Experts: Plant a trillion trees to save the future from climate change
FRISCO — Want to save the world from climate change? Planting a trillion trees is a good start.
This was one of the takeaways from the Summit County Forest Health Task Force’s monthly meeting Wednesday, Aug. 21. This month’s topic was carbon sequestration, the process by which plants and trees capture carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and store it in their leaves, bark, trunks and roots.
Carbon sequestration is seen as one of the few surefire ways to rein in carbon dioxide, the most commonly produced greenhouse gas absorbing and trapping solar energy in the atmosphere. However, the process by which it works is complex.
Presenting on the topic were Michael Ryan, a volunteer research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, and Mike Smith, founder and managing partner of Denver-based company RenewWest, a firm looking to encourage forest regeneration through the use of carbon markets.
Ryan spent his portion of the presentation going over some fundamental “need to knows” about the carbon cycle — the multifaceted process by which carbon is exchanged between the air, land and water through biological, geological and chemical processes.
Growing forests are considered “carbon sinks,” places where carbon is absorbed and stored. Much like a water reservoir, forests are vast storage areas that can store carbon in trees or in the soil. America’s forests offset about 10% to 20% of the nation’s fossil fuel emissions each year.
But just like a dam failure causes a reservoir to lose all the water it stores, a wildfire can destroy a forest and release the bank of carbon it kept out of the atmosphere for decades or centuries.
When a forest burns, the carbon it stores gets released as carbon dioxide in smoke, while all the minerals remain behind as ash. And aside from losing the stored carbon, there is also an equal loss of continued oxygen generation. The carbon dioxide problem compounds itself, giving rise to warmer temperatures and more forest fires.
“From the carbon perspective, when a forest burns down, it takes a little over 100 years to recover the carbon that was stored there before the fire,” Ryan said.
Also important, Ryan said, is that younger forests have a higher rate of carbon absorption than old forests. Trees only grow a certain amount before growth slows, at which point they become more inefficient at absorbing carbon.
“Old forests have a lot of stocks, but their rate of storage is low. Young forests don’t have as much stock, but their rate of storage is high,” Ryan said.
That means planting new forests is the most effective way to pull in carbon faster, aside from rebuilding forests after they are destroyed by fire. Ryan also said that large, contiguous forest create more stable, efficient carbon sinks than patchwork forest or individual trees planted in clusters.
So we need to plant more trees. But how many is enough? And with cuts to the federal Forest Service budget, how can the free market be motivated to take on reforestation as a profitable venture?
Smith, who served in the U.S. Navy as a fighter pilot flying F-18s before going into the private sector, has been focusing on solving those problems with his company, RenewWest. Smith’s company has been seeking partners and investors who can see forest planting and carbon markets as investments with high returns and not just as public necessity.
Smith said there is no one-size-fits-all solution for forest management in Colorado or across the nation. Some areas need trees thinned to prevent more forest fire and carbon release, while other areas are perfectly suited for planting new forest. Overall, there needs to be a huge net gain in trees, and there’s plenty of room to plant them.
“If we were to focus just on Colorado, there’s something like 750,000 acres where forests could exist, even more after wildfires,” Smith said. “If we were to even plant 150 trees per acre, that would be room for about 112 million trees that we can plant in Colorado alone.”
American Forests, the nation’s first and oldest forest conservation nonprofit, has drawn up legislation calling for the U.S. to plant 16 billion trees across the country by 2050 to close the gap on carbon emissions.
A research study conducted by ecologist Thomas Crowther and colleagues at Swiss university ETC Zurich found that planting 1.2 trillion trees across 3.5 million square miles of available space across the planet could reduce a decade’s worth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
That would transfer 25% of the carbon in the air to trees on the ground, and lower atmospheric carbon dioxide totals to levels not seen in nearly a century, according to the study.
That is a very large number of trees. For reference, it is estimated that there are about 3 trillion trees on the planet. But with the extreme weather events already taking place because of climate change, Smith is confident the public and the market will start seeing more benefit from trees than the already critical role they play in keeping us alive.
But whatever direction we take, the plan we come up with has to be a long-term one, he said.
“We need to manage forests for the next hundred years, and that’s going to have a different management focus than we’ve had for the past 10 to 20 years,” Smith said, adding that the type of trees we plant need to be suited for the climate a hundred years from now.
Speaking to the unprecedented forest fires in the Amazon rainforest in South America, Smith said it was a manmade disaster of dire proportions that should turn our focus back to the trees.
“It’s not uncontrolled burning; it’s encouraged burning,” Smith said in a nod to anti-environment policies instituted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsinaro, policies blamed for carefree burning by ranchers looking to create more cattle-grazing land.
“It is an absolutely critical tropical rainforest, one that is vital for our climate future. The burning just can’t be allowed to continue. There is no climate future without us getting on top of this.”
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