Don’t Plant Trees

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A good post by Joseph Romm at Gristmill explains why planting trees isn’t as good a CO2 reduction measure as it is commonly believed. However, I take issue with his title: “The first rule of carbon offsets: No trees.”

Actually, the first rule of carbon offsets is do something else, anything else, first. While in theory carbon offsets could be a good thing (let’s ameliorate carbon emissions when we can’t reduce them), in practice they are a feel-good sop that allows people to go along without changing their habits. It’s the modern analogue to buying papal indulgences. It shifts focus away from the fact that conservation is the most important thing we can do collectively to reduce greenhouse gases. And it has created a cottage industry, some of it simply naive, some of it fraudulent, to service this modern need to alleviate guilt.

Why are offsets problematic? There is perilous little monitoring to see if the actions promised for your contribution actually happen. And even when they do, it’s not uncommon for those in the carbon offset business to sell the same activity multiple times. And even those with better intentions overestimate the degree of carbon reduction, or use a net present value computation when there is no certainty of future outcomes (what happens if the tree that was planted dies, or burns down?).

And now that we are speaking about trees, Romm explains that the value of planting them isn’t merely exaggerated. It’s “a waste of time” and in most cases makes matters worse:

Everybody loves trees. They are so popular as offsets they even make Wikipedia’s definition:

When one is unable or unwilling to reduce one’s own emissions, Carbon offset is the act of reducing (“offsetting”) greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. A well-known example is the planting of trees to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions from personal air travel.

When one is unable or unwilling to reduce one’s own emissions, Carbon offset is the act of reducing (“offsetting”) greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. A well-known example is the planting of trees to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions from personal air travel.
But does planting trees reduce global warming? Not in most places on the earth. The Carnegie Institution’s Ken Caldeira summarized the result of a major 2005 study (PDF) this way: “To plant forests to mitigate climate change outside of the tropics is a waste of time.”

Why? Because forest canopies are relatively dark, compared to what they replace outside the tropics — grass, croplands, or snowfields — and so they absorb more of the sun’s heating rays that fall on them. That negates the “carbon sink” benefit trees have soaking up carbon dioxide. Worse, the study found that planting a large number of trees in high latitudes would “probably have a net warming effect on the Earth’s climate.” Ouch!

So what about an offset project involving tree planting in the tropics where water evaporating from trees increases cloudiness, which keeps the planet cool, according to models? Tropical-tree-planting offset projects suffer from a different problem:

How can we be sure that the project is resulting in a net increase in tropical trees? Imagine planting 1,000 acres of trees in Brazil, where the full extent of annual deforestation is not known precisely. How do we know that an extra 1000 acres won’t be chopped down somewhere else in the country?

Until countries with tropical forests join an international greenhouse gas treaty and are subject to rigorous verification strategies, tree-related offset projects will not deliver guaranteed, quantifiable benefits.

So if you are thinking about purchasing offsets, be wary of any company that says it plants trees.

As for the study mentioned earlier, “Climate Effects of Global Land Cover Change” (PDF), by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, here’s the abstract:

There are two competing effects of global land cover change on climate: an albedo effect which leads to heating when changing from grass/croplands to forest, and an evapotranspiration effect which tends to produce cooling. It is not clear which effect would dominate in a global land cover change scenario. We have performed coupled land/ocean/atmosphere simulations of global land cover change using the NCAR CAM3 atmospheric general circulation model. We find that replacement of current vegetation by trees on a global basis would lead to a global annual mean warming of 1.6 C, nearly 75% of the warming produced under a doubled CO2 concentration, while global replacement by grasslands would result in a cooling of 0.4 C. These results suggest that more research is necessary before forest carbon storage should be deployed as a mitigation strategy for global warming. In particular, high latitude forests probably have a net warming effect on the Earth’s climate.

Offset projects should simply not include tree planting.

If you really have to go the carbon offset route, look for projects that reduce methane, since it’s 40 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2. And don’t give yourself credit for anything more than the first year’s benefit.

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  1. Anonymous

    Well, maybe planting a tree doesn’t mitigate the global warming part. And maybe planting a tree in the wrong place (in a forest where new trees would grow anyway) doesn’t help. But planting a tree in the right place strikes me as a good act; demanding that it counterbalances exactly the other bad acts seems a bit much.

  2. Eco Interactive

    The conclusions drawn from this study are completely erroneous.

    For a more accurate perspective visit

    Look for Part 5 in the series Does Reforestation contribute to Global Warming?

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