Trees are nice — they absorb CO2 and improve air quality, they provide crucial shelter for wildlife, they help with flooding and storm damage, and they even support a $170 billion a year forestry industry. But they could be far more valuable: Cities are losing trees every year by 16 percent, from 8.7 million a year in 2004 to 7.9 million in 2016. This is a massive loss of trees, but we might be able to change that by planting more of them. The scientists behind a new study say that annual tree planting costs less than 1 percent of the total that the private sector spends on residential, commercial and industrial renovations annually. By reducing annual losses, researchers estimated that commercial and residential buildings could save $180 billion in climate and energy costs over 100 years. In time, it’s estimated that planting 500,000 trees annually in major metropolitan areas would save the United States more than $100 billion in energy costs and CO2.
Why are we losing our trees?
A lot of cities are fighting against the tall trees and invasive species that can cause sweeping deforestation. But the environmental costs of uncontrolled tree loss go far beyond the plants themselves. There’s an element of time: In any given city, it might take decades to reforest a city. (The study conducted in Pittsburgh took 16 years just to reforest an average of 14 acres, as compared to normal population growth.) Then there’s simply money: The economist Laurence J. Kotlikoff has argued that the U.S. spends nearly twice as much for each new tree than it does for others, on average, which is one reason why the U.S. has more trees per capita than any other country. And it’s likely that the affordable abundance of public dollars is actually encouraging more deforestation, because as more public money comes into cities, they spend more on trees.
What’s this mean for the environment?
Trees are not a silver bullet for climate change; they do no one a favor. But forests are ecologically important and generally advantageous. When forests become overgrown and have trees die, large patches of shrub and tree canopies collapse and the soil is exposed. Trees have the capacity to hold more CO2 in their soil than they emit, which greatly enhances the ability of trees to absorb and store that CO2 from the atmosphere. In the future, when trees are depleted, the levels of CO2 will increase, increasing the risk of mass extinction, in which the species that did not die also disappeared from the Earth.
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