I think this article hits the nail on the head: Stop Building a Spaceship to Mars and Just Plant Some Damn Trees. Basically, if you want a machine that will suck carbon dioxide out of air and lock it up so it doesn’t contribute to climate change, we’ve already got one. It’s called a tree. They’re cheap and easy and they build themselves, and further, they look good. There’s no NIMBY phenomenon here!
All we have to do is plant a heck of a lot of trees, and they can sequester 200 gigatonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere. All this is from a paper in Science that calculated about how much land area is available for planting trees, and suggests that we should work fast to use that area.
The restoration of trees remains among the most effective strategies for climate change mitigation. We mapped the global potential tree coverage to show that 4.4 billion hectares of canopy cover could exist under the current climate. Excluding existing trees and agricultural and urban areas, we found that there is room for an extra 0.9 billion hectares of canopy cover, which could store 205 gigatonnes of carbon in areas that would naturally support woodlands and forests. This highlights global tree restoration as our most effective climate change solution to date. However, climate change will alter this potential tree coverage. We estimate that if we cannot deviate from the current trajectory, the global potential canopy cover may shrink by ~223 million hectares by 2050, with the vast majority of losses occurring in the tropics. Our results highlight the opportunity of climate change mitigation through global tree restoration but also the urgent need for action.
There’s a catch, though. A lot of this land is owned and/or inefficiently used. The authors try to take that into account.
In total, 4.4 billion ha of canopy cover can be supported on land under existing climate conditions. This value is 1.6 billion ha more than the 2.8 billion ha existing on land today. Of course, much of the land that could potentially support trees across the globe is currently used for human development and agriculture, which are necessary for supporting an ever-growing human population. On the basis of both the European Space Agency’s global land cover model and on Fritz and colleagues cropland layer, we estimate that 0.9 billion hectares are found outside cropland and urban regions and may represent regions for potential restoration. More than 50% of the tree restoration potential can be found in only six countries (in million hectares: Russia, +151; United States, +103; Canada, +78.4; Australia, +58; Brazil, +49.7; and China, +40.2), stressing the important responsibility of some of the world’s leading economies.
Great! Let’s plant trees on the over 100 million hectares available in the US! Except…here’s land use in this country.
Wow. Look at all the land used for raising cows, and for feeding cows. Do you think the cattlemen’s association will let us shut down their wasteful use of the land? There’s profit in cows! Not so much in setting aside land for trees. There’s also the little problem of convincing consumers that going vegetarian would help cool down the planet. It’s unlikely that we can do what’s good for us; Brazil right now is making a dedicated effort to burn down their forests.
Don’t let the capitalists stop you, though. Do you have a space where you can plant a tree? Do it! Cut back on the meat-eating. When you eat fewer cows, it’s like kicking Ammon Bundy in the balls, dries up the profit motive for setting aside vast tracts of treeless land to feed herds of selfish cattle who are eating your salads. Maybe you can’t go full-on vegan yet, but that’s fine — cut back to eating meat once a week, you’re making a difference.
One other thing: I’ve already seen people complaining about the title of the Mother Jones article. Why can’t we do both? We can plant trees and explore Mars, but I think it’s a dig at the billionaires who are aspiring to escape Earth’s problems and build imaginary colonies on Mars. That’s not going to work, and it’s an excuse to shirk responsibilities to this planet.
Bastin JF, Finegold Y, Garcia C, Mollicone D, Rezende M, Routh D, Zohner CM, Crowther TW (2019) The global tree restoration potential. Science 365(6448):76-79.