Plant a Tree. But Keep Fighting Carbon Like Hell.

July 9, 2019

Above, Jeff Berardelli points out, correctly, that while tree planting is always a good idea, lumber farms or plantations, which are often what politicians imagine for programs like this, are not the answer.
Old growth forests, that are minimally tended, are what is needed.

But there must also be rapid decarbonization of the economy, changes in agriculture to sequester carbon in soils, and, quite likely, some kind of air-capture drawdown using as-yet-unknown technology, if we are going to get back to where we need to be.


We still have to reduce our carbon emissions.

When it comes to climate change, we have been bouncing back and forth between posts, like the apocalyptic New study says we have to stop building CO2 emitting infrastructure right now, where we all have to stop making pipelines and cars today, and the positive and uplifting Planting trees could be a “mind-blowing” solution to climate change, where if we plant a trillion trees, it will reverse climate change. What TreeHugger wouldn’t be excited by that?

We noted in the latter post that there were skeptics, and more of them are coming out of the woodwork. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones writes that Trees will not save us from climate change, noting:

If we could really get all the countries of the world to plant trees on currently unused land that’s suitable for reforestation, that would be great. But even if we went all out and got 100 percent cooperation, it would take 50 or 60 years for these forests to grow to maturity. Unless we do something about actual emissions, we will have added at least 500 gigatonnes of additional carbon by then, bringing us to total emissions of about a billion gigatonnes of carbon. The trees would make only a small difference.

Here, more from a recent piece in Mother Jones about efforts to organize farmers as carbon stewards.
Not that far-fetched, but would require massive changes in the corn-subsidy economy we’ve created in US agriculture, and shifting incentives toward the soil, not just specific crops.

Mother Jones:

After a group prayer and a hearty meal of chicken sandwiches and coleslaw, the conversation at the church turned to cover crops. All plants, from a redwood tree to a stalk of corn, absorb carbon dioxide and deliver it to the soil. Left undisturbed, some of this carbon remains there for millennia. In the past century, conventional agricultural practices have stripped America’s soils of more than half of their original carbon content.

The alternative approach, which includes growing crops that absorb more carbon and planting without tilling the soil, is sometimes referred to as “carbon farming.” In the United States, where agriculture accounts for about one-tenth of greenhouse gas emissions, these adaptations could, in the best-case scenario, offset all agricultural emissions. One analysis of these techniques found that they can sequester nearly a ton of carbon per 10 acres annually—the equivalent of taking one car off the road for 70 days. Even more carbon could be stored if farmers planted more trees and permanent vegetation. Many growers already embrace these techniques, in part because they enrich the soil. “We’re all in the carbon reduction business,” a large man in suspenders said during the workshop.

There are signs that Russell is making headway. Chris Teachout, a corn and soy farmer from Shenandoah, Iowa, told me that within a month of attending an Interfaith Power and Light meeting, he received calls from two pastors asking if he would put on similar events at their churches. Agriculture, he said, offers conservatives a path to “slip in” to the climate conversation. Unlike coal-fired power plants and carbon taxes, dirt is not a partisan issue. Farmers and environmentalists have found common ground in the burgeoning soil health movement. By championing farming practices that could boost fertility, reduce costs, and increase yields (not to mention reduce erosion and water pollution and make crops more resilient during extreme weather), the effort might be a win-winfor everyone.

Russell is piggybacking on that movement, but he takes issue with how environmental groups avoid mentioning climate change in front of growers. “They’ll say farmers don’t want to talk about climate change, but they’ll talk about water quality, they’ll talk about organic matter in the soil, even if they won’t talk about sequestration,” he told me. He said the time for semantic games is over. “Moving Republicans to engage with climate action as Republicans, that gets to a huge accelerant of what’s possible.”


31 Responses to “Plant a Tree. But Keep Fighting Carbon Like Hell.”

  1. doldrom Says:

    I have always been struck by how little enthusiasm there is for tree planting. (I planted trees in the Rockies as a summer job; there I discovered that despite the advertisements by giant paper and lumber outfits about how they even used helicopters to plant hard to access slopes and peaks, they are consistently more than 30 years behind [think erosion], and in absolute numbers, falling further behind because of increase cutting). Even the Old Testament has rules about planting trees in the promised land. I remember reading in the seventies that the economic returns on investment for planting trees in American cities was about 7% (saved air conditioning and heating expenses as well as sewage capacity, etc.), which compares favorably to many lines of business. Still, this does not lead to action — people would rather try to make a buck in something sexier and more exploitative.
    Not suggesting trees as the answer to global warming. More trees are always a good thing.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.

    • jerrydogood Says:

      You are correct about the lack of enthusiasm for planting trees. My front yard looks like a jungle, the couple across the street a half jungle more organized. All the rest are lawns with a few bushes and solitary tree if that.

      When driving in the foothills one sees millions of acres covered in brush that in the 1800’s were covered in trees. You cannot even raise cattle as they will not eat brush though goats might. Millions of acres of unproductive land in private hands. Public lands burned in fires twenty years ago are still not planted in trees growing brush as well. Major changes in policy and attitude need to be done if we want those trees back.

  2. rsmurf Says:

    Most of my property (4.5 acres) is left to do what it wants. That means native trees. That said, in Dallas they have a relentless terraforming project that aims to cut down any old growth trees and replace them with buildings and tiny new trees. We keep getting further behind. WITHOUT DRASTIC ACTION ALL OUR GOOSES ARE COOKED!

    • jerrydogood Says:

      They are building new homes for a reason, people insist on having kids, more kids means more people which means more homes which means less trees. Population control needs to be put in place as 100 billion people cannot live on the earth and that number is not that far off.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        “…100 billion people cannot live on the earth and that number is not that far off.”

        Jerry doodoos it yet again—-NO ONE with half a brain has ever suggested that the human population will reach 100 million, never mind “that number is not far off”. Lord love a duck!

      • rsmurf Says:

        Couldn’t agree more about population.

      • Lionel Smith Says:


        “Population control needs to be put in place as 100 billion people cannot live on the earth and that number is not that far off.”

        Nature has its own forms of population control, have you not noticed.

        As seas rise, temperatures in one time temperate climes rise diseases will evolve faster and transport quicker to. There will be a cull other than any planed by the 0.1% to reduce the numbers of the rest of us.

        We are heading for another evolutionary bottleneck with extinction a high possibility if we do nothing about this.

  3. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Disagree with some of the basic premises here. Old growth forests are huge carbon stores and lovely every other way. What they are not is great carbon absorbers. Tropical rain forests are neutral, expect deciduous forests are net absorbers (?) and cold climate evergreens less so (?). It is the growing phase that sucks up CO2.
    Then cut some of them down, make stuff and grow some more. The benefits of trees are so many that it is worth spending money on. Also creates employment etc, problems to be overcome and part of the solution.

  4. jerrydogood Says:

    Tropical rain forests are not carbon sinks. If you actually walk around in them like I have, you see a bunch of big trees sitting on top of soil about an inch deep. The microbes and fungi eat up everything falling from those trees in short order so the old growth forests are essentially carbon neutral. The young forest in any climate are sinks until they reach maturity than for the most part are again carbon neutral, sinking a lot more in the temperate zones but not that much more than the tropics again due to microbe and fungi activity. Loam soil can and does build up stored carbon in the ground but that is a minority of soils. Permafrost ground does build up carbon as it is stored as frozen plant products when the ground freezes and stays frozen.

    In any case MODTRAN , which you can google, shows CO2 buildup since 1600 AD has raised the temperature about 1/3 of a degree Fahrenheit. Past warm ups were not due to CO2 which leaves the sun Here is an example of a study of recent past temperatures and weather not due to man.

    As to temperatures currently, NOAA Star microwave data MSU/AMSU-A/SSU Global Mean Layer Temperature Anomaly Time Series shows the world is currently cooling since at least 1978, about 3 K. NOAA tidal data like Miami Relative Sea Level Trend 8723170 Miami Beach, Florida confirms essentially zero rise since about 1965-1970. That would seem to confirm at least in part the Star microwave data.

    The real problem is the exploding human population. That increase is simply being ignored.

    • jimbills Says:

      Terry, you’ve been informed that the Star data refers to the stratosphere, not the troposhere. Most humans and biological life exists in the troposhere, which is warming according to the same Star data:

      We tend to be a bit more concerned about that part. Ice melt in the arctic and antarctic does as well.

      Plenty of people, including myself, are worried about population growth. There was a whole big thing about it in the 70s in the U.S. with Paul Erhlich. You’re just using it as a straw man here.

  5. jimbills Says:

    I’m curious where we think we’ll get all this land to reforest. Most of the land that would grow trees is claimed – either privately or publicly. Most of the public lands are already forested, and most of the private lands are being used. Agriculture claims 44% of the U.S. land total:

    The U.S. is 1/3 forested, much of that on public land (not the best link, but it will do):

    Developed areas are 6% of our land mass. So, that’s 83% out, and a good bit of the Southwest U.S. is arid.

    I read the Guardian article, and it looks like the proposal essentially exchanges pasture land for forests – especially in the tropics, where we’re rapidly deforesting for pasture land. Ireland in the plan is earmarked for mostly forest, little pasture land – a reverse of what they currently are.

    That would have to be done on a global scale. The entire world would have to mostly give up meat and dairy (and the economics there) for new forest land. Sounds a bit ‘pie in the sky’. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do everything possible, but it’ll never happen realistically.

    • jerrydogood Says:

      Your comments are correct. A lot of the land cannot be turned into forest. Look at the eastern sea board, all those cities, farms and homes cannot be turned into tree land. We have cut down trees covering a whole lot of those states alone. That pasture land in say Brazil is keeping a whole lot of people alive who would object to starving to death to satisfy Al Gore. However, we do have a whole lot of forest land which is not actually forest, it is covered in brush, never having been actually replanted after fires and logging, hundreds of millions of acres here in the USA, 11 million acres in California alone. Those could be replanted. Slash and burn in the tropics could be turned around to cut and replant less land actually used for agriculture after logging. The trees would help even if not a solution for everything.

      • jimbills Says:

        An Al Gore hyperbole – original.

        I agree with part of your comment here – but for reference, 11 million acres is about 0.5% of U.S. land in the lower 48. Some of that is better used as fire breaks for future wildfires as well.

      • Can you cite maps of these brushy forest areas that could be replanted? It seems too simplistic. I suspect many of them are too dry to support adequate tree growth, and would have become tree farms (again) otherwise. You also have to account for new AGW drought patterns and fires that could keep razing new plantings. A tree in the dry Sierra foothills is in peril by default.

        So-called solutions to climate change also involve a lot of tree-clearing. I’m particular annoyed with the litany of “green” excuses for energy sprawl (primarily wind & solar) which is the biggest driver of “landscape change” now. Fracking is another big one but it’s restricted to fewer areas via geology, and trees can be restored later (if not the water). People pretend there’s “good” sprawl without studying unintended consequences, or just greenwashing them away.

        All of this competes directly with tree-planting efforts that already seem maximal in many regions. There’s always some “growing need” that involves man chipping away at nature, near or far. Getting population growth under control could solve multiple issues, but there’s little political will in growthist economies.

  6. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Never noticed, me culpa or how ever one spells it. Also shall stick to logic that new growth absorbs more carbon than old growth. MUCH MORE wood is created per year in the early years of growth. These links are lacking in quantitative numbers or time scales with the premise that old trees are worth keeping. They are, just not as good carbon sinks. It will be a damn shame when they burn down or die with much else on Earth A.

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      Above in response to DOG>

    • The logging angle that new growth makes a better carbon sink is one of the worst excuses I’ve seen, despite the evidence. It shouldn’t have to come to that. Oregon’s Stimson Lumber CEO is a big proponent of the ruse, masking general AGW-denial among loggers. Everything’s being done for human expedience and nature is just scattered parks and preserves.

      If the planet wasn’t so overdeveloped, species could ride out climate change (as they did in natural cases) with more viable places to migrate to. People are trying to save civilization, not nature itself.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      The “logic” you need to “stick to” revolves around the FACTS that not enough reforestation is taking place, DE-forestation is still rampant, and NOTHING to do with planting or not planting trees matters as long as we continue to burn huge quantities of fossil fuels—-GHG gasses continue to increase.

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        I am not talking about deforestation, I am talking about removing atmospheric carbon and storing it in wood! Sort of like the post. Take tree with sequestered carbon. Cut down and make stuff that maintains the store. Plant new tree (and as many more as possible, a trillion would be Nice) to store carbon like the old one. Repeat. It will not be quick enough to save Earth 1, but beats the hell out of energy gulping machine fantasies to remove CO2.

        Aside. A billion people each planting a thousand trees is a bit silly. There is however much land area available and resources allocated to planting would be well spent.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          WOULD be? Wake up and understand that it’s not happening. As far as “making stuff from wood with sequestered carbon”, it is now a big business to cut trees to make wood pellets to ship overseas to burn. Don’t forget that we are still cutting down rain forests in the Amazon, the Congo, and Indonesia to make way for palm oil plantations and cattle—–NOT carbon sinks.

          The ONLY solution would have been to NOT interfere with Nature’s way as we have done over the last 200 years and particularly the last 50, and that’s just not happening. All the brightsided BS in the world isn’t going to change that.

          • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

            Yes, yes and yes. Of course it is not happening, except in the negative, that’s the bluddy point! It WOULD WOULD Would be resources well spent to grow as many trees as possible.
            Yes and multiple yeses, deleting fossil fuels is the only silver bullet. All else is either minor positive or negative.
            Go throw rotten fruit at corporal bone spurs, make you feel better. Shall match each handful and target Morrison.

  7. The notion that there are plenty of sites left to plant all these trees is dubious, unless they’re to be planted amidst cities, or on diminished prairies (where they won’t naturally survive). Loggers are already mandated to replant forests which have long been tree farms, and they keep pressing into old growth stands as the population grows.

    There’s also a newer logging threat from industrial wind projects which require vast new road networks in semi-wilderness areas, including blasting & spearing miles of mountain ridges (e.g. Laurel Mountain, WV) with ugly machines of giant stature. For fire safety, wide clear-cuts around wind tower bases are maintained as long as the towers exist. Those trees can’t be replanted until the machines are removed or inactive, which isn’t part of the “green” plan. Most dead turbines have been replaced with bigger models or left to rust.

    Schemes like the Green New Deal want to built far more of these eyesores, despite no meaningful CO2-reduction thus far (e.g. Germany’s Energiewende gambit) so this “green” tree-removal will continue. Major environmental groups have sold out to Big Wind and offer useless disclaimers about “careful site selection” in a world of finite practical sites.


    The real problem is society’s vain attempt to prop up economic growth while barely questioning root problems of carrying-capacity overshoot and lack of global birth control. We can neither plant nor build our way out of Earth’s physical limits.

    • Also note that thousands of acres of trees have already been cleared for various solar projects, due the impracticality of putting panels solely on roofs or other man-made structures. Solar panels render land beneath them nearly useless for anything else.

      The Nature Conservancy is fully aware of energy sprawl but offers no real solutions except to claim that “greener pastures” to put it on will materialize somehow. They must know the planet is finite and sites are already contested. It’s tough being green these days when you’re forced to sell out to massive sprawl.

      Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, NJ cleared more than 16,000 trees for a solar project, drawing the ire of the Sierra Club, which has its own hypocritical pipe dream of “careful siting.”

      In the real world, people just keep destroying nature and tossing green slogans around.

  8. redskylite Says:

    Discover Magazine: We Can’t Just Plant Billions of Trees to Stop Climate Change

    “That’s not to say that reforestation is not an important mitigation strategy, just to caution that like every other climate solution, it’s part of a larger portfolio of strategies rather than a silver bullet,”

  9. redskylite Says:

    The Conversation: Climate change: having the right combination of tree ‘personalities’ could make forests more resilient

    “Every tree in a forest has a neighbour. In many forest neighbourhoods, the same species are often found living together, especially when the growing conditions are similar. Sometimes these neighbours are close and sometimes far apart, but collectively they form part of a community, with some species naturally being more dominant than others, especially in terms of biomass production. But what happens when the going gets tough? A drought is coming and there’ll be winners and losers.

    Droughts can be a big challenge for many trees, and one that is only going to get worse as the world shifts to a hotter, drier climate. Different species have different strategies for dealing with this kind of stress, but how they deal with losing water is particularly important.”

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