45
$\begingroup$

According to Nasa, causes of the Earth's greenhouse effect include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and CFCs. Carbon dioxide gets the most press, and NASA's page says:

Carbon dioxide (CO2). A minor but very important component of the atmosphere, carbon dioxide is released through natural processes such as respiration and volcano eruptions and through human activities such as deforestation, land use changes, and burning fossil fuels. Humans have increased atmospheric CO2 concentration by a third since the Industrial Revolution began. This is the most important long-lived "forcing" of climate change.

An article by NC State University says that a healthy tree can store 13 pounds of carbon per year. As I understand it, carbon dioxide is processed by the tree: the carbon is stored, and the oxygen released.

Given that, how many trees would I need to plant to solve the global climate change crisis? Should I optimize for a specific type of tree, or would pine work as well as oak or black walnut?

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The only concern I would have with that approach is that it is trying to solve one particular issue by putting another type of stress on the environment (too may trees, especially if they are non-native and planted in high concentrations, isn't necessarily a good thing), so I am not sure that it would be the answer to the problem. $\endgroup$ – Isopycnal Oscillation Oct 16 '14 at 18:32
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ A lot. Even then, unless you harvested those trees, bound them down with lots of rocks, and then dropped the whole mess into the Mariana Trench, this would only be a stopgap measure. Wood-eating insects, bacteria, and fungi eventually release most of the carbon temporarily bound by trees back into the atmosphere. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Oct 16 '14 at 18:39
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Because trees release the carbon when they die, the relevant figure is not a number of trees, but a rate of planting - How many trees per year. Or, perhaps better, what area of new forest per year . I haven't done the maths, but I suspect you'd rapidly run out of planet... $\endgroup$ – Semidiurnal Simon Oct 16 '14 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ Wood. Wood is good. Furniture. Bridges. Buildings. Algae is pretty good at pulling carbon too I've heard, which has many uses. $\endgroup$ – farrenthorpe Dec 18 '14 at 2:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ if you cut the tree down and build something out of it then grow a new one it stores carbon, if you let it rot or burn it, it just releases it back into the atmosphere. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 16 '18 at 18:25
41
$\begingroup$

In 2010 anthropogenic emissions (not including land use change) were approximately 9167 million metric tonnes. Your data on trees holding 13 lbs (5.9 kg) of carbon per year equates to 169.6 trees per metric tonne of emissions.

So to take up all of the emissions from 2010 you would need 1,545,000,000,000 trees. A mature forest has only about 100 trees per acre (400 per hectare), so you would need 15,545,000,000 acres of mature forest. This equals an area of 24,290,000 mi2 (62,910,000 km2). This is approximately the land area of Asia, Europe, and Australia combined!
The surface area of land on the planet is about 150,000,000 km2, so in principle we would need to add cover onto 42% of the current land (or we could take soil from deep ocean floors to landfill 1/5th of the oceans!) in order to plant enough trees to solve the problem.

This also assumes that the 13 pounds (5.9 kg) of carbon figure is for mature forests, rather than for growing trees (see comments for further discussion). If this value is for young developing trees, it would indicate less be attainable in the longrun. If the 13 pounds is for a developed forest, perhaps a greater amount could be removed in early years as a temporary quicker fix.

There is also the problem that forested land is likely to have a lower albedo than the land surface that it covers, and hence the planet will reflect less sunlight back into space which would lead to some extra warming, so we would also need to compensate for that somehow. Apparently about 26% of Earth's land is already covered with forests. I rather doubt over half of the uncovered land surface is suitable for new forests, the continents have large bands either side of the equator that are generally too arid, and the regions close to the poles are too cold.

In short, it isn't going to work, even with the most generous assumptions about forest CO2 exchanges (unless of course I have made an arithmetic error, which is definitely a possibility).

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "The forest growth rate is too low. " evidence? "And Peatlands are allready filling 2/3 of the gap; " as far as I can see, the web page you cite does not support that conclusion, especially the part that starts ""Permafrost and steppe peatlands are already being impacted by climate change," $\endgroup$ – Dikran Marsupial Nov 17 '15 at 19:36
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @DikranMarsupial I tried to add more consistently SI units but I couldn't match them. Did you mix up mi² and km²? I end up with >100% forest cover. Also, this would be needed every year, no? $\endgroup$ – gerrit Aug 26 '17 at 11:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Please re-read this "so this equates to an area of 62,917,471 square miles (162,955,502 km²). The surface area of the land on the planet is 148,940,000 km2, so we could in principle solve the global warming problem by covering a bit of 42% of the Earths landmass with forests" $\endgroup$ – y chung Aug 27 '17 at 9:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ Dikran Marsupial the land area needed is greater than the total surface area on Earth based on the unit you provided. 162,955,502 km² > 148,940,000 km2 $\endgroup$ – y chung Aug 29 '17 at 13:28
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @JeopardyTempest great job! I didn't get that far in checking the maths, I just tried to divide mi2/km2 and got that 42% and assumed that was the case...so there is still hope...or maybe not ;) $\endgroup$ – clabacchio Nov 3 '17 at 13:48
6
$\begingroup$

This question is from 2014 with answers from 2015. Just to add the point of view of some research that has been done since.

In essence, new calculations show that NCS (natural climate solutions: a combination of land management, forestation, etc):

...can provide over one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilize warming to below 2 °C.

Source: Griscom et al (2017), Natural climate solutions, PNAS, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1710465114

However!

Turns out that trees, other than sequestering carbon, also emit volatile organic compounds (VOC) that act as greenhouse gases. Therefore, the answer isn't as simple as planting trees.

Quoting some recent articles on the subject:

Many scientists applaud the push for expanding forests, but some urge caution. They argue that forests have many more-complex and uncertain climate impacts than policymakers, environmentalists and even some scientists acknowledge. Although trees cool the globe by taking up carbon through photosynthesis, they also emit a complex potpourri of chemicals, some of which warm the planet. The dark leaves of trees can also raise temperatures by absorbing sunlight. Several analyses in the past few years suggest that these warming effects from forests could partially or fully offset their cooling ability.

Source: Gabriel Popkin (2019), How much can forests fight climate change?, Nature, http://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-00122-z

and

That doesn’t mean that all forests cool the planet, however. Researchers have known for decades that tree leaves absorb more sunlight than do other types of land cover, such as fields or bare ground. Forests can reduce Earth’s surface albedo, meaning that the planet reflects less incoming sunlight back into space, leading to warming. This effect is especially pronounced at higher latitudes and in mountainous or dry regions, where slower-growing coniferous trees with dark leaves cover light-coloured ground or snow that would otherwise reflect sunlight. Most scientists agree, however, that tropical forests are clear climate coolers: trees there grow relatively fast and transpire massive amounts of water that forms clouds, two effects that help to cool the climate.

Source: Gabriel Popkin (2019)

and

Atmospheric chemist Nadine Unger, then at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, conducted one of the first global studies examining one part of this exchange: the influence of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, emitted by trees. These include isoprene, a small hydrocarbon that can warm the globe in several ways. It can react with nitrogen oxides in the air to form ozone — a potent climate-warming gas when it resides in the lower atmosphere. Isoprene can also lengthen the lifetime of atmospheric methane — another greenhouse gas. Yet isoprene can have a cooling influence, too, by helping to produce aerosol particles that block incoming sunlight.

Source: Gabriel Popkin (2019)

and

Plants take up carbon dioxide and release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), in a similar way to how other organisms breathe in oxygen and exhale CO2. These VOCs are oxidized in the atmosphere and then contribute substantially to the burden of tiny particles suspended in the air, which are known as aerosols. Aerosols produced from VOCs are known as secondary organic aerosols (SOAs), and affect both air quality and Earth’s climate. The total rate of SOA production was thought to be the sum of the individual rates associated with the oxidation of each VOC. But writing in Nature, McFiggans et al.1 show that a more accurate description is needed to improve the representation of SOAs in computational models of air quality and climate.

Fangqun Yu (2019), Atmospheric reaction networks affecting climate are more complex than was thought, Nature, https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-00263-1

Sources of the articles:

one; two; three

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

How about tell the forest service to stop cutting down trees. If you look on google earth, giant sections of land have been turned into a weird checker pattern due to the forest service clearing the forest to prevent fires.

From the recent fires this year, I have observed that this has almost no impact on how a fire spreads.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ excellent point, the estimate I gave in my answer doesn't include the anthropogenic emissions from land use change (e.g. deforestation), but that is also a pretty substantial amount. IIRC it wasn't until the 50s or 60s that fossil fuel emissions began to exceed emissions from land use change, which puts it into context. $\endgroup$ – Dikran Marsupial Oct 20 '14 at 11:20
  • $\begingroup$ The checker pattern is not likely to be `to prevent forest fires', but harvesting the trees for money. $\endgroup$ – cphlewis Apr 26 '15 at 18:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ But you need to cut down the trees to improve the growth of the forest. The wood must just be used for something else than burning. $\endgroup$ – Jokela Nov 18 '15 at 10:26
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ checker patterns are usually due to logging or land clearing... not the forest service. The forest service burns understory and downed/dead debris. $\endgroup$ – farrenthorpe Aug 27 '17 at 0:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ -1 as this doesn't answer the question $\endgroup$ – cr0 Dec 24 '18 at 8:13
0
$\begingroup$

At our current rate of global emissions - around 10 billion tonnes per year, PWC's 2013 report estimated that we will exceed the "safe" limit of 2 degrees warming by 2034. Trees planted in tropical areas sequester an average of 22.6 Kg of carbon per annum. NASA estimates that there are currently 400 billion trees globally. The addition of just 7 billion trees (one for every person on Earth) would therefore give us a further 16 years of safe climate at our current rate of emissions. During this time one would hope we will be able to increase renewable energy use, energy efficiency etc so as to reduce our current emissions to sustainable levels. 7 billion is vastly less than the 1,555 billion quoted above and could make all the difference.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I don't think your numbers are quite correct. Trees can absorb 22.6 KG of CO2, not Carbon - source: americanforests.org/discover-forests/tree-facts or 48 lbs in the article I posted, while growing. That's a bit under 6.2 KGs of Carbon. 7 billion trees x 6.2 KGs = 43.4 billion KG or about 48 million tons of carbon. I don't know how a 0.48% reduction would buy 16 years, but that seems to be what you're suggesting, unless I got my numbers wrong. $\endgroup$ – userLTK Apr 26 '15 at 20:52
0
$\begingroup$

Question; Given that, how many trees would I need to plant to solve the global climate change crisis? Should I optimize for a specific type of tree, or would pine work as well as oak or black walnut?

First, You need to think it as a Forest. As in forest there is also tree's which loose the game of Evolution, and trees which wins.

Second, you need to look where (climate) your forest is, and what's it's soil. This defines the tree type.

Third, you need to cut your forest on time to optimize it's growth rate. 26 years is optimum, but if 4 times in century is easy to remember.

This way you can reach growth rates like 4.8 tn/ha Year in Finnland. Or
5.16 tons/acre/year in USA. I am not sure about the unit used in this source, but if their ton is 907 kg's and acre is 4046.85 m2 this makes 11.56 tn/ha/ year.

If the used carbon amount is $9.2 x10^9$ tons, and half of wood weight is carbon then you need $1.6 x10^9$ ha or 16 000 000 km2 of Forest.

There is 39 500 000 km2 Forest in the world. If 40 % of it is used optimally, it's enough at present rates. The CO2 is not a problem; the Population growth is.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ So what do you do with the wood once harvested to prevent the carbon returning to the atmosphere? $\endgroup$ – Dikran Marsupial Nov 20 '15 at 9:26
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It is only in balance as long as the carbon doesn't get back to the atmosphere. You are forgetting that if you allow the wood to decay or be burnt then that represents an increase in emissions into the atmosphere and the system is no longer in balance. $\endgroup$ – Dikran Marsupial Nov 20 '15 at 9:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JokelaTurbine You are making an elementary error by ignoring that fact that it is the difference between total uptake and total emissions that govern atmospheric concentrations. Anthropogenic emissions are large compared with the difference in natural emissions and natural uptake. If you use forresting to take CO2 out of the atmosphere, but then burn the wood, it is releasing all the carbon back into the atmosphere that was taken out by photosynthesis, and thus has no effect on the balance of emissions and uptake, and hence won't solve anything. $\endgroup$ – Dikran Marsupial Nov 20 '15 at 10:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "I do not practice evangelism" " my right to not pay to your church." it is a shame that discussions of climate so rapidly decay into this sort of rhetoric. I have pointed out the error in your accounting of carbon fluxes, and you have not addressed it. $\endgroup$ – Dikran Marsupial Nov 20 '15 at 13:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JokelaTurbine where the carbon is located in the world and how much carbon is in the atmosphere are two entirely different questions. Dikran Marsupial's point is straight forward and your answer is lacking for not addressing it. Forests take CO2 out of the atmosphere but also return CO2 to the Atmosphere. The rate of tree growth isn't important. It's the carbon storage that's important. If the trees are cut down every 25 years, you need to account for what happens after they are cut down. By not doing so, you're not answering the question. $\endgroup$ – userLTK May 12 '16 at 8:54

protected by Community Feb 17 '18 at 17:05

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.