Post No.: 0474
Although considered a ‘trace gas’ in the Earth’s atmosphere, there’s a lot of carbon dioxide in the air and depleting the amount of trees and forests on the ground is not a good idea. Contrary to what we would intuitively think because trees seem to grow up from the soil – the solid carbon that makes up most of the mass of trees and plants does not come from the soil but comes from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Trees are effective carbon sinks. Other technologies might work to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere but we’ve already got trees, hence we must re-forest and re-wild nature.
The direct air capture ‘carbon capture and storage’ (CCS) technologies that are currently being developed might have an advantage of being able to be installed anywhere, they perhaps might be more effective carbon sinks per square metre of land used and may therefore be a contributory part of the solution, but they do nonetheless use land, they can be expensive and some technologies require freshwater to operate. And natural trees are still important for biodiversity because lots of species of fluffy animals and plants live in forests, and they’re prettier and good for our own well-being too.
Some experts claim that the most promising approach if our goal is negative emissions is ‘bio-energy with carbon capture and storage’ (BECCS). This is when sustainably grown biomass, such as trees, which when growing captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is burned instead of coal, oil or natural gas, and then carbon capture and storage is applied to the released carbon dioxide.
Therefore trees would still be vital. But we cannot just plant seeds or saplings and think ‘done’. Young saplings are particularly vulnerable to pests, diseases, droughts and storms or floods. Many will die before they grow large enough to draw and lock in significant amounts of carbon, as this could take maybe 20-40 years.
So forests need to be maintained, such as thinning or removing some trees to allow others enough room to grow. They cannot be simply planted willy-nilly in the first place – we need to plant the right trees in the right places and densities, and then manage them carefully. For instance, if forests are planted in high latitude areas, then come the winters when it snows, the relatively dark trees will be less reflective with the sun’s heat compared to white snow, which could potentially lead to a net warming effect on the planet! We need to be sensitive to the local wildlife and biodiversity, and manage against wildfires, rather than just plant whatever the fastest growing species is. We also need a diversity of trees themselves otherwise one disease could wipe out the entire lot. Robustness in an ecosystem depends on its biodiversity. Therefore, although planting lots of trees can be backbreaking work, we’re currently obsessed with the planting part even though that’s equivalent to having the sex – raising the children and keeping them alive is the more challenging part, as it were!
It’s far better to simply not cut down rainforest trees in the tropics than cut them down then plant trees elsewhere in the world, because some trees in some locations are worth more than others in their ability to both sink carbon and sustain biodiversity. Therefore the calculation of ‘one, two or even three trees planted per one tree cut down’ can hide a lot of ‘creative accounting’ and kidology when it comes to ‘carbon offsetting’ (as discussed in Post No.: 0467). We also need to consider the impact on local communities, such as the land used, the draw on local water supplies and the exploitation of poorer people in this globally collective undertaking.
Note that it’s wrong to blame a country like Brazil alone for the rapid deforestation of the Amazon rainforest when people in other countries, like in the UK, China and the rest of the world, demand products that contain cheaper soy, beef, etc. that drive such deforestation. There are added issues like supporting those farmers and the global economic efficiency of producing some things en masse in some places rather than in other places, but there needs to somehow be a more sustainable balance.
Planting trees but then eventually cutting them down again, just so that we can plant new trees and say, “We’re always planting new trees”, isn’t the best answer – again, keeping trees is more important than merely planting them. Otherwise it’d be like a person who’s regularly putting some money into a bank account each month to try to build up some capital or pay off some debt, but who’s also constantly withdrawing the same amount out each month – it’s not so much how much goes into the account but how much stays there. And in the case of trees, we need to make sure lots of trees stay alive in order to compensate for the huge historical deforestation or environmental debt we owe (especially in the tropics and rainforests), as well as to be sustainable for the global population and lifestyles we wish to have – and that means a lot of land dedicated to forests and rainforests. But land for trees competes with land for growing food.
This introduces an international problem of NIMBYism (not in my backyard) because countries would rather use their own land more productively in an economic sense, such as for crop or animal farming, even though the state of the Earth’s atmosphere, whether good or bad, will be shared by everyone. Countries therefore mustn’t act selfishly but cooperatively – by economically helping those countries that will dedicate their land to maintaining the forests and rainforests we’ll all benefit from wherever we are in the world. Meow.
Indeed, timber is used in buildings and other products, and as long as these last rather than biodegrade or burn, and are made fire-retardant with environmentally-friendly treatments, then the carbon in them will remain locked up and therefore out of the atmosphere. But if left to decompose or burned then much of that carbon will be released into the atmosphere again; although some of it will add to the soil matter. (Maintaining soil quality is a major global environmental issue that we must care greatly about too, rather than ‘treat like dirt’ – problems with soil include soil infertility, pollution, salinity, acidity/alkalinity, its structural condition, erosion and excessive flooding.) Plus some sources claim that planting trees alone will be insufficient because there isn’t enough suitable land to offset the amount of carbon dioxide we’ve historically and currently emit. We therefore still need to change our individual lifestyles and how our economies or industries work.
More carbon dioxide and rising global temperatures will mean that more trees and plants should naturally grow through photosynthesis hence nature should, on the face of it, self-regulate the situation on its own without our intervention… except not if more acid rain falls due to the sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted from burning fossil fuels and the increased demand for food production. Not if more forest fires rage. Not if forests are continually being deliberately incinerated to create farmland for growing crops to feed livestock or to directly feed a growing global population. Not if there’s more tree disease because the planting of trees isn’t carefully planned and managed. And not if the ozone layer depletes and UV-B radiation streams in and inhibits the growth of plants and other life. Although the greater the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the less water is needed for plants to photosynthesise – the greater the temperature, the more water is needed for plants to photosynthesise. A hotter and wetter climate might mean more locust plagues that’ll affect the global food supply too. The prevention of average global warming exceeding 2°C (or preferably 1.5°C) above pre-industrial levels is thus still our most desirable outcome.
Volcanoes naturally spew out a lot of carbon dioxide that can reach the atmosphere too. But trying to argue that this makes the historical and current levels of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gas) emissions from human industrial processes acceptable is like a murderer trying to argue that natural causes kill more people(!) It should actually spur people to control the things they can control, which includes reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions. And planting trees and maintaining forests can be a major part of this positive action of taking control.
Something else to note is that natural forest fires are overall self-regulatory and help reduce the total amount of forest burned in the long-term because they create firebreaks that prevent one fire spreading too far and wide. (It’s like storing explosives in separated caches so that it limits the extent of one accident.) Some seeds even evolved to need a fire to start germinating. But as people build houses closer to forests and have prevented or curbed natural forest fires, forest fires have in recent years become larger even though fewer in number. Controlled or ‘hazard reduction’ burning practices, along with other forest management measures, are therefore crucial. But some experts argue that as the climate gets hotter, more forest fires are going to start and spread anyway. And that’s why preventing average global temperatures from rising too far is again still the number one goal.
Overall, it’s foreseeably great to support the planting of trees if it’s done properly and not done as a way to justify carrying on polluting or wasting in other parts of one’s life. This is equivalent to saying that it’s great to exercise but don’t do a bit of exercise then try to justify why you deserve eating all the junk you want – because for many people, they’ll end up still eating too much for the exercise they do; and then they’ll tend to eventually stop exercising altogether yet carry on with their level of consumption.
There are other important natural ways to sink carbon too, such as preserving and making the most of peatlands. Unlike mature trees, these don’t seem to have a limit to how much carbon they can absorb too. Vegetation can also grow on them. But more peatland is becoming exposed due to thawing permafrost in the Arctic, and if peat bogs anywhere start to dry out due to warming then they’ll start to release their stored carbon, and nitrous oxide, into the atmosphere, thus they must be maintained and kept wet.
In terms of offsetting one’s total pollution and consumption – excessive carbon dioxide emissions are only one facet of the environmental problems we face. There are issues like fresh water supply usage and environmental microplastics too that somehow need offsetting – or simply reducing by reducing our consumption of most unnecessary things altogether. There’s little point in having global temperatures that are stably within a good range but super-expensive fresh water that the poorest in the world cannot afford and microplastics that might possibly be found to be doing harm to food chains, for example.
Relatively rich people may be able to afford carbon offsetting strategies or solar panels, for instance, to possibly even reduce their negative impact on the environment to zero or below in some respects – but not in all respects. It’s metaphorically like doing well in replenishing the amount of tonic water one uses, perhaps with even an amount to spare – but not the gin – which suggests that one would still need to reduce the number of glasses of gin and tonics one consumes, if one likes gin and tonic and wants to keep having them long into the future, as it were.
Meow. So more trees – plus lots of other things we need to do to look after the environment better too – for the win!