No world-altering event such as war, famine, or economic recessions in the past century has had as much of an impact of CO2 emissions as COVID-19, and the pandemic has only been here a few months. Indications are that we are currently living through an unrivaled drop in carbon output, however even though we will see a massive fall in 2020, the concentrations of CO2 that are in the atmosphere and warming of our planet won't stabilize until the world reaches net-zero.
We are in unprecedented times with countless businesses both large and small closing its doors, unemployment at its highest rate since The Great Depression, and citizens across the country and world in desperation mode in regards to food and finances. While COVID-19 continues to be the most important story in our lives, and rightfully so, it’s worth discussing air quality, carbon emissions, and emphasizing sustainable cities and societies moving forward.
In 2019, global carbon emissions hit an all-time high. The first three months of 2020 set a new emissions record, an unbroken streak of personal bests since the early 1700s. According to a new report from the Global Carbon Project, total carbon emissions from all human activities, including industrial activities, burning fossil fuels, and agriculture and land use, will likely cap off at nearly 43.1 billion tons. That’s a shade over six semi trucks full of coal for every living person on earth. In our air.
In a short automated tweet from an atmospheric sensor on Mauna Loa in mid 2019, CO2 concentrations passed 415ppm, the first time in millions of years levels of the greenhouse gas have been this high. But 415 ppm means there is just one CO2 molecule for every 2,400 nitrogen, oxygen, or argon molecules in the air around us, and it is never efficient to find and capture CO2 at scale once it is released.
To create sustainable cities and societies, we need to focus not just on clean energy, but on efficiency, and where sequestering atmospheric carbon is required, there are few carbon capture devices more efficient and low-tech than a tree: Two tons of carbon atoms pulling water efficiently from underground, lowering surface temperatures, and removing nitrogen dioxide and particulates from the air. It is intuitive to think that a tree gets most of its mass from the soil, but just like giant elms or oaks or redwoods do not stand in craters, in fact the majority of a tree is air. Remove the water and the majority of what's left is carbon atoms. In essence, a tree is just a harmful greenhouse gas capturing more greenhouse gases.
Want some more good news? Since photosynthesis is responsible for carbon dioxide being the source of those carbon atoms, a molecular weight calculation for both of 12/44 gives us the total carbon dioxide required to produce a two ton tree: 7 metric tons of CO2. In other words, if the average tree sequesters two tons of carbon, it sequesters an extraordinary seven metric tons of CO2, and we need to plant around 5 billion trees per year -- one for every person over the age of 18 on earth.
There are countless advocates every day pleading for worldwide governments to take climate change seriously, that the time is now to act before it’s too late. But are all of these tree planting initiatives feasible? As a recent Fast Company article stated, this is only one part of the solution to climate change. The piece states ‘some scientists have argued that mass tree-planting and conservation is a dangerous diversion if it means that countries aren’t steeply reducing emissions from fossil fuels, the biggest lever in addressing the problem. But the truth is, doing it at the scale of a trillion trees by 2050 as recent Republican lawmakers have recently brought the table, will be very hard to pull off.’
That being said, anyone who thinks we are currently doing enough to stop Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions hasn’t been paying attention. I recently read an article in National Geographic discussing how planting trees can go a long way in terms of reducing carbon dioxide worldwide. The article states ‘an area the size of the United States could be restored as forests with the potential of erasing nearly 100 years of carbon emissions’.
I was eight years old when I planted my first tree and I helped my two young daughters plant their first trees recently. Trees are one of the most, if not the most efficient carbon-capture organisms on Earth. Through photosynthesis, they absorb carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that traps heat in the environment, and turn that into energy.
Tree planting is a solution that doesn’t require world leaders to start believing in climate change. It is an initiative that is available NOW, is inexpensive, and every single person can easily get involved. Every single one of us can make a tangible difference today. Plant a tree or two in your yard. Buy tree saplings as gifts for your friends and family. Donate what you can to organizations such as One Tree Planted or the Plant A Billion Trees campaign. Every tree provides tremendous benefits to the environment and will help fight climate change. It’s time for all of us to step up and set an example.
"A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people." – Franklin D. Roosevelt