CORRIM: The Plant a Trillion Trees Campaign to Reduce Global Warming –Fleshing Out the Concept
Bruce Lippke, Maureen Puettmann, Elaine Oneil & Chadwick Dearing Oliver
Global warming is an environmental risk linked to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels (FF). Reducing CO2 emissions will be needed to ameliorate the risk. While more evolutionary than revolutionary, the process of growing more trees and using more wood can lead to perpetual atmospheric CO2 reduction while supporting ecosystem services and fire safety in the forest and maintaining our current standard of living. Doing so requires a linked systems approach as detailed in this paper which builds on 30 years of scientific research on the environmental performance of wood products.
The first step in reducing CO2 emissions using this approach is planting more trees. But on its own it is insufficient. Growing trees capture CO2 through photosynthesis and store the carbon in wood. While older forests can store more carbon, they remove less CO2 over time while simultaneously releasing carbon back to the atmosphere, either slowly through decay, or rapidly through wildfires that easily propagate through carbon dense old forests. While all forest and wood carbon eventually returns to the atmosphere, when wood displaces FF there is a permanent atmospheric CO2 benefit. Planting trees, then utilizing the harvested wood for construction, and replanting is a “carbon removal technology” that perpetually removes CO2 from the atmosphere. This alternative carbon mitigation pathway can reduce global CO2 emissions by as much as 26% if accompanied by subsequent, non-onerous, changes in the construction industry. Results show that if 40% of current wood in buildings were recycled, there would be a 41% improvement in per hectare impact of forest growth plus use. These results speak to the need for architects, engineers, and builders to rapidly innovate to take advantage of the benefits of wood as a renewable material for its first use, while designing for its subsequent re-use.
Global warming mitigation occurs because wood products store carbon and using wood avoids the impacts of using FF-intensive building products such as steel and concrete, which release larger amount of CO2 during production and store none during use. Using wood instead of FF-intensive products for construction could reduce global FF consumption by 19%. Allocating wood residues for energy during production could reduce FF consumption another 7% for a total carbon benefit of 26%. Policy changes that increase the cost of FF-CO2 emissions would increase wood product demand in proportion to its ability to store more carbon and displace more FF-intensive substitutes. Coordinated collective action directed towards the production and use of sustainably produced wood could significantly ameliorate our impact on the global carbon footprint consistent with core principles of the circular economy.
More efficient uses of the wood we produce coupled with active efforts to plant more trees, including through the trillion tree campaign, sets the stage to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration in the forest and carbon storage in the built environment. Sufficient investment in tree planting would have a co-benefit of allowing more forests to be managed for ecosystem services such as biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and water quality. Read the full study here.