Our Most Effective Tool for Fighting Climate Change: A Tree

You can’t avoid noticing the rapid development of housing in the Eastern Panhandle. Just blink and an old farm or wooded area has been replaced by a Dan Ryan development extravaganza. In my established farming neighborhood alone there are four homes under construction. But often these homes end up being naked structures with no landscaping and no trees. Evidently, new home buyers are more interested in square footage and amenities than saving or establishing wooded areas. More’s the pity. Trees add grace and beauty, provide protection against cold winter winds and blazing summer heat, prevent rainwater erosion, and create habitat for birds and other wildlife. Perhaps most importantly, trees remove prodigious amounts of carbon dioxide from the air.

In the not too distant past, West Virginia was covered with virgin forest. One estimate from 1870 was that of the 16,640,000 acres in the state “at least 10,000,000 acres are still in the vigor and freshness of original growth.” But between 1870 and 1920, the timber industry literally changed the face of the state. Timber was the first of our natural resources to be extracted, followed by coal and now gas.

Obviously the extraction industries in West Virginia have all contributed heavily to the production of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas chiefly responsible for climate change. Surprisingly, huge amounts of carbon dioxide are produced by the timber industry itself. A recent study in Oregon found that wood products generated about one and one-half times more emissions than the transportation and energy sectors in that state. Timber industry emissions come from the fuel burned in logging operations, hauling and milling and the ongoing decomposition of trees after they are cut. And, as wood is a carbon-based fuel, burning wood produces carbon dioxide, although not as much as burning more carbon rich fuels like coal, oil or gas.

But the main impact of the timber industry on the climate is the destruction of forest carbon sinks. Through the process of photosynthesis trees remove carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen. A single tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year and can sequester one ton of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 40 years of age. Large forests consume and store huge amounts of carbon dioxide.

In his recent book, Carbon Capture, MIT Research Engineer Howard Herzog identifies “negative emissions technologies” as one path toward stabilizing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These technologies actually remove carbon dioxide from the air, as opposed to preventing its emission in the first place. Among  emission prevention practices would be things like engineering controls on smokestacks, tax provisions that favor renewables, and tightening environmental regulations. The most important negative emissions technology is planting trees to fix atmospheric carbon in biomass and soils, termed afforestation and reforestation (AR).

Worldwide carbon emissions are approaching 40 gigatons per year. So to make any real difference AR must be able to operate on the gigaton per year level. Today AR is the only negative emissions technology deployed on a large scale, although it now functions only at the smaller megaton level of carbon dioxide removal. Still AR is the least expensive of such technologies — estimated at $10 per ton of removed carbon dioxide compared with $1000 per ton removed by direct air capture through engineering systems.

Under the Kyoto Protocols, industrialized countries can meet targets by developing carbon-reduction projects in third-world countries. Often these have been afforestation of unused agricultural land through plantations of fast-growing trees of a uniform type, such as Scotch pine. Critics of this procedure point out that the resulting biomass is more like a single-purpose tool than a true forest. Forests create a whole range of wildlife diversity, environmental and economic benefits that single species plantations do not. Replanting a depleted forest with diverse native species has worked better.

This brings me back around to how important trees are on small-scale private property. Deciduous trees, planted on the south and west sides, will keep a house cool in the summer and let the sun warm it in the winter, reducing energy use. Just three trees, properly placed around a house, can save up to 30% of energy use. Trees or shrubs planted to shade air conditioners lead to more efficient cooling. A unit operating in the shade uses as much as 10% less electricity than the same one operating in the sun.

Planting a row of conifer trees on the north and northwest sides of your property creates a wall against cold winter winds, saving on heating costs. The best protection from wind occurs when the windbreak is no more than the distance of one or two tree heights from the house. Most of the Eastern Panhandle is in hardiness zone 6, which makes Norway Spruce, Leyland Cyprus and Eastern White Pine perfect for wind breaks in our area.

Planting trees anywhere is a boon to the environment. Even planting them in rural areas is beneficial because, in addition to capturing carbon dioxide, they act as soil anchors, preventing erosion and rainwater runoff into streams. Particularly when planted strategically in groups, trees in rural areas create wildlife corridors linking streams, feeding areas and shelter. Native trees provide perfect food for native wildlife. In this area Red Mulberry, Serviceberry, Hawthorn, Hackberry, Cherry, River Birch, and Black Walnut thrive.

The magnitude of the climate problem is so huge and making a real difference so beyond the reach of any individual, that sometimes it seems hopeless. But, of course, this is no way to think about the situation. There are individual behaviors that when changed on a large scale can contribute to solving huge problems. Planting a tree – or better yet a bunch of them – is a low cost act that employs living things to do what they do best and what we desperately need them to do. And it is an act within the reach of everyone.