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Want More Energy and Less Climate Change? Plant Trees

There's very little that our precious forests can't do—and we should start taking advantage.

Many are familiar with the first two lines, at least, of Joyce Kilmer’s famous 1913 poem “Trees”: “I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree.”

People do love their trees. Beyond poetry and the arts, trees have inspired just about everyone. For instance, the first Arbor Day, celebrated in Nebraska in 1872, was an early conjoining of civic boosterism and environmental activism.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush paid tribute to trees as he signed legislation to encourage even more of them: “Let us plant the trees and nurture them so that America will remain America the Beautiful for generations to come.”

Okay, so trees are lovely; let us count some of the ways.

First, trees are a major source of wealth and strength. Since the beginning of human civilization, wood has been used as a building material, as well as, of course, a source of fuel and weaponry. It’s not for nothing that the anthem of the British Navy is “Heart of Oak.”

Speaking of, er, arborealonomics, some wit at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service headlined a document a few years back, “Money does grow on trees”—and pointed to $9.7 billion in annual U.S. forest product exports. Indeed, in 2013, the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities calculated the total value of American wood, paper, and furniture shipments at $312 billion. Related statistics from around the world are even more impressive; according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 12.7 million workers enjoy “in-forest employment,” boasting a gross value-add of $606 billion.

Of course, some will regard these numbers with a twinge, or even a shudder, because some forests of great historical and ecological value are being cut down, burned down, or otherwise destroyed. Indeed, a popular news meme of our time holds that the Amazon rainforest—some of it now ablaze—functions as the “lungs of the planet” (even if the truth is more complicated).

Yet to put the matter in a cheerier light, trees are “renewable.” Indeed, sustainable forestry is a worldwide movement, bespeaking Mother Nature’s capacity—perhaps with a helping human hand—to renew herself infinitely.

Second, and speaking of planetary sustainability, trees are central to any plausible plan for reducing greenhouse gases. We might even recall that Bush 41, nearly three decades ago, hailed yet another sylvan virtue: “they consume carbon dioxide.” In the more recent words of the U.S. Forest Service, “Forest ecosystems are the largest terrestrial carbon sink on earth and their management has been recognized as a relatively cost-effective strategy for offsetting greenhouse gas emissions.”

Indeed, the U.S.F.S. further adds, forests, as well as other trees and harvested wood products, offset approximately 15 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions. (There are, in fact, lots of ways to think about carbon capture—including more industrial techniques, such as direct air capture—yet, plainly, organic carbon capture is mellower, and thus more broadly appealing.)

So if we wish to rally as many people as possible to the cause of sequestering CO2, we should wish to plant as many trees as possible. And how to go about quantifying the potential of sequestration? To use the shortest of shorthands, a typical tree is about 50 percent water, and the remaining dry weight of a tree is about 50 percent carbon. Thus for a scraggly 50-foot pine tree with a one-foot trunk diameter, weighing 2,000 pounds, about 500 pounds are carbon. That’s a quarter-ton of carbon pulled out of the atmosphere. And of course, that carbon total doesn’t include the mass of the tree’s roots—which could be another quarter-ton of carbon.

The implications of this organic carbon capture are simple yet profound: the more trees, the less CO2. Back in May, here at TACthis author quoted one expert who calculated that with the use of better fertilizer, both forests and farms could be made more abundant, such that the current 15 percent sequestration of American CO2 emissions could be brought up to 40 percent.

Of course, trees must die, and when they do, they decompose and release their carbon back into the atmosphere. So that’s an argument for systematizing the tree crusade, such that new trees are always being planted, as well as habitats preserved. (And so let’s think of new ways to preserve felled wood so that it never decomposes.)

Next, the same leafy logic can be applied to the world as a whole. We can start with currently blazing Brazil. As of now, Amazonia is seen by many Westerners as a sort of quasi-international park. During this reckoning, as a matter of green justice, Brazilians should not do to their forests what Westerners did to theirs. Not surprisingly, this paternalistic attitude sits poorly with Brazil’s nationalist president, Jair Bolsonaro. Last month, he pushed back against “a misplaced colonialist mindset in the 21st century.”

In the meantime, if climate change is the existential threat that it’s said to be—such that, for example, Senator Bernie Sanders wants to spend $16.3 trillion fighting it—then it’s easy to see how First World cash and Third World land could come together in green convergence. That is, the 2.1 million square miles of Amazon rainforest (including a half-dozen countries beyond Brazil) could be “hired” to help in the carbon sequestration effort. Of course, mindful of Western political urgency, the South Americans’ price for such cooperative action will surely go up steeply.

Some will point out, of course, that the amount of land available for such organic carbon sinking is finite. So maybe we should explore new ways of increasing carbon capacity, including genetically modifying trees to grow bigger and thus carbon hungrier.

Furthermore, we might look to the oceans, which can be made carbon sinkier through any number of possible mechanisms, including new coastal landfill—perhaps even creating whole islands of tree-covered carbon landfill. Needless to say, such ideas won’t sit well with many greens, yet if we’re in a crisis, we should be prepared to think anew, and act anew.

Okay, so back to trees: a trusted source of beauty, wealth, employment, and carbon sequestration. And now we can add yet another dimension: international migration management. Tucked away in a September 6 news story from the Associated Press about Mexico’s enhanced border security enforcement was this intriguing policy nugget:

The enforcement has been paired with an incipient economic development plan. Mexico has agreed with Honduras and El Salvador to expand a tree planting program that aims to keep farmers on their land through direct payments and provide them with income-generating fruit and timber trees.

There it is: hired tree-planting. If Mexico can do this, so can the U.S., and so can other rich nations. That is, we can finance a win for trees—which could be linked to a win for economic development, a win for population stability and border sanctity, as well as a win for de-carbonization. So we can add it up and see: a win-win-win-win.

Come to think of it, there’s also a fifth win: the continued viability of carbon-based fuels. To put it mildly, not everyone wants to hear that carbon capture could make the world safe for the continuing consumption of oil, natural gas, and maybe even suitably scrubbed coal. In fact, since kiboshing the automobile and Big Oil was a left-wing goal long before anyone worried about climate change, it’s fair to say that even an effective carbon capture system will not soften the hearts of many lefty ideologues toward General Motors, Exxon, and sprawled suburbia.

Yet here’s a reality-gram: this economy can’t be operated, and thus the nation can’t be governed, from the green left. As Mark P. Mills of the Manhattan Institute has demonstrated, the “good” energy sources, solar and wind, will probably never come anywhere close to providing the juice the world needs.

So that takes us back to carbon fuels, and thus to carbon capture. One Democrat who grasps this reality is long-shot presidential hopeful Andrew Yang, running on a platform of progressive technocracy. On his campaign website, Yang pledges to make the world safe for carbon fuels by “invest[ing] heavily in carbon capture and geoengineering technologies designed to reverse the damage already done to the environment through a new Global Geoengineering Institute and invite international participation.”

Indeed, in his enthusiasm for technological fixes, Yang has even endorsed “giant foldable space mirrors” to thwart the sun’s warming radiation. By comparison, merely planting many trees looks tame.

Of course, Yang, that can-do guy, is unlikely to be the Democrats’ 2020 nominee. Instead the more probable Democrats are staking out increasingly extreme Malthusian schemes—and piling on guilt trips, too.

To be sure, the voters, as well as the candidates, learned long ago to discount campaign pledges. And so if a Democrat wins the White House next year, it will be because voters wish Trump to be gone, not because they wish their cars, hamburgers—and jobs—to be gone.

To put the point another way, a Democratic 46th president would soon be scrambling to find a way to show progress on CO2 while not tanking the economy. So if not space mirrors, carbon capture will have to be in the mix.

As for Trump, if he wins re-election, he might feel the pressure to do something on CO2. In particular, he could conclude that the optics of a Mexico-style program of hiring locals to plant carbon sinks in their own country is preferable to the look of “putting children in cages.”

Most likely, these realities will be submerged in the hurly-burly of the 2020 campaign. Yet come 2021, the president, whoever he or she is, will be looking for feasible solutions. And there, standing tall and green, will be our good friend the tree, lovelier than a poem—and possibly saving the planet.

James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.