Trees, our Home-grown Carbon Offsets

by Carl Duivenvoorden ( Carl is one of 22 Atlantic Canadians trained by Al Gore to deliver presentations of 'An Inconvenient Truth.' His column runs every other Monday in the Telegraph Journal.

Two years ago, Richard Branson, the colourful entrepreneur behind the Virgin empire of companies, made headlines by offering $25 million to whoever could come up with a way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I don’t think it’ll get me the prize, but I’d humbly suggest that such a device already exists. It’s called a tree.

Through an incredible natural process called photosynthesis, trees sponge carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into plant sugars. In fact, most plants and algae do. Basically, any living thing that’s green is inhaling CO2 – so it’s an ally in combating global warming. Trees absorb more CO2 than most plants, so they are especially important.

The carbon cycle

To understand why trees matter so much in the fight against climate change, it’s helpful to understand the carbon cycle – something that might be vaguely familiar from high school biology. The carbon cycle is that global process whereby carbon is continuously being emitted up into our atmosphere, and continuously being recaptured back.

In the natural world, CO2 is produced when anything rots or is burned. It’s also produced by animals (including humans) when they exhale. On the other side of the cycle, CO2 is absorbed back mostly by green plants and algae.

An equation under pressure

Historically, the amount of carbon dioxide produced globally has been almost perfectly offset by the amount absorbed back. In other words, the equation has been balanced and the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has remained relatively constant. But lately that balance is being undermined – from both sides of the equation.

Through our use of fossil fuels – oil, coal and natural gas – we humans are digging up and burning carbon that has been locked up outside the natural cycle for millions of years. So more carbon dioxide is being put into the atmosphere than ever before.

And at the same time, the food and energy needs of a growing population are causing massive deforestation: removal of the very plants that sponge CO2 back out of the air. Over 25,000 square kilometres of rainforest were destroyed in Brazil alone in 2005 – in just one year, an area equal to more than one third of New Brunswick. So less carbon dioxide is being absorbed back.

It doesn’t take a math wizard to figure out what that leads to. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising steadily, a trend that has accelerated in recent years because of increased fossil fuel use and increased deforestation. And higher levels of CO2 mean a warmer planet.

What to do

To solve our climate crisis, we need to bring the carbon cycle back into balance. On the emissions side, that means using less fossil fuel (and the best ways are by driving less and using less electricity).
And with a few simple actions, we can make a difference on the absorption side of the equation too:

  1. Help preserve rainforests by making the Rainforest Site ( your internet default page. With just a simple click each day, you can preserve a square meter of rainforest – paid for by site sponsors and advertisers. Many clicks add up, and saving the planet doesn’t get any easier!
  2. Plant a tree: it will sponge back about a tonne of CO2 over its lifetime. Roadsides and forest floors are loaded with free seedlings just yearning to be transplanted, and this is the perfect time of year to do it. If you need inspiration, consider this: a special reforestation project in Peru planted 40 million trees earlier this year; they’ll remove over half a million tonnes of CO2 from the air annually.
  3. If you send cards to family and friends, check out Carbon-Free Cards at Developed by Phil Riebel of Miramichi, the cards are beautiful – but perhaps the best part is that one tree is planted for every card sold (and they cost no more than brand name cards.)
  4. Save a tree by using less paper, and make sure the paper you do use is recycled, preferably 100% post-consumer.

The bad news about planting a tree is that it may not win you Virgin’s prize. The good news is that it’s one of the best things you can do to help bring Earth’s carbon cycle back into balance. May – the month of returning life – is the perfect time to do it.