I’m all for planting trees. As is President Trump. He announced his support for the Trillion Trees initiative at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. And he reaffirmed his commitment to the initiative in February’s State of the Union address.
But some people are saying that planting trees isn’t nearly enough to address climate change. In fact, the initiative has been hammered by a number of environmental organizations.
And these organizations make some good points. No doubt, there’s a long list of steps that should be taken to slow down climate change. And the sooner the better.
But to disparage planting trees because it’s not THE SOLUTION is stupid. There is no one solution. And because trees absorb and sequester carbon, they can play an important role in restoring the environment.
One of the main concerns about the Trillion Trees initiative is practical. The world simply doesn’t have the space to accommodate 1 trillion new trees. Critics also believe the initiative will keep people from focusing on the more urgent mission of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Experts even wonder whether trees can make more than a symbolic impact. A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says we’d have to dedicate nearly 371 million acres (more than twice the area of Texas) to remove the roughly 5.8 billion tons of carbon emissions the U.S. produced last year.
The World Resources Institute (WRI) says the U.S. has the potential to add 3 billion trees per year to its landscape. That would sequester less than 10% of the carbon dioxide the U.S. emitted last year, according to Rhodium Group estimates.
These numbers indicate that trees will have a limited impact on reducing carbon dioxide levels. And some people question whether it will have any positive impact at all. They argue that trees are not an effective sequestration tool.
Most of the carbon trapped in tree trunks, branches and leaves of trees simply returns to the atmosphere, whether the tree dies as a result fire, logging or simply falling down. Jane Flegal, a member of the adjunct faculty at Arizona State University, says, “Carbon sinks can become carbon sources very quickly.”
I asked my friends at World Tree whether this is true. They said Flegal’s comments are misleading. Trees, they said, can become a source of carbon emissions only in areas where there are either a lot of forest fires or forests that are deliberately cleared using fire (e.g., the Amazon).
This nuanced view of tree planting is important. World Tree understands this intimately, in part because its business model is built on planting (and eventually cutting down and selling) the world’s fastest-growing hardwood tree – the Empress Splendor.
The Empress Splendor absorbs 103 tons of carbon dioxide a year. That’s 11 times more than any other tree. It also replenishes the soil and is noninvasive. World Tree wants to plant 3.5 million of these trees all over North, Central and South America in the next five years.
This issue deserves a more detailed explanation, so here is what World Tree told me…
As trees grow, they take in carbon and release oxygen. They then store the carbon in their biomass and put it back into the soil (soil carbon). As long as the tree is alive, it will continue this process. The bigger the tree, the more carbon it has stored. When a tree is cut down or dies, carbon begins to be released back into the atmosphere. If the tree’s lumber is used to make products such as furniture, much of the carbon is embodied (trapped) in the product. Eventually, many years down the road, it will slowly decay in landfills. We do indeed need a strategy about what kind of trees and where we plant, but we have enough science and data to do this effectively.
One of the best things about World Tree’s initiative is that anybody can invest in it. You don’t have to be a venture capital investor or be wealthy. The company is now raising money from everyday investors on Wefunder. And my own research indicates you can make at least 11 times your investment and possibly much more. You cash out when the trees you helped fund are harvested. That’s 10 years down the road. But you can make 30% a year and perhaps much more. It’s definitely worth the wait.
And it’s a far better solution than a government program to plant trees. The WRI estimates it would cost the government about $4 billion a year for the next 20 years to carry out Trump’s tree-planting plan.
World Tree shows that with a little entrepreneurial can-do-ism and imagination, trees can make a nice profit for the companies that plant them (and their investors). Instead of paying more taxes to pay for a big tree-planting program, people can make money by investing in a private-sector profit-making enterprise.
It’s okay to be a tree hugger. It’s even better to make a profit while you’re doing it.