Trees Won’t Save Us from Climate Change


By Mike Howie

Carbon dioxide is the exhaust of human existence. Whether spewed from our cars or our factories, all this gas affects our atmosphere, slowly building up and changing the very nature of our planet.

So how do we fix this? How do we heal the damage we’ve caused?

Some suggest that we should head for the trees. The Earth’s woody pillars absorb carbon dioxide through their leaves and use it in the life-sustaining process of photosynthesis. When fully mature, an average hardwood tree will absorb about 48 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Trees are beautiful works of nature, more complex and vital than they seem. They support the environment and wildlife even while lying dead on the ground, but they can’t do it all.

There’s simply too much pollution. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that the United States alone emitted more than 5 billion tons of energy-related carbon dioxide in 2017. It would take more than 100 million trees to offset those emissions. Extrapolated to a global scale, there’s probably not enough room for all the trees we’d need to offset carbon dioxide emissions from human activity.

There is plenty of treeless ground around the world, but not all of it should be transformed into dense forests. Northern tundra, for example, reflects more solar energy than trees. If we forested those areas, the trees would hold more heat and we’d worsen global warming. And if we transformed grassy lands like those in Yellowstone National Park, we’d deprive threatened animals of the environment they depend on. We’d hurt ourselves too — humans need grasslands just as much as animals, using them for water sources, hunting lands, and grazing lands for livestock.

To be clear, planting more trees is a good thing. New trees will help offset carbon dioxide emissions, if only a little bit. But we must be smart about where we plant these trees. We can start by looking for areas to reforest, finding the places that have been devastated and helping them return to former glory.

But trees alone will not solve our climate problems. To truly make a difference, we need to reexamine our own lives to see where we can make a difference. After all, the best solution to an overabundance of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide is to stop releasing so much of them.

Discussion Questions

  • How many trees would it take to offset the carbon dioxide emissions from your normal activities?
  • Where in your area could you plant more trees?


  • Carbon dioxide
  • Extrapolate
  • Photosynthesis