Our friends the trees are slackers

I got in a dumb argument with someone on YouTube about a video. It’s about average for your fights on the Internets machine, but since some of the data might be interesting to you, I print it here as a courtesy. This is a story from the Financial Times of London:

Short form: A company in Switzerland named Climeworks has created a process for capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Our climate dilemma is in large part due to large amounts of carbon dioxide fueling the greenhouse effect, aka global warming. We got the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (upwards of 40 billion tons per year) by running our factories and cars. This is an existential crisis for humanity–either we figure out how to remove hundreds of billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere without triggering the McPherson Paradox, or we’ll be extinct as soon as 2022. So a machine that can remove carbon from the atmosphere is heaven-sent. If it works properly, it saves us from disaster. And as a side benefit, the power needed to run these plants is generated from the trash that would have ended up in an incinerator anyway. Manufacturing the plant and its components still contributes to our excess carbon problem, but if the plants can work and the process can be scalable, we’re a big step toward stopping (or at least slowing down) anthropogenic global warming. 

And in the course of the video, we find out that the big impediment to deploying these things is… (wait for it… rim shot...) capitalism. Nobody wants to buy the sequestered carbon dioxide, which is the only way to monetize the process at present. So forget saving humanity, we need to make a buck! My guess is that the world’s economies can’t subsidize this. Several years ago I did the math on what it would take to sequester a ton of carbon dioxide at the bargain rate of $100 and the yearly cost was in the trillions. Unless I missed something, Climeworks is saying that it costs $600 to sequester a ton of carbon dioxide with their system. Jesus wept.

In the course of all this, someone brought up a canard that everyone who’s serious about stopping global warming to save the planet has heard: Forget the factories, man! Plant lots of trees! Anybody who’s been working on climate issues for the last 20 years has heard this (along with paeans of praise for ‘the hemp economy, man!)

Long story short, we can’t plant enough trees to get ourselves out of this predicament. There’s not enough arable land, there’s not enough time, and there isn’t enough water (at least not when the trees are sharing planetary water resources with 7,8 billion house apes). And I posted that response on Youtube and was promptly accused of ‘misinformation’. That pissed me off. Armed with Google and fortified by several gin and tonics, I plunged into a research project that took me most of 30 minutes. I pass this research onto you, my loyal reader. If I’ve messed this up, let me know in the comments.

Do the math. Per NCSU’s ‘Tree Facts’ website, a mature tree can absorb ‘as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year’. It would therefore take 40-50 trees to absorb a single ton of C02. Assuming you can plant 120 trees per acre, your single acre of planting would absorb three tons of carbon. Industrial civilization put out 40 BILLION tons of carbon in 2017. To absorb all that you’d need to plant roughly 13 BILLION Acres of new trees. In a 2013 UN report, it was estimated that the world had 1.407 billion hectares of land not in cultivation(1 hectare =2.47 acres), or 3.5 billion acres for planting trees. There is no way you can plant 13 billion acres of trees on 3.5 billion acres of arable land. And that’s assuming there’s enough water for them on a planet where water is being evaporated by billions of gallons owing to higher temperatures.

I’m hoping the math is right. 

Again, this breakthrough Swiss machine and process is not really scalable. The big plant in the video can capture a cool 900 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Our profligate use of fossil fuels puts an extra 40 billion tons of carbon in the air every year. Even if we cut back emissions by 50% a year and even if we improved capture to 1,000 tons per plant, we’d need… two million plants put online in record time. Also, the business model counts on ‘free’ energy insofar as the plant is fueled with waste. There isn’t enough waste to fuel two million such plants, so there will be costs if the technology is scaled up (this is one of the problems with biofuels like the waste cooking oil that runs buses in Oregon–eventually you’re going to use up all the waste if you scale up). Again, check my math.  Blame mistakes on Seagrams Gin.

Again, this is all unfortunate. We’re all looking for answers to an existential crisis. But for a solution like this to work, you’d have to couple it with a drastic cut in the burning of fossil fuels, which (again) would probably trigger the McPherson Paradox. I’m providing this overview because I’m tired of debates over non-solutions. Refer to this in arguments about saving the world with trees. Sounds good, won’t work. And trees are clearly slacking. if they could absorb 100 pounds of carbon dioxide, we’d have a better chance.

Separate article: don’t tell me about saving the world with your Prius. I’m out of gin. 



  1. A very good post! I hear people all the time in denial about how quickly SHTF. We are running out of time and it’s our own damn fault. This is one problem we waited too long to fix.

  2. As a civilization we’re in the position of Germany in 1943. Were fighting a losing battle and no matter which way we turn or how many rabbits are pulled out of the hat, the end of civilization as we’ve briefly known it, is a done deal. I spent a good deal of my life as an active environmentalist and as I look back I can see all the predictions made back when coming to fruition. We’ve deliberately, through apathy, ignorance and narcissism basically broken all the rules of common sense in regards to a finite environment. We’ve exceeded all natural limits to growth but failed to replace “nature” with some other viable means of support for civilization. The tipping point was reached when large “have not” nations such as China and India discovered the pleasures of consumerism, America style. That explosion of demands for consumer goods, particularly motor vehicles is the final tsunami that still remains far enough away that it isn’t taken seriously…

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