If there’s one climate-change solution everybody seems to agree on, it’s that trees are good. Even Donald Trump, who has called climate change a Chinese hoax, has proposed planting a trillion trees.
So it might seem that the holiday tradition of chopping down one of these precious planet-savers and dragging it into your living room to festoon with lights and ornaments, only to toss it on the curb a few weeks later, would be bad for the climate. But in fact, you may be doing the planet a favor.
For one thing, Christmas-tree farming is generally a sustainable business. Trees grow for many years before harvesting and are replaced by one or more seedlings when they’re finally cut down. Just 30 million of the 350 million or so trees on farms actually get chopped down every season, according to The Nature Conservancy, an environmental advocacy nonprofit. While they grow, the trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere, doing their part to eat the emissions humans wantonly pump into the air by burning fossil fuels, raising cows and the like.
Of course, cutting trees down, digging up the soil to plant new ones and hauling the harvest to your local Elk’s Club or Walmart parking lot for sale to the public does generate carbon emissions. But this pollution is nothing compared with what’s involved in producing artificial trees. These are typically hard to recycle, and they are also typically shipped all the way from China to that Walmart. According to one estimate, a 6-foot-tall artificial tree (on the short side for a McMansion) produces 88 pounds of CO2 equivalent, compared with less than 8 pounds for a real tree of the same size.
To maximize the environmental benefits of the real tree, you will need to make sure it’s both sourced and recycled responsibly. Cutting trees out of old-growth forests and then just leaving them on the ground to rot raises the carbon impact.
You could save yourself all of this agonizing by buying a live tree that you can replant once you’re done making it look ridiculous. Of course, then you’ve given yourself a chore. But remember, if you still insist on getting an artificial tree, you’ll have to use it for 12 Christmases to make up the difference in emissions. The risk is that you’d get sick of looking at it long before then; the average household uses such a tree for 10 years before chucking it.
Some people don’t have any other choice, though. Maybe they have allergies or odor sensitivities that make real trees, live or dead, unbearable. This brings us to the deep, dark secret of this column: It doesn’t really matter what you do. You could just stare at the corner where a tree should be, or you could buy 100 artificial trees and set them all on fire on New Year’s Day. Whatever CO2 equivalent you produce is not even fit to be a rounding error compared with the carbon emissions of, oh, let’s say Walmart, which emitted 14 million tons of CO2 last year. (1)
As I’ve noted before, the idea of a personal “carbon footprint” was invented by BP Plc, the oil behemoth formerly known as British Petroleum. It’s a clever marketing ploy that makes you, dear reader, feel guilty about your own emissions, which in turn makes you less likely to complain about those of, say, BP (340 million tons last year). (2)
The conundrum is that many individual consumer choices together can shift demand so much that it starts to make a real difference. And the richer you are, the bigger your carbon impact and the greater your influence.
But the important thing to know is that you can buy an artificial tree and eat cheeseburgers and drive a gas-burning car if you need to and still help fight global warming. Make whatever lifestyle changes you can afford, sure. But the impact of talking to your friends, loved ones and enemies about climate, advocating for action and voting for politicians who want to make a difference will last longer than any Christmas decoration.
(1) I'm picking on Walmart only because I've mentioned it twice already in the column, and it's more fun to do things in threes. The company has actually been reducing its emissions steadily in recent years and has a goal to cut them by 65% from 2015 levels by 2030.
(2) Unlike Walmart's numbers, BP's numbers include "Scope 3" emissions, which include those generated by the fuel it produces and sells.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mark Gongloff is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and columnist covering climate change. He previously worked for Fortune.com, the Huffington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
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