How Planting Trees Offsets Carbon
Meaghan Weeden | July 21, 2020 | 4 min read
Why Planting Trees Helps to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
IF you’ve been paying attention to the climate crisis, you’re probably aware that humans are at least partially responsible — and that we release massive amounts of CO2 and other GHGs into the atmosphere every year (around 40 billion tons). So what can you do to address your impact and flatten the carbon curve? You can begin by bringing more attention to your lifestyle and habits — and how much CO2 those activities release as a result..
What Is Your Carbon Footprint?
A carbon footprint refers to how much CO2 we produce in our day-to-day lives. The more energy you use, the bigger your carbon footprint — even if you’re far removed from the smoke stacks and power plants that combust fossil fuels and power our lives.
All of the following can help to reduce your carbon footprint:
- Trade your car for a hybrid or begin biking, carpooling, ore using public transportation
- Make your home more energy-efficient
- Purchase locally produced food and other products
- Pay to offsetyour carbon emissions
- Plant trees to reduce your carbon footprint
- Source your energy from renewable sources
Because our lifestyles and access to resources vary, carbon reduction looks different for everybody — but it's likely that if you look around and consider how you can reduce your carbon emissions, something will stand out as a clear next step. Here's a poster full of carbon emission estimates to help you get started.
How Carbon Offsets Work
One solution that’s poorly understood but gets talked about a lot are carbon offsets, which essentially means paying for a process that is verified to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
But how does this work? At the basic level, carbon offsets are a form of trade. You trade your hard earned dollars for the ability to offset any part of your carbon footprint that you can't avoid. Maybe you need to travel often for work, can’t afford to update your home right now, or live rurally and don’t have access to public transportation.
While the most effective action is to reduce your emissions in the first place, carbon offsets can offer a cost-effective way to lower your impact by creating a benefit for the planet and supporting Earth's natural filtration systems. Currently, carbon offsetting projects are based on the conservation of existing forests. The trees are already in various stages of maturity and are certain to be absorbing carbon via an auditing process through which trees are checked annually at the start of a project and then again every several years. Auditors typically check some of the same trees every time they come to review the forest, as well as many other random trees in the designated plot of land.
Your payment goes towards ensuring those trees continue to grow and suck up carbon without the risk of being cut down.
Planting Trees Will Sequester Carbon in the Future
Because trees use carbon dioxide to build their trunks, branches, roots, and leaves, they are natural carbon absorbers and help to clean the air. In fact, one mature tree can absorb up to 48lbs per year! And the benefits don’t stop there: healthy trees hold the soil together, provide a home for wildlife, regulate temperatures, slow the flow of water through landscapes, grow vital foods and medicines, and more. What’s not to love?
According to the U.S. Department of Energy's 2017 analysis via their now defunct Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, the average American emits around 16.2 metric tons of CO2 from fossil fuels each year. At 2204 lbs per ton, that equals 35,704.8 lbs — or, approximately 744 trees just to offset 1 year's worth of impact. Clearly, we have work to do!
But as awesome as tree planting is, any project is only as effective as the planning that goes into it. While it’s always important to prioritize tree species that are native to a planting area, some are more efficient at sequestering carbon than others. And while it may be tempting to plant fast growing trees that can absorb more in the short term, the better option is to plant long-lived, slow-growing trees because they will store significantly more carbon over their lifespan.
Depending on species composition, forests can sequester between 0.8 and 10 tons of carbon per hectare per year. As a rule, deciduous trees, like oak, are generally better at storing carbon than their coniferous counterparts because their wood is denser, but there are exceptions to this. Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine, and Redwoods stand out amongst evergreens, and other species like London Plane, Teak, and Eucalyptus have also proven their capabilities. When planting, careful balancing of ecological integrity and carbon sequestration capability is essential to ensure the success of the project — and the effectiveness of your offsets.
So all we need to do is plant more trees, right? Unfortunately it isn’t that simple. While reforestation is an essential part of an effective climate change mitigation strategy, it’s important to note that on its own, planting trees alone won’t fix the climate crisis. Equally as important is conserving existing forests, reducing our emissions, and prioritizing planetary health. It's all interconnected, and we should be taking all of these actions to reduce our collective global greenhouse gas emissions.
Because of the many factors that go into planting trees for carbon reduction, it’s important to work with reputable organizations to ensure that your dollars don’t go to waste. Download our Forests and Carbon poster to learn more about how trees absorb carbon. Want to know how we’re working to plant trees and absorb carbon around the world? Check out our current reforestation projects to learn more!