocery store, reduce your consumption of products with excess packaging and plastic, and buying water in plastic bottles and use filtered tap water. There are many ways to have an impact. One person can’t save the planet, but efforts of each individual person help, assuming enough individuals buy in to the idea.

Another way to help is to plant trees. Trees help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by using it during the photosynthesis process which releases oxygen as a by-product. How many trees are there? It sounds like a question from an innocent child asking how many bugs or seashells are there? While it is virtually impossible to know how many trees are in the world, incredibly accurate satellite imaging has enabled scientists to make a rough estimate. A study in the journal Nature reported close to 3 trillion trees on Earth. That equates to 422 trees per person. It varies widely by country.

Scientists estimate, before the advent of humans, the earth hosted six trillion trees, double the current number of trees in the world. Our planet has half the trees it used to because of intensive agricultural practices and development of modern civilization infrastructure. Estimates vary but we continue to lose trees at a rate of up to 10 billion trees a year.

While it is quite possible to keep coal in the hole and oil in the soil, no government or company can ever ensure carbon will remain in trees. Forest fires, insect outbreaks, decay, logging, land use changes and the decline of forest ecosystems because of climate change are all hard or impossible to control. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to protect and restore forests. We need to do it at the same time as reducing fossil fuel emissions to zero. Europe has just passed a law which will ban the sale of gas or diesel cars in Europe after 2035. In the short term it is obvious we need to increase the supply of natural gas and oil.

The above are just a few thoughts. There is much more to it. Just Google “carbon footprint” and you will find the resources. Even with aggressive actions on our part, we still will not get our footprint to zero. The other tool at our disposal is to invest in projects which provide offset. Many non-profits are focused on reducing carbon emissions. I guess you could say, to get to carbon neutral, you must buy your way out of it.  

I donate to Arbor Day Foundation. They are laser focused on planting trees. Visit arborday.org to learn more. At about 10 years of age, trees are estimated to soak up about 48 pounds of CO2 per year. For example, if you have a 6-inch Fir tree on a property in Pennsylvania, that tree will reduce atmospheric carbon by 77 pounds per year. Yes, it would take a lot of trees to get to net zero, but the Arbor Day Foundation can calculate the size of a donation it would take to plant the required number of trees. I donate $750 annually to the Foundation to get me to neutral.