Back to the Trees

Should we bring back the trees or choke off economic growth?

Posted Sep 11, 2019

After many false starts, environmentalism has finally come up with at least one practical remedy for climate change: to restore forests that are the best-known way of sequestering carbon from the air so that the existing forests of North America act as a carbon sink that reduces greenhouse gases and global warming.

Failed “Solutions”

In an earlier post, I pointed out that environmentalism has many of the characteristics of a religion. In particular, many practices that are widely accepted as solutions to carbon pollution do not stand up to close scrutiny but are accepted like religious dogmas.

The sacred cows of environmentalism include recycling, alternative energy, and electric cars. To date, these have not produced significant carbon abatement and they may be harmful.

The two big sources of carbon pollution are the Industrial Revolution and cutting down large areas of trees that function as a carbon sink. So the simplest logical solutions are reforestation and cutting economic activity and consumption.

Few have seriously addressed the primary cause of climate change that is out-of-control economic growth and the acceleration of individual consumption with which this is associated. Most of the proposed measures are thus mere band-aids.

Now, some scientists are seriously considering the possibility of reforestation as a key strategy in addressing climate change.

Trees were cut down in large numbers to fuel homes and the problem was aggravated by population increases accompanying both the agricultural revolution and the Industrial Revolution. So both of the primary causes of carbon pollution are associated with the loss of trees. Restoring forests must be part of any credible solution.

Back to the Trees

This option is supported by research from the Crowther Institute. The researchers estimate that increasing the amount of land in forest could reduce the global carbon footprint of human activities by about two-thirds.

This involves a huge land area of some 900 million hectares and that number refers to land identified as suitable for growing trees.

Of course, there are many political problems. After all, one of the main reasons that we are in this mess to begin with is the commercial exploitation of trees. As it is, governments of Brazil and Indonesia seem incapable of halting the commercial destruction of environmentally valuable ecosystems such as rain forests. However, some countries, including, Costa Rico and China, have demonstrated that substantial reforestation is indeed possible.

Moreover, much of the land area identified by the Crowther study is inhabited by indigenous people, raising the specter of forced removals in the interest of carbon mitigation

Then there is the enormous expense associated with such a large-scale project that would also require the cooperation of many countries in some sort of climate accord specifically for trees. Reforestation would take several decades as tree plantations matured. Plantations are also more vulnerable to fires than natural forests because they contain more tinder.

Isn't there something easier?

Vegetarianism

Other approaches to carbon reduction have been embraced warmly by the public but seem substantially less effective. One is the replacement of animal-based food with plant-based food that has a smaller carbon footprint.

Animal agriculture produces about 8 percent of U.S. carbon emissions. Plant-based agriculture also has a substantial carbon footprint so that replacing all meat with vegetable food could reduce only about 3.3 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S.

This may be worth doing but it is far from being a game-changer. Assuming that the global community gets on board with replacing trees, how might this be done? How could individuals get involved?

How to Plant More Trees

China is currently the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, but it is also a leader in reforestation. Of course, much can be done in a totalitarian regime that would be more difficult in democratic societies. In particular, every student over the age of 11 is tasked with planting a tree every year. This would clearly be a good idea even if it were done on a voluntary basis using publicly-provided resources.

We can also look to Costa Rica, a democratic country that has increased forests by some 30 percent, edging out China's achievement.

Reforestation is the best way of being kind to the planet that sustains us, but it ignores the real cause of climate change, namely, a lifestyle of accelerating consumption that takes priority over all environmental solutions to the problems it causes.

The Fundamental Solution Is Reducing Consumption

Every solution proposed is carefully articulated to protect economic growth. Yet, economic growth beginning with the Industrial Revolution is the key reason that we are in the current mess.

It follows that the best way of reducing climate change is to reduce economic growth specifically by reducing consumption.

There are two ways to reduce consumption. The first is to reduce population, something that happens spontaneously in developed countries, but this will not happen globally for around 75 years.

The second way is to reduce individual consumption by leading a more environmentally responsible lifestyle. This would involve less travel by air or land, smaller homes, and less consumption of all goods. In other words, it would mean slower economic growth, or negative growth.

It is preposterous that entrepreneurs like Elon Musk can sell luxury vehicles as a solution to climate change. These vehicles are a luxury, and expensive, precisely because their manufacture requires a great deal of energy expenditure—it is a given that money spent is almost always an accurate predictor of energy consumption and carbon footprint.

Rich people always have a larger carbon footprint than the poor because wealth facilitates consumption whether it be through the use of larger cars and homes, more frequent foreign travel, or more unrestrained shopping.

Instead of admiring the wealthy for their success, we need to begin admiring those with a more modest lifestyle whose restraint helps the planet even as it hurts the economy.