In October 2012, American scientist Klaus Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University, announced a novel way to solve the climate crisis.
Lackner had designed an artificial tree that passively soaks up carbon dioxide from the air using “leaves” that are 1,000 times more efficient than natural leaves that use photosynthesis. He announced that his “trees” could remove one tonne of carbon dioxide per day.
The carbon dioxide could then be converted to liquid fuels that could power transport, said Lackner.
Is it really necessary to turn to science for a solution to the growing carbon problem?
There is one naturally occurring solution readily available to us all, after all. And it doesn’t require resources or for us to produce carbon in order to create it. It is, of course, the tree.
Tree planting is being promoted by climate activists and scientists alike as an obvious solution to solving at least part of our climate crisis. Influential campaigner Greta Thunberg released a video with British campaigner George Monbiot last year to highlight the need for reforestation.
The approach Thunberg and Monbiot recommend is to protect, to restore and to fund.
At the moment, we’re doing really badly at protection. In September 2019, the world watched as Brazil’s rainforest suffered from unprecedented forest fires.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s response? To muddy the water by blaming environmental campaigners for the blazes – a patently false claim.
Now, we are witnessing a true tragedy raging through Australia’s wildfire season. Entire towns have been engulfed in flames and, in New South Wales, the country’s most populated state, more than 1,588 homes have been destroyed. At least 30 people have died. Furthermore, over 7.3 million hectares (17.9 million acres) of forest has been razed across Australia’s six states. This represents an area larger than the countries of Belgium and Denmark combined.
Entire ecosystems have been destroyed. One scientist has estimated that more than one billion animals have died as a result of the forest fires; some species may have been pushed to extinction.
These terrible events illustrate the difficulties of responding to climate change. For one, experts say that climate change has worsened the scope and impact of natural disasters like fires and floods, making disasters like this more likely.
Secondly, in the short term, the weather conditions are also making it much harder to control fires through the usual methods. Third, over the long-term, these fires underline just how difficult the strategy of responding to climate change with policies such as reforestation and tree planting will be if efforts are continually threated by extreme weather events.
However, it is therefore likely that such a response will get harder and harder to implement successfully as time goes on; another reason to act swiftly.
The science is clear. Monbiot states, “We now know that, alongside keeping fossil fuels in the ground, natural climate solutions – using the mass restoration of nature to draw down carbon from the air – offer perhaps the last remaining chance to prevent more than 1.5C, or even 2C, of global heating. Saving the remaining rainforests and other rich ecosystems, while restoring those we have lost, is not just a nice idea: our lives may depend on it.”
A recent Swiss study published in the journal Science concluded that planting 1.2 trillion trees worldwide could absorb and store an astonishing 205 gigatonnes. This would effectively remove two-thirds of all human-made carbon from the atmosphere, once those trees mature – reversing ten years of harmful emissions.
Creating such areas of forest would deliver other benefits too; improving soil quality (and further contributing to carbon capture), encouraging wildlife and helping to prevent flooding.
However, Monbiot suggests that tree planting might not be the answer. He says, “We urgently need more trees, but we appear to believe that the only means of restoring them is planting… In many places rewilding, or natural regeneration – allowing trees to seed and spread themselves – is much faster and more effective, and tends to produce far richer habitats.”
A multi-faceted approach is needed: a combination of natural rewilding, funded schemes for forest regeneration and tree planting, and sustainable forest management.
In their video, Monbiot and Thunberg encourage us all to vote for parties committed to protecting and developing our forests and wild places as well as joining and funding local organizations committed rewilding and tree planting.
Plus, of course, we can all make our own contribution and plant a tree.