Trees for CO2 Sequestration?

Posted by on April 14, 2010

(This is the first part of a two-part post on trees and CO2 sequestration, which looks at whether trees actually play a positive role. The second part will discuss the actual trees we should be using for this perceived benefit)

Trees can play an important, positive role in helping control the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere by absorbing that key greenhouse gas. The process, called “sequestration,” uses a tree’s photosynthesis to convert the problematic greenhouse gas to cellulose and oxygen.

As this concept has become more widely accepted and, as researchers continue to document trees’ benefits, it may expand market for some nursery crops. But, is all this excitement warranted, or do some recent questions contradict the enthusiasm?

What We Need to Know
The crucial questions at this stage become “does sequestration really work,” and if so, “which trees are most efficient at sequestration?” Research continues to delve into varietal and climate issues that affect how well a specific tree will capture CO2.

“We can certainly argue that trees, when they absorb CO2, buy us a period of sequestration,” said David Nowak, researcher at SUNY-CESF, Syracuse, New York.

But, Nowak, who has lead several major sequestration studies, points out there are many variables that need to be studied, including climate effects, tree species and age, and even the general maintenance issues.

“These all can impact the effectiveness of a tree to sequester CO2,” he said.

Other research has pointed out some distinct differences based on climate. In fact, recent computer models are even speculating that non-tropical trees might even increase planet temperatures.

But, planting trees in [any] climate is better than not. So, how does it work and what does research indicate as the best options for using trees to reduce atmospheric CO2?

What is Sequestration?…Removal of Air Pollutants
Air pollution can be reduced dramatically when plants take up CO2 and many airborne particles through their leaf stomata. Some other gases are removed by the plant leaf and stem surfaces. Gases absorbed by the plant stomata later diffuse into intercellular spaces. They then are absorbed and react with water films to form acids, or they react with inner-leaf surfaces. Some particles can be absorbed into the tree, though most particles that are intercepted are retained on the plant surface.

Some polluting particles may return to the air during transpiration or be washed off by rain. Later, the leaf and twigs may drop off the to the ground and start to decompose. This also releases some of the CO2 back, which offsets some of the early gains. Consequently, vegetation remains only a temporary site for retaining many atmospheric particles.

Benefits of Trees
Plant-It 2020 uses a ‘scientific estimate’ to develop the following statistics based upon the tree species, soil conditions and tree-planting methodology,

Their research indicated that 600 trees in the tropics would fill one acre, which could sequester up to 15 tons of CO2 annually. Other statistics include 40 trees (common varieties) will sequester one ton of CO2 each year; and that one million trees covering 1,667 acres could capture 25,000 tons of CO2 annually.

Research in major metropolitan areas showed the urban forests could have an impact. It was reported by David J. Nowak in “The Effects of Urban Trees on Air Quality” showed that in 1994, trees in New York City removed an estimated 1,821 metric tons (t) of air pollution at an estimated value to society of $9.5 million.

His research showed that while New York’s urban forests removed pollution more than Atlanta’s (1,196 t; $6.5 million) and Baltimore (499 t; $2.7 million), but pollution removal per square meter of canopy cover was similar among these cities (New York: 13.7g/m2/yr; Baltimore: 12.2 g/m2/yr; Atlanta: 10.6 g/m2/yr). These standardized pollution removal rates differ among cities according to the amount of air pollution, length of in-leaf season, precipitation, and other meteorological variables. Nowak’s work noted that large healthy trees (greater than 77 cm) annually remove about 70 times more air pollution (1.4 kg/yr) than small healthy trees (less than 8 cm in diameter) at 0.02 kg/yr.

His 2002 work matched earlier research regarding total CO2 sequestered within the US. Total carbon storage by urban trees in the coterminous United States is estimated at 700 million tons. These data correspond with previous analyses that estimated national carbon storage by urban trees as between 350 and 750 million tons and between 600 and 900 million tons. Carbon storage by urban trees nationally is only 4.4% of the estimated 15,900 million tons stored in trees in USA non-urban forest ecosystems. The estimated carbon storage by urban trees in USA is equivalent to the amount of carbon emitted from USA population in about 5.5 months based on average per capita emission rates.

The research reported that “urban forests in the north central, northeast, south central and southeast regions of the USA store and sequester the most carbon, with average carbon storage per hectare greatest in southeast, north central, northeast and Pacific northwest regions, respectively. The national average urban forest carbon storage density is 25.1 t/ha, compared with 53.5 t/ha in forest stands.”

He felt this data could be used to help assess the actual and potential role of urban forests in reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide, a dominant greenhouse gas.

Nowak’s research report stated the following:
“Air quality improvement in New York City due to pollution removal by trees during daytime of the in-leaf season averaged 0.47% for particulate matter, 0.45% for ozone, 0.43% for sulfur dioxide, 0.30% for nitrogen dioxide, and 0.002% for carbon monoxide. Air quality improves with 2 increased percent tree cover and decreased mixing-layer heights. In urban areas with 100% tree cover (i.e., contiguous forest stands), short-term improvements in air quality (one hour) from pollution removal by trees were as high as 15% for ozone, 14% for sulfur dioxide, 13% for particulate matter, 8% for nitrogen dioxide, and 0.05% for carbon monoxide.”

Meanwhile,, has summarized recent forestry science studies in carbon sequestration related to trees, including the following:

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that all the forests in the United States combined sequestered a net of approximately 309 million tons of carbon per year from 1952 to 1992, offsetting approximately 25% of U.S. human-caused emissions of carbon during that period.

The US Forest Service also feels that large diameter; long-lived, leafy trees are more beneficial in regards to carbon sequestration. For example, they point to the fact that Atlanta’s 9 million-plus (mostly mature, broad-leafed) trees absorb about twice as much as Calgary, Canada nearly 12 million trees (many conifers).

They also noted that tree species is a strong determining factor regarding carbon sequestration, which vary by species in their rate of storing carbon, though research is still needed.
But, as a counter action, trees also vary in how many and how much harmful volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) they emit. One common example is isoprene, which produces the greenhouse gas ozone.

So, the best tree species is one that rapidly sequesters carbon but does not register high outputs of VOC’s. Long-lived trees (those living more than 50 years) are preferred by the Forest Service for carbon sequestration as dead trees rot – releasing all of the carbon that has been stored. US Forest Service recommends the following species for the United States…American basswood, dogwood, Eastern white pine, Eastern red cedar, gray birch, red maple and river birch.

Nowak does point out that the placement of trees actually has more impact that sequestration.
“The bigger impact comes from planting a tree in the proper location where it can provide cooling for buildings,” he said. “Just by preventing the added CO2 being emitted during air conditioning, trees can have four times the impact they have in sequestration.”

So, there are many functions to consider to maximize a tree’s impact on the environment, he cautioned.

Tropical Versus Temperate Zones
Another study, lead by Lawrence Livermore National Lab, indicated that trees planted closer to the equator sequester more carbon than those planted far to the North. Why this might have happened is still unclear. Some expert speculated that Southern tree species are often larger, long-lived, leafy trees compared to northern species.

Their computer models seem to confirm this observation. They built a model to determine the impact on temperatures forests have in different parts of the planet.

They focused on three key factors in their analysis:
• Forests can cool the planet by absorbing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide during photosynthesis.
• They can also cool the planet by evaporating water to the atmosphere and increasing cloudiness; a deck of white clouds reflects incoming solar radiation straight back out into space.
• But, trees might also have a warming effect. They are dark colored, absorb sunlight and hold heat near ground level

Our study shows that tropical forests are very beneficial to the climate because they take up carbon and increase cloudiness, which in turn helps cool the planet,” explained Dr. Bala, an author on the Livermore study.

So, the further you move from the equator, the more these gains are eroded she stated. The team’s modeling predicts trees planted in mid- and high-latitude locations could cause a net warming of a few degrees within a hundred years.

The darkening of the surface by new forest canopies in the high-latitude boreal regions allows absorption of more sunlight that warm the surface,” Dr Baal said.

Counter Views
But, despite the general excitement over planting trees, no, literally planting forests as a solution to global warming, has hit some speed bumps recently.

In addition to the Livermore computer model concerns, two other recent papers in the scientific literature raised questions about the benefits of terrestrial carbon sinks. One paper, by Frank Keppler, Max Planck Institute, discovered that plants emit significant amounts of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, which traps heat much more efficiently than CO2.

Another study, by Robert Jackson, Duke University, found that plantations could reduce stream flow and increase salinization of soils to a greater extent than previously recognized. It looked at existing conversions and showed that the growing trees had larger water demands than crops or pastures “dramatically decreased stream flow within a few years of planting,” the authors wrote.

They also found that water use within existing tree plantations of all ages resulted in average stream flow reductions of 38 percent. Losses increased as the trees age, and “13 percent of streams dried up completely for at least one year,” the study said.

Overall, the tree farming used about 20 percent more rainwater, the study estimated. So, additional tree planting for carbon mitigation could have large impacts on nation’s water resources. This is ore of an issue in nations that net less than 30 percent of their total annual supplies of fresh water from rain, the authors predicted.

This has lead to experts some questioning the overall tree planting strategy, but others view this speculation as overblown.
Nowak also cautioned that urban tree management practices could diminish the net effects of urban trees on atmospheric C02. Activities used to maintain vegetation structure and health (e.g. from chain saws, trucks, chippers, etc.) emit carbon via fossil fuel combustion. Thus, too much maintenance could cause urban forest ecosystems to become net emitters of carbon unless secondary carbon reductions (e.g. energy conservation) or limiting of decomposition via long term carbon storage (e.g. wood products, landfills) can be accomplished to offset the maintenance carbon emissions

Carbon released through tree management activities needs to be accounted for to calculate the net effect of urban forestry on atmospheric carbon dioxide,” he said.

He argues that unless there are secondary carbon reductions (e.g., energy conservation) or limiting of decomposition via long-term carbon storage (e.g., wood products, landfills), urban forests lose much of the sequestration gains. This, in turn, affects the species composition and tree maintenance activities chosen for an urban forest.

Some Conclusions
So, where does all this leave with trees and their effects on CO2 sequestration?

To maximize the net benefits of urban forestry on atmospheric carbon dioxide, Nowak wrote that urban forest managers should focus on the following:
• Planting long-lived, low-maintenance, moderate to fast-growing species that are large at maturity and matched to site conditions;
• Using maintenance activities that increase tree survival and longevity;
• Minimizing fossil-fuel use related to management and maintenance activities;
• Using wood from removed trees to delay decomposition or decrease the need for energy from fossil-fuel-based power plants (e.g., develop long term wood products; burn wood to heat residences); and
• Planting trees in energy-conserving locations.

This was summarized clearly by Greg McPherson in a Arbor Age article “Urban Tree Planting and Greenhouse Gas Reductions.”

He wrote that…”The climate benefits of trees in mid-latitude cities are not an illusion, although they certainly feel good. Reductions in atmospheric carbon dioxide are achieved directly through sequestration and indirectly through emission reductions. Still, planting trees in cities should not be touted as a panacea to global warming. It is one of many complementary bridging strategies, and it is one that can be implemented immediately. Moreover, tree planting projects provide myriad other social, environmental, and economic benefits that make communities better places to live.”

Thus, while CO2 absorption can be positive, putting the right tree in the right place remains critical to optimizing its benefits and minimizing conflicts with other aspects of the urban infrastructure.

Next part…coming soon. We will look at where trees work best, which trees might be the best, and include a long list of references on this topic. See you soon.

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