Welcome back, my newly minted tree connoisseurs. In my quest to answer a commonly asked question of why we can’t just plant trees to capture all the harmful carbon dioxide clogging up the atmosphere, the first issue in this series focused on explaining what the carbon cycle is, why it’s essential, and all of the glorious ways humanity has overloaded Earth’s natural systems to the point that we might end up fully breaking the scale. This article builds upon this knowledge by exploring conservation’s importance to protecting trees’ role as a carbon sink.
Many of us have heard the philosophical teaser: If a tree falls in the middle of a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
I am here to inform you that this question is meaningless. The more pressing concern should be the fact that that tree, loud or not, has now had its years of quiet, dedicated work storing carbon eviscerated. At that point, I feel like that tree deserves the emotional release of a good, full-bellied roar. It’s as if, after 142 years of building the Duomo in Florence, Italy, some random schmuck decided to Rambo the whole place to ashes.
Circling back to the plight of the commonly slain tree and the displaced carbon, birds, plants, insects, and animals that once made it their home, the damage may seem negligible when we focus on just one tree. However, one must take stock of forests’ large-scale impact as carbon sinks and guardians to biodiversity. Then, add into our analysis the current trends in global conservation efforts, and we can start to get a clearer picture of how much active tree storage we have left to work with and why it should be defended.
How Much Carbon Trees Capture
According to a 2021 study in Nature Climate Change, Earth’s forests absorb 16 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. When you subtract the impact of gross emissions from deforestation and degradation, their positive impact is halved to a net 7.6 billion tons.
One way to appreciate trees’ value is by understanding how much carbon a single tree can capture. This depends on its age, climate, forest, and soil type. For the most part, it takes a decade of maturation for tree species to begin storing carbon and become active participants in the carbon cycle. At that point, the amount of carbon dioxide a tree can absorb and store as carbon will grow each year with the tree. If an oak sapling was planted in 2011, it would only begin to have the capacity to store carbon this year and just 0.10 pounds worth at that. Only at 23 years old does it even reach a full 1 pound per year absorption rate. So, by 2050, that one oak tree will have stored a total of 17.95 pounds of carbon within itself, assuming it hasn’t been burned or chopped down for timber. Based on Statista’s data of carbon dioxide emissions per person in the US, the average American would have emitted approximately 547.78 metric tons in that time frame.
If we zoom out, a protected forest of lively, 50-year-old oaks can sequester 30,000 pounds of carbon per acre. So, while trees do store a lot of carbon, unfortunately, instant gratification was simply not included in their design. It takes time. Conserving a forest simply has a much greater positive impact than planting a forest.
The Importance of Tree Conservation
There’s a reason why the Amazon rainforest has been nicknamed “the lungs of the earth,” and it’s based more on science than romanticism. Like many other parts of the natural world, the Amazon was designed to absorb CO2 and act as a mighty yet humble carbon sink. It truly can’t be overstated how important it is for us to protect these lungs.
Conservation is the simplest variable to understand. Maintaining the carbon sinks we still have is crucial to species/biodiversity preservation and creating barriers to deforestation. There are many practical drivers for banning deforestation. Tree root systems help moderate flooding and prevent erosion because, unlike concrete, they strengthen the soil around them, allowing them to better absorb and redistribute high volumes of water, and withstand wind.
Biodiversity preservation is key to sustaining natural ecosystems that are critical to saving all life. We regularly take advantage of it to make critical scientific breakthroughs that directly affect modern medicine. Of the 3,000 plants the US National Cancer Institute has classified as having potential anti-cancer properties, 70% are endemic to the Amazon Rainforest. From aspirin to malaria cures, the medicinal benefits we receive from biodiversity can’t be stressed enough. Forests also serve as irreplaceable attractions that sustain many country’s tourism industries. Here in the US, we tangibly benefit from conservation efforts through the 423 bountiful national park sites that encompass 84 million acres of land.
However, these existing natural reserves can’t sustain biodiversity by themselves. Even with conservation efforts, those protected trees are just as vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change, and overall, protected areas only represent a tiny portion of existing forest biodiversity.
How to Measure Positive Impact
Some ways of comparing specific countries’ positive impacts on conservation are more effective than others. According to the World Resources Institute, the realms currently protecting the highest percentage of their forests are quite often the smaller countries of the world and/or are the countries that have much smaller areas of forest left. These top five percentage-wise countries are, in order, Cambodia, Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, and Slovakia.
On the other hand, the countries with the greatest quantities of protected forest area are those who naturally possess the largest amounts of forest. This metric is clearly the most important of the two when considering the total amounts of carbon dioxide being filtered out of the air by trees. The top five countries for the largest quantities of forest area protected are Brazil, Russia, Canada, the US, and Venezuela. Anyone relatively familiar with global news won’t need much explanation as to why this data is somewhat (wildly) ironic. However, we’ll get into this more in the fourth piece of this series on deforestation.
How Do We Protect Our Trees?
The easiest way to conserve trees is through legal protection, making government intervention key to protecting forests. This effort is monitored through the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), which was created by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Around one-fifth of the worlds’ forest area has some sort of legal protection carved into it with invisible lines. However, this doesn’t fully ensure that these areas are actively being protected.
On the ground, conservation takes many other interesting and fancy names. Improved Forest Management (IFM) involves delaying/avoiding harvesting timber and, overall, looking to improve the efficiency and productivity of forests. Nonprofits, such as Nature Conservancy, buy up vulnerable land so that loggers, commercial real estate, and other ambitious land clearing businesses cannot.
The preservation agenda has begun to morph into a profitable opportunity for businesses looking to offset their emissions. Offset credits (each of which equals one metric ton of carbon) have started to become a desirable currency for companies looking to show investors that they can achieve the in-vogue label of “carbon neutrality” and contribute to voluntary reduction goals. With bulging ESG funds and a need to negate without compromising on the emissions that they’ve labeled as unavoidable, investing in conservation is a relatively simple and effective way to earn offset credits and become a participant in our growing cap-and-trade systems.
This evolving market will continue to grow with legislation, active business participation, and the growing shift in consumer’s attention to the terror of a world on fire. Just as exciting are the new value chains growing from this fusion of our market values with climate activism/survivalism. The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental group, is already an instrumental key for many corporate giants to invest in carbon sinks. It enrolls landowners and utilizes its own preserved forests to create carbon offset projects for companies like JP Morgan and Disney to purchase credits from.
Small governments can find profit in these initiatives as well. BlackRock Inc. has directly paid the city of Albany, New York to preserve the forests around its reservoirs so that they wouldn’t be cut down. Walt Disney Co. has engaged in similar tree transactions to protect a forest surrounding a reservoir in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In general, Disney provides an excellent example of the complexities and issues that can arise from aggressive corporate conservation investments.
However, it should be noted that the carbon offset market is more like a sparkly Band-Aid than Neosporin. Paying a company to hold off on chopping down lumber doesn’t mean that the forest isn’t going to get cut down… just that they’re getting money to hold off for a bit. Unfortunately, mechanisms like cap and trade allow large companies to put off making meaningful, operational changes. While any significant investment that reduces our net emissions should be encouraged, it doesn’t, for example, discourage BP from drilling for oil like a rabid, juiced-up mole.
In case you missed the news, which would be entirely fair given the current state of global affairs, 2021 was the start of the UN’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The aim of this glamorous banner is to unite the world to protect and resuscitate Earth’s plethora of suffering ecosystems. Always timely, it’s expected to last until the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals deadline. Whether this measure will be wholly or marginally successful will depend on the (in)actions of the powerhouse countries who have the greatest ability to control the outcome– given their GDP, global influence, and willingness to conserve and restore their abundant natural resources.
Conservation, as we’ve seen, is vastly important. It takes much more time to break, remake, and then wait for the gains to hopefully reappear. Governments and businesses alike must adjust their definition of value so that the long-term benefits of our environmental impact weigh more heavily than the short-term cost of investment and a quick turnaround to profitability. Aggressively and heavily investing in protection, remediation, and mitigation initiatives will require the emotional maturity to accept that, much like a tree’s slow timeline to grow its carbon storage capacity, many of their benefits will not be ready to show off in next year’s investor’s meeting.
In the next part of this series of carbon capture via trees, we’ll look at the second key element to maintaining our trees’ role as a carbon sink: reforestation.
About The Author
Partner @ The Impact
Stephanie holds a BBA in Supply & Value Chain Management and in Entrepreneurship & Innovation from TCU (Go Frogs!!) and minored in both Energy and History because… why not. After a stint in LA working in lean manufacturing for a large industrial company, her most recent educational foray was as a part of the LEAP program at Boston University to explore the field of Material Science & Engineering. Stephanie’s most recent work has been volunteering with a small DAC startup in Reykjavik called Carbon Iceland. An aspiring tree hugger, she hopes to spend the rest of her career aiding the massive societal transition to cleaner industrial and business practices– ideally through work pertaining to carbon capture, sequestration, and the processes’ byproduct utilization to unite her love of science, sustainability, business, and supply chain. In her free time she enjoys both the American and English versions of football, growing her working knowledge of plant cultivation, and reading.