Earth is experiencing climate change on a scale and pace never before seen since our species has been on the planet, and we’re causing it by pumping more heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere than Earth’s natural systems can take out. Now fixing a problem as massive as climate change is gonna take a ton of different solutions, but more and more people are asking if trees might be a big part of the answer.
For the past 370 million years or so, they’ve been one of the major ways Earth sucks excess carbon out of the atmosphere and stores it away. And along with green plants and algae, this natural technology captures carbon better and cheaper than any human technology we’ve come up with so far. But, can trees actually make a big enough difference in cleaning up our mess? Or are we just barking up the wrong tree?
I’m gonna dig into 3 different ways trees might help solve climate change: Planting a bunch more trees, saving the trees we’ve already got, and whether the field of synthetic biology might give scientists the power to hack photosynthesis and make trees even better at being trees.
Team trees started a campaign to plant 20 million trees with people’s cooperation all over the world. And people helped and donated more than expected. Till now they have planted 22,753,546 trees. And now this campaign is now unstoppable and will never end.
So, like, what do 23 million trees do for the climate? But… long story short, 23 million trees cover a lot less area than you think, and according to researchers. an area of new forest that size can capture 4 million tons of carbon dioxide… spread out over tens of years. Considering that the world is emitting almost 10 billion tons of carbon every year. We would have to do Team Trees literally thousands of times to plant enough trees to suck it all up. Sounds pretty impossible, doesn’t it? Well, it might not be.
To put the challenge into scale, Team Trees gave us 23 million trees.
- The 2019 Amazon wildfires burned at least a billion trees.
- Australian bush fires may have burned more than 10 billion trees.
- The Californian fire burned 4,397,809 acres of land in 2020.
- Indian forest fires have affected more than 700,000 acres of land in the last two years.
You can imagine how many trees we lost in those fires.
For that, today we want to convince the world to plant a trillion trees. That’s roughly the number of trees we have space for globally.
How will you plant these many trees?
It’s true, tree planting is no picnic. Tree-planting is undoubtedly one of the world’s hardest jobs. So why would anyone do it? Because if they didn’t, life would be much worse… for everyone.
There are some people who’ve changed the world in incredible ways that almost everyone knows about. But there are others that, for some reason, we never learn about. Wangari Maathai is one of those people.
This story is of a woman called Wangari Muta Maathai from Kenya.
Maathai was an African biologist who had an idea: women planting trees across Africa could improve communities, conserve the environment, and improve human rights at the same time. She won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work, but few people know her name. One of the most beautiful things she did was she said she used tree planting as not only a tool for nature conservation but also for women’s empowerment.
I heard about this fantastic work, but I didn’t understand the true depth. I only understood that tree planting helps tackle the climate crisis and saves the polar bear. So what impact would planting a trillion trees have?
Impact of planting a trillion more trees
We used to have roughly six trillion trees on earth, so this was before humans started cutting them down, and now we have about half of that remaining. So we’ve got three trillion instead of six trillion trees now. Ideally, we’d go back to the six trillion right, get back every tree we lost, but of course, we need space for our settlements and much more for agriculture.
But we can get about another one trillion back. They wouldn’t solve the climate crisis on their own, of course, we also need to drastically reduce our global co2 footprint, but they make it possible to ensure that the global temperature does not rise by more than two degrees. And if we manage to plant these trees they would capture about a quarter of human-made co2 emissions.
If we planted a trillion trees, we could offset a decade’s worth of those emissions. The time that we desperately need. But it will truly require an international effort to realize this goal. If every human on earth planted just 150 trees, we could meet our 1 trillion tree goal quite easily. But that’s just not very realistic… And while the world’s tree planters work long, hard days to pick up the slack, there still aren’t enough of them to get the job done in time.
On a good day, you might plant 2,000 trees in a 10-hour shift. But imagine if you had to do this every day for the next 570,000 years…
Luckily, protecting the trees we already have is cheaper and easier than planting new ones. But natural processes like photosynthesis, on land and in the ocean, are only absorbing about half the CO2 we currently emit every year. I mean, if you think of this as money, we’re spending more than we earn in our carbon budget. And many experts think saving trees and planting as many new ones as we can are both parts of the answer.
Deforestation and Carbon Emissions
Remember, trees are basically big carbon storage machines that suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into more trees. Cutting those trees down and either burning them or letting them decompose just puts that carbon back in the atmosphere.
Most deforestation happens in Earth’s tropical regions. If this tropical deforestation were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of carbon in the world after China and the US. Almost 1/3rd of all the world’s carbon emissions since 1850 have come from deforestation.
These days, forests remove about a quarter of the CO2 humans emit into the atmosphere each year and store it away. There is more carbon locked up in the world’s trees than in all the fossil fuels still remaining in the ground. And beyond carbon, tropical forests act sort of like the planet’s air conditioning. They pull moisture out of the ground, release water vapor into the sky. This literally creates rain and weather patterns across the globe.
Cutting down these tropical forests can raise nearby temperatures by as much as 3˚C. So keeping the trees we have is essential if we want to keep climate change from getting even worse.
A study at Yale University concluded that if we continue our current rate of deforestation without planting more trees, our planet will be completely treeless within 300 years.
Some ideas that have been put forward for cooling the planet include a giant space umbrella to shield Earth from the Sun, or a giant space mirror to reflect sun rays back into space. Meanwhile, back on Earth, we’ve already got trees that absorb the harmful carbon emissions that warm our planet, while also expelling oxygen so that we can breathe. Problem is, we just don’t have enough of them to do the job.
While the world is currently home to roughly 3 trillion trees, we lose about 10 billion of them every year. And as you might expect, we’ve become more efficient at stripping our forests than we are at replanting them.
Before we re-visit the space umbrella idea, let’s consider some of the more feasible options that are on the table. Tree planting drones, for example, can plant up to 100,000 trees a day, the equivalent of about 50 veteran tree planters. And while a lot of students take up tree planting as a lucrative summer job, the more innovative ones have found other ways to cash in. But whether we do it by drones or by robots, it’s time to bring out the big guns in this battle for our planet.
RuBisCO – Our Hero
But there is one more idea that could make a big difference, and it relies on something called “synthetic biology” When plants like trees take carbon dioxide out of the air, they use a tiny molecular machine inside their cells called an enzyme to grab CO2, stick that carbon onto another molecule, and eventually make sugar. This molecular machine’s name is a mouthful–Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase oxygenase–but you can call it RuBisCO for short.
Just about everything on Earth that does photosynthesis–algae, cyanobacteria, grass, trees–you name it, uses RuBisCO to grab carbon out of the air. Scientists think it’s the most abundant enzyme on Earth. This little molecular machine has completely reshaped our planet.
Problem is… RuBisCO isn’t very good at its job. Many molecular enzyme machines can carry out thousands of chemical reactions in a single second. RuBisCO is super slow. It can only grab 5 to 10 CO2’s every second. And, about 1 out of every 5 times, RuBisCO grabs the wrong molecule–oxygen–instead of CO2 and wastes energy in the process.
If we could make this biological chemistry work better and faster, maybe we could pull even more carbon out of the atmosphere. Some scientists have put genes for RuBisCO inside bacteria in an effort to rapidly evolve a more efficient enzyme. By manipulating the genetic sequence in the DNA code for the enzyme, researchers can make many more versions of RuBisCO than nature can on its own. And perhaps one will be faster and more efficient at grabbing carbon out of the sky.
Other researchers are digging through the enormous toolbox of chemical reactions that exist in nature to look for totally new ways to capture carbon. These researchers start by designing a highly efficient chemical reaction on paper. Then plugging in individual molecular machines from different species in order to build the chemical process from scratch. These are pathways that don’t exist in nature.
But even if scientists do figure out a way to improve on biological chemistry, we can’t instantly go upgrade every photosynthetic organism on Earth, including trees. But it might give us a new way of capturing carbon using biological reactors at places where emissions are high. It can even lead to devices capable of artificial photosynthesis that can work alongside the trees we already have.
Unfortunately, it will take decades of research to engineer these molecular machines to be even close to what nature can already do today using low-tech carbon-sucking, light-eating machines like trees.
Trees are a solution we already have. But as I hope you’ve realized by now. even if we saved every tree that already exists, and even if we planted trees in every spot on Earth that could hold them, we still wouldn’t be absorbing all the climate-changing carbon that we emit each year.
The bottom line is this: No matter what climate change solution we are talking about, whether it’s trees or electric cars or next-generation nuclear reactors or synthetic meat… none of it will work unless we stop putting so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It’s really that simple.
Solving climate change isn’t just about what we do, it’s about what we stop doing too.