How Planting A Tree Can Reduce You Carbon Footprint

Ever wonder about how planting a tree can reduce your carbon footprint?
We can all remember the joy of playing in the woods as kids. It was one of the only chances we had to escape the attentive eyes of our parents and truly be free, as we pretended to be adventurers or explorers, fighting evil villains and discovering unknown treasures. Who would have thought that these trees would be so controversial in the 21st century, as many sites offer carbon footprint offsetting by buying trees.

Trees perform what’s called carbon sequestration, which is a fancy word for what we all learned in our middle-school Earth Science classes. It’s the basic process by which plants take carbon out of the air and use photosynthesis to convert it into carbohydrates to fuel their growth. You may have also heard the word “carbon sink” in reference to trees, which describes how trees store carbon in the form of cellulose. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and use it to sustain themselves, creating oxygen as a byproduct.

Currently, trees are critical for reducing our carbon footprints, as about 18 percent of carbon emissions are absorbed by existing forests every year. From 1952-1992, American forests were able to offset 25 percent of America’s carbon output while simultaneously housing a plethora of animals and beautifying our country. Here’s a great site for other statistics on trees as well (Tree Statistics).

However, most environmentally-conscious citizens can’t accept stats at face value. One of the wonderful things about numbers is that you can manipulate them to prove almost anything. One plus one doesn’t always equal two in the hands of a data analyst or astute statistician. Pine trees are some of the best carbon sinks in the world, and it takes six pine trees, with 25-year life spans each, to absorb one ton of carbon.  You can easily produce much more than this just driving around town in one year.

You are probably thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot! I should buy a tree right now and offset the destruction my Hummer is wreaking upon the environment.” The problem is that the average person in an industrialized country will create 26 tons of carbon a year. In essence, you’d have to plant 6 trees x 26 tons of carbon (or 156 trees) every year to do any good. These trees would also have to live for 25 years each to achieve the carbon absorption needed to offset your carbon footprint.

What’s more, many of the offsetting carbon sites that allow you to buy trees, plant them in Third World countries where policies and governments are unstable, so it’s questionable whether the trees will be given time to grow, or whether the land they are on will be reclaimed or damaged. The bottom line is, as Americans we need to stop looking for a quick fix to environmental problems. The tree-offsetting sites are often doing us a disservice by making it seem like a couple of trees can fix the damage being done to the environment. According to the U.S. Census, 300 million people live in this country. If each person in America planted 150 trees to offset their carbon outputs, it would require over 64,000,000 acres of land to be planted with trees that couldn’t be touched for 25 years. This means that in three years, Texas would be completely supplanted with trees.

My point is not to discourage people from planting trees but to make everyone aware that we can’t expect to offset our carbon output with trees alone. Unfortunately, tree planting is not a sustainable way to totally offset your carbon footprint. However, there’s some light at the end of this tunnel, as trees can help the environment in substantial ways, and everyone should consider planting a tree for a variety of reasons. Unlike many environmental decisions in which you are taking two steps forward while still taking a step back, planting trees is a clear step forward.

Check out our post on tree planting tips (Is Planting a Tree Difficult?) to see why every family should plant a tree for the tangible results they will get. Trees are absolutely critical to reducing the greenhouse effect, we just need to remember that they are not the total answer to saving the environment, but rather one important step we can collectively take to change the way we live.

A few recommended books and tree gators to help you do it right.

How To Plant Trees, Step By Step Guide To Planting Trees or Eating Dirt: Deep Forests or Treegator Original 15-Gallon Slow Release Watering Bag for Trees or Cove Four TRCR4 TreeCOVEr 15-Gallon Slow Release Tree Watering Bag

Our editors suggestions on a few more thought-provoking Green Blizzard articles that you may find useful in reducing your carbon footprint:  Cozy Winter Fires – Carbon Impact,  Houseplants Purify Your Air, and Green Cleaning Products.


About the author

John R. Garnet

John's work in the energy market fostered his interest in the environment. He recently completed his graduate work at George Mason University, But more interestingly, John has a passion for food and cooking and to provides some light-hearted tips to make people's lives greener while enjoy the good life with everyday practical tips from brewing tea, growing basil, or drinking raw milk.