Let’s assume that there is “scientific consensus” that the Earth’s surface temperature is currently warming. Whether this warming trend is caused by human behavior or some other, more cyclical phenomenon (or a combination of both), it makes sense that humans should try to mitigate the danger we perceive. Reforestation, clean energy, and other initiatives are all aimed at net zero carbon goals.
Try, We Must
But sometimes, our attempts to solve a problem are silly and childlike. The next generation of scientists may say, “That thing was never going to work. What were they thinking?”
We think that way about technology that’s a few centuries old. Consider plague doctor masks, for instance. They were state-of-the-art technology during the Great Plagues of Europe during the 17th century and utter horse-puckey. Today, we know they couldn’t work.
Reforestation for oxygen production and carbon sequestering is another silly idea.
Welcome to the first article in a two-piece series dedicated to the realities of reforestation for a net zero carbon existence. Today, we’ll work through some thought experiments and take you back to high school biology. Then, we’ll work through the problems with reforestation with broad strokes.
In the following piece, we’ll explore many statistics and cite some contrasting sources. Lastly, we’ll discuss some carbon-sequestering technology on the horizon.
Whether you agree with us or not, we promise your mind will be expanded by the end of this series.
TL;DR Spoiler Alert
Spoiler alert: reforestation for a net zero carbon reality will not work. The concept is built on a falsehood. Even if it were true, the resources — specifically, tremendous amounts of acreage that can be dedicated to the cause — are finite, and some say they are receding.
But even if reforestation did work, the other selling point — cleaner air in your local downtown metro — is a falsehood, too. No amount of rainforest reforestation will help the communities most affected by local pollution.
Now, if you’re scoffing at those statements, your opinion is based on the information you learned in school. You feel strongly about statements like, “Trees make the oxygen we breathe,” which is a half-truth at best.
Most of Our Breathable Oxygen Comes From Our Oceans
Our oceans release at least 50%, and up to 80%, of the oxygen we breathe, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). If you’ve been subscribing for a while, then you may remember we’ve mentioned this before. Our oceans are steaming vats of life-giving goodness. They absorb much of the carbon dioxide we produce. But even in elementary school, we are taught otherwise.
The “Lies to Children” Concept
In the 1990s, scientist Jack Cohen and mathematician Ian Stewart wrote The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World. In it, they introduced a phrase called “lies to children.” They later partnered with renowned fantasy author Terry Pratchett and explored the notion further in The Science of Discworld.
The lies to children concept doesn’t describe the willful deceit of children by adults. Instead, when Steward, Cohen, and Pratchett talk about lies to children, they’re describing semi-truths used to introduce a complicated scientific process to novices. By dumbing down a process — to the point it’s untrue, at times — educators can introduce more complex themes and gain a student’s interest.
The Punnett Square
Think back to high school Biology class. Do you remember the Punnett square? You probably used it to determine an imaginary child’s potential eye color. On your Punnett square homework assignment, the fictional mom had recessive genes for blue eyes, and the dad had dominant genes for brown eyes. From there, you figured there was an X chance the child would have blue eyes and X chance they would have brown eyes.
It’s all coming back to you, right?
But the truth about human eye color genetics is far more nuanced. Punnett squares aren’t accurate for predicting human eye color at all. There are several other genes and alleles at play that we know about, and maybe dozens more we don’t yet understand. But as a teenage student, you were introduced to genetics manifesting in something visible around you. That was the point, and it was a lie to children.
Imagine the dismay of a student who became enamored of genetics and headed off to college. They arrived at the new school with a shiny microscope, ready to tally Punnett Squares all day, only to discover that’s not how it works.
The Moon Causes High Tide
This is another lie to children, but it’s more of a lie of omission. The moon and sun together create the gravitational pull to cause high tides, and that’s why they happen twice a day. If high tide were caused by the moon alone, it would only occur once, on whatever part of the planet was closest to the moon.
Still, a child or layperson begins to understand that planetary bodies have enough gravity to pull water around on our planet, and the Earth is spinning. It’s a half-truth upon which a more advanced student will build.
“Trees make our oxygen” is another one of those lies to children. Let’s tear it down.
Oxygen, Carbon, and the Carbon Cycle
Nothing on this planet “makes” oxygen. It’s a chemical element that cannot be created or broken down. And there is X amount of it in the closed system in which we live. The same can be said of carbon. Aside from the occasional meteorite that makes it to Earth, we only have what’s here. Very little material comes into our atmosphere, and a minuscule amount leaves (in satellites and such).
Oxygen, by the way, is nasty stuff. If we didn’t need it in constant supply to stay alive, we would despise it. How many other elements can corrode metals or act as a catalyst for combustion? Maybe that’s why alien life, if it exists, doesn’t care to f@*k with us. As the kids today would put it, our planet is flammable AF.
Carbon and the Carbon Cycle
All organic, biological life on Earth exists in a carbon body. From complex humans to single-cell amoebas, we’re all carbon-based.
Maybe you’ve noticed that many processes on Earth are cyclical, like:
- The water cycle
- The rock cycle
- Seasons, temperatures, and weather patterns
Long-term temperature changes, like ice ages, are cyclical, too.
There is also a carbon cycle. Remember, the carbon we have on Earth is the same amount we have always had. In addition to being in living things, it’s found in our atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2).
Carbon atoms travel from the atmosphere into organisms and then back into the atmosphere repeatedly. Most carbon is stored in rocks and sediments, much is stored in the ocean, some is in the atmosphere, and finally, some is in all living organisms. Our oceans are giant carbon sinks that actively absorb carbon and release oxygen.
Over millions of years, dead organisms have become fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere when we use these fuels for energy. Many scientists believe excess CO2 changes our climate by increasing global temperatures and disrupting the planet’s ecosystems. But is it just part of the process that is cyclical?
What Trees Can Do
Now, it’s true that trees release oxygen via photosynthesis. First, their leaves pull in CO2. Then, using water and the sun’s energy, they make sugars to feed themselves. A by-product of that chemical reaction is oxygen. All the trees on the planet cycle 25% of the oxygen we need. So they are vital to our health.
Trees also absorb and store carbon dioxide in their fibers and act as a (relatively small) air purification system. The Arbor Day Foundation says a mature tree could absorb 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere yearly and release that much oxygen in exchange. Researchers at MIT published some deeper statistics, though. They suggest it would take 640 trees per person —that’s 200 billion trees — planted in US soil to offset American emissions.
But even if we could plant 200 billion trees right now, that carbon absorption takes a long time to achieve, and it’s only temporary. Young trees are delicate and require a lot of fresh water. Also, trees are mortal. Eventually, they die and release all that carbon back into the environment.
How long does a tree live? Many species can live up to 200 years. That’s well beyond a human lifespan, but reforestation must be a constant process, forever!
Remember, it’s carbon monoxide released by fossil fuels and combustion engines that poses an immediate danger to human health. If you get locked in a garage with a car running inside, that stuff will kill you. Proponents of reforestation as a cure-all seem to forget that point. No matter how much carbon dioxide we can sequester, the nasty stuff stays.
Thinking Geographically, Reforestation Doesn’t Work
It’s (currently) impossible to follow one atom of oxygen through the atmosphere for very long (Blockchain startup?). But rainforest reforestation cycles CO2 from the local air and releases oxygen there. So it doesn’t help the far-off communities most affected by smog and emissions. Overall, it might increase the number of oxygen atoms on hand in smoggy cities like Bhiwadi, India. But people in Los Angeles won’t notice an improvement.
We’ve covered a lot of information here, and we’ll leave that to settle in your mind. In the next article about reforestation, we’ll discuss reforestation from the business perspective, carbon credits, and carbon sequestering technology.
[…] to the second article in our reforestation series. In the previous piece, we introduced you to the notion of “lies to children” and some common […]