Could trees be the low-hanging fruit of climate action?

Could trees be the low-hanging fruit of climate action?

Elliott Davis & Ari Bechtel

Almost every day, the news reminds us of the impending climate crisis. To run our cars, factories, and electric grids, we burn fossil fuels and emit carbon dioxide. As a greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere and warms the planet, causing sea-level rise, intense storms, and forest fires, to name a few. To address these issues, a variety of mitigation solutions—those that reduce emissions—have arisen. Each year, renewable energy is added to the grid, energy-efficient equipment gets incorporated into buildings, and more electric vehicles are sold. Local and state governments, as well as the international community, are committing to reducing their emissions.

It is clear that mitigation is a key part of avoiding climate disaster. But it is not enough. Even if the whole world had stopped emitting all carbon dioxide 20 years ago, recent climate models show that the earth is already committed to another half degree of global warming and an additional 320% sea-level rise.

Clearly, there is another key part of the climate solution; we need to remove carbon dioxide from the air and we need to do it now. Current carbon dioxide removal technologies include direct air capture, soil enhancements, and underground carbon sequestration. While many of these options are capable of storing relatively large amounts of carbon, they are still in development and are very expensive.

However, one effective carbon-capturing “technology” is all around us: trees. As part of photosynthesis, trees take in carbon dioxide from the surrounding air and store it in their tissues. In one year, an acre of forest is estimated to sequester twice the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the average car. Trees are easy to plant, require little technical expertise, and are easy to maintain when compared with other methods of carbon capture

Trees are truly the “low-hanging fruit” of climate action and we should take advantage of them. So what would this look like? If we set the goal of planting 100 million trees throughout our state, we would only need to plant less than 10 trees per person. Yet, the impact would be enormous, accounting for 13.8% of the emissions we generate from the residential sector.

Not only do trees help combat climate change, but they also provide other benefits to society. For example, trees produce a sense of tranquility for the people around them. They help address the growing occurrence of “Nature Deficit Disorder,” the mental duress generated from insufficient outdoor exposure. Revitalizing forests enables more hiking and exploring while providing additional wildlife habitat, helping maintain biodiversity in an increasingly developed world. 

Planting trees can improve water quality. Trees reduce runoff by trapping chemicals and sediment before they reach streams and rivers. While this alters water flow, planners can use this to their advantage to mitigate the disastrous flooding often seen in North Carolina. Meanwhile, groundwater supplies which many people rely on for drinking water can be replenished.

Afforestation in residential areas has been associated with greater social cohesion and reduced crime. Neighborhoods with more trees will become more desirable for their residents. Unfortunately, many low-income and majority minority communities lack sufficient tree cover due to generations of neglect and under-investment by government authorities. Planting more trees can help address some of these historic inequities and their detrimental impacts, improving the quality of life of the people who need it most.

Trees can benefit everyone. That’s why despite climate change being a divisive issue, there is support across the political spectrum for increasing tree cover. In North Carolina, Democrats and Republicans alike have been strong proponents of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal conservation program which has protected forests in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Last year on Capitol Hill, a massive conservation package passed with strong bipartisan support. Even President Trump, whose Administration has sought to undo previous climate progress, came out in support of the Trillion Trees Initiative, a global effort to plant one trillion trees. There is a unique window of opportunity to act upon the near universal support for greater tree cover.

Planting trees won’t solve the climate crisis. However, they are an ideal complement to current mitigation efforts. Trees offer an inexpensive way to reduce carbon emissions while creating outdoor recreation opportunities, helping underserved communities, and increasing biodiversity. Tree planting is certainly the “low hanging fruit” that we should take advantage of as we seek to promote a low carbon future.