Reducing carbon emissions from the atmosphere is agreeably one of the most important things we should do to stop the catastrophic consequences of climate change. Technologies are being tested to see which approach would reduce carbon emissions drastically enough to stop the Earth from overheating. But, low-tech measures like planting more trees remain amongst the most effective ways to tackle this problem.
Trees are some of the most effective carbon traps on the planet. Planting more of them can help with climate change mitigation.
How exactly do trees help with carbon sequestration?
Let's find out!
What Is Carbon Sequestration?
Carbon sequestration is the process in which carbon dioxide - one of the most common greenhouse gases - is captured and stored in geologic and biologic elements. According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2018 there were 5.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted in the atmosphere by the US alone, mostly through fossil fuel combustion.
It takes an immense effort to retain a significant part of carbon dioxide and trap it. We, humans, can sequester carbon through geoengineering. The captured CO2 is compressed until it has a liquid form. Then it's injected in an underground medium for long-term entrapment. These practices can reduce CO2 emissions from power plants by 80-90%.
Carbon dioxide is also stored naturally by vegetation, soil, woody products, and aquatic environments. Forests are the most efficient carbon sinks. Exploiting their potential to entrap CO2 from the atmosphere is our best chance to slow down global warming. North American forests, for example, are critical for the world’s carbon cycle, covering about 771 million hectares, roughly 20% of the total world forests.
How Can a Tree Help in Carbon Sequestration?
Trees can contribute to slowing down global warming by capturing and storing the CO2 in the atmosphere. Forests constantly exchange chemical elements with the atmosphere during the processes of photosynthesis and transpiration.
Trees, like all plants, are capable of storing the carbon extracted from CO2 in the form of sugars through the process of photosynthesis. This contributes to tree growth.
A tree captures a gaseous pollutant from the atmosphere and releases oxygen back into the ecosystem. That makes them crucial for the entire planet as they basically sustain life on Earth.
Since the amounts of pollutants released in the atmosphere have increased exponentially with the rise of industrialism, we humans have a lot of mistakes to fix. Human intervention is needed to repair decades of damage from fossil fuel burning and reckless deforestations.
What Are the Best Trees for Carbon Sequestration?
We need to take various factors into account when deciding what trees to plant with the purpose of carbon capturing. The best trees for carbon sequestration are fast-growing, long-lived and big. Some of these species include:
- Yellow poplar;
- Silver Maple;
- Pine trees;
- London plane;
- Red mulberry;
These are trees that are suitable in North American habitats and can easily adapt to the climate as they don't need much maintenance. Choosing a fast-growing tree species that is expected to reach a big size is not enough for planting a sustainable forest. Mixing tree species and letting them be surrounded by other plants too is a better approach since it replicates the complexity of a naturally occurring forest.
In the global context of carbon sequestration, the most efficient trees are the ones in tropical rainforests. This is why a lot of environmental efforts are directed towards the Amazon and other tropical areas. Trees in a rainforest grow to be huge, they have the perfect conditions to grow fast and the exchange of gases, moisture and chemical compounds with the atmosphere is done in large proportions.
Unfortunately, the stored carbon can potentially get back into the atmosphere when wildfires occur, as we, unfortunately, witnessed in 2019. This is why it’s extremely important to not only plant new forests but to also protect the existing ones.
How to Calculate Carbon Sequestration in Plants
A carbon sequestration credits program was created to encourage farmers to contribute to the effort against climate change. Participating landowners are committing to a long-term program in which they use their land to plant trees, receiving credits in exchange for their “product”: carbon sequestration.
This program shows us how we can quantify carbon sequestration, calculating the carbon-storing capacity of certain species, types of lands, and so on. Planting perennial grasses or practicing agroforestry by planting trees on your land are viable ways of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The factors that influence a plant’s capacity for sequestering carbon include:
- The growth rate of the plant;
- The density of the plant;
- The size of the plant;
The sequestering capacity of trees is calculated based on the tree’s dry mass, age and growth speed. As shown above, fast-growing trees are more efficient at storing carbon from the atmosphere, since they are efficiently transforming carbon dioxide in stable biomass.
When it comes to carbon sequestration, grass vs trees is an ongoing dilemma. There are sources that indicate a better efficiency of grasslands compared to forests since the carbon is stored in the soil, rather than in woody products which can rapidly catch on fire and release the CO2 back in the atmosphere. But deciding which plants should occupy a terrain should be done by taking into account the natural ecosystem and biodiversity in the area, and the sustainability of a man-assisted biome.
Plant a Tree
If you are interested in using trees as carbon sinks, you can also contribute to the global effort of slowing down global warming.
Do your part by donating to companies that do reforestation in tropical regions, by using your farming land to get carbon sequestration credits, or by simply planting a tree from a local species in your own backyard.
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