Earth's forests are already working overtime to help mitigate climate change.
Trees work hard to clean the air we breathe. Through photosynthesis trees suck up carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and convert it into food so they can grow. The ingested carbon is then trapped in the tree’s cells and stored in the trunk and branches, while oxygen is released in the process.
This filtering of carbon from the air and storing it elsewhere is a process known as carbon sequestration, and as global emissions of CO2 continue to rise, the need to find the best method of sequestration becomes increasingly pressing.
Currently, there are a number of ways in which CO2 can be captured both naturally and artificially. However, trees and plant life remain the most simple, affordable, and environmentally beneficial structures capable of cleaning up our atmosphere.
Forests are carbon guzzling machines.
Forests are remarkably efficient at capturing and storing carbon. The amount any given tree is able to sequester differs depending on size, maturity, location, and species, but the average mature tree is capable of capturing around 48 lbs of CO2 per year.
With trees able to take in that much carbon, forests play an outsized role in mitigating climate change. For example, US forests alone sequester 10 - 20% of the country’s carbon emissions each year. On a global scale, the conservation, restoration, and proper management of just the tropical forests could provide 23% of the affordable mitigation required to limit global warming to 2°C.
With so much carbon storing potential, planting more trees and saving our forests could be a great solution for our climate woes. Sadly, forests are already working overtime in increasingly carbon-saturated environments, while they account for less than 3% of climate mitigation funding and continue to be cut down at alarming rates.
There are simply not enough trees.
Figuring at a relatively high rate of carbon capture, an average acre of forest could potentially store 13.5 tonnes of carbon each year. At that rate, more than 2.7 billion acres of forest would be required to sequester 2018’s record high level of 37.1 billion tonnes of global emissions.
Putting that in perspective, current global forest coverage amounts to less than 10 billion acres and the square acreage of Earth itself is only 37 billion. Adding 2.7 billion more acres will make up for the vast amounts of deforestation over the past few decades, not only storing excess carbon, but also expanding habitats for wildlife, improving water quality, supporting healthier agriculture and contributing to many other environmental benefits.
While scientists are developing technology capable of filtering carbon out of the air, they have yet to find a solution as capable and affordable as trees. One company claims they are capable of filtering CO2 at the cost of $100 (US) per tonne, but with global emissions continuing to rise the price of carbon capture technology is still far too costly.
Our forests can’t do it on their own.
Despite their immense carbon storing capabilities, forests cannot be left to shoulder the burden of cleaning the atmosphere on their own. The sheer volume of carbon emissions being pumped into the atmosphere is beyond the capabilities of forests to handle. However, with a little hard work, and with the help of the trees, reducing that burden is entirely possible.
Switching to renewable energy, reducing fossil fuel consumption, levying a carbon tax, and halting deforestation globally are just a few ways we can move towards a cleaner, more sustainable environment. On an individual level, that might mean walking to work or taking public transport when possible, eating less meat (or none at all), and participating in public discourse about the need to protect our forests from deforestation.
Any reduction in overall emissions we can attain - while allowing forests to thrive - will have significant impacts on the net carbon introduced into our atmosphere.
In short, conserving, restoring and maintaining forests remain the best options for mitigating further global temperature rise and reducing any damage caused by climate change. The best thing we humans can do is step aside, let forests grow, plant a lot more trees, and do our best to protect them as they do their carbon sequestering work 🌲
We plant trees on 4 continents around the world. Want to choose where yours are planted?
by Joseph Coppolino
Organic Content Creator & Enviro-fabulist
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