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Cleaner Air for Christmas? Then, a Christmas Tree May Not Be on the Cards


It’s mid-November and that means Christmas is already in the air, which may be a little cleaner thanks to your Christmas tree. Provided you don’t get one.

Earlier this year, data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) showed a massive spike in atmospheric methane, one of the most significant increases in over 20 years.

While CO2 may be more prevalent in the atmosphere at 400 ppm, methane (CH4) absorbs 80 percent more heat, making it a far more potent greenhouse gas (GHG) despite being less than 4 ppm. Even with this disparity, if the current trend continues, any gains made from reducing carbon emissions thanks to the Paris Agreement could be erased.

So what’s this about Christmas trees? Back in 2012, a study by researcher Elin Sundqvist and his colleagues from Lund University and Stockholm University showed that trees most often marketed as Christmas trees (spruces, pines and firs) act as methane sinks.

Unfortunately, they can’t do this from your living room. In light of this troubling data, we must plant more spruces, pines, and fir trees rather than cutting down healthy trees for the holidays.

While methane is generated through the environment’s natural processes, as with most imbalances, it’s primarily our fault. According to a report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 60 percent of the global methane (CH4) gas is emitted by human activities, during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil, livestock farming, rice farming, and by the decay of organic waste in solid waste landfills.

The digestive system of livestock produces methane as a result of methanogenic microorganisms and while the composition of feed is a crucial factor in controlling the amount of methane produced, a sheep can produce about 30 litres of methane each day and a dairy cow up to about 200. In rice fields, the flooded paddy soil becomes depleted of dissolved oxygen allowing soil microbes, which break down plant matter, to produce methane.

Even if global methane levels did remain stable, the tradition of a holiday tree is still far from green. Christmas tree-sized conifers store roughly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide in their above-ground tissue and likely store similar amounts below ground in their roots. So, standard carbon sequestration is a huge factor in the push to cut fewer Christmas trees and thus offset emissions. Carbon represents about 50 percent of the dry weight of the wood in a tree at harvest time.

Knowing this, it may seem that artificial trees are a no-brainer, but they have their own degrading effect on the environment. The energy used in manufacturing and shipping them to consumers, as well as the pollutants released during manufacture of the materials used to make them, all contribute to a larger carbon footprint.

While both artificial and real trees have their downsides and upsides, what can simplify the decision is thinking in terms of which — for you — allows the most opportunity to reduce, reuse and recycle.

For a real tree, one has to reduce the carbon footprint — grinding used Christmas trees and spreading the mulch returns organic matter to the soil, and can contribute to building soil carbon. Many public works departments across the United States routinely collect and chip used Christmas trees after the holidays. If local tree recycling is not available, trees can also be placed whole in backyards to create bird habitats or in ponds so they degrade naturally. Unfortunately, replanting is impossible with cut trees. To be able to properly replant it, the tree must be purchased with its root ball intact.

Burning them or sending them to a landfill is the least environmentally friendly way to dispose of them as both release greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere. Burning returns the carbon content to the air as carbon dioxide right away and in the case of landfills the carbon content in the tree will still return to the atmosphere as methane, albeit at a slower rate.

While the spike in methane is worrisome, take some solace that we are on the right track. In 2018, the American Christmas Tree Association Nationwide Survey revealed that 82 percent of Christmas trees displayed were artificial and only 17.9 percent were real, which is good news. What would be even better, is if consumers reused their artificial trees for at least five years because the environmental ‘break-even’ point between a real Christmas tree and an artificial tree is about 4.7 years. Theoretically, that would offset the environmental impact of cutting down a real, methane-gathering, carbon-dioxide hoarding, fir tree every year.

Think of it as a Christmas gift to future generations — a cleaner atmosphere.


This article was originally published by  Veer Mudambi,

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