The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
Planting trees is trendy right now. A study published in the journal Science earlier this year proposed that massive-scale tree planting efforts, on the scale of reforesting an area the size of the United Sates, could compensate for up to two-thirds of the carbon dioxide that humans have added to the atmosphere over the last 200 years. In the same vein, several YouTube stars recently announced a goal of planting 20 million trees before the end of the century. Given the current enthusiasm for trees, the notion of sawing down a live Christmas tree might seem to undercut the trend, so to speak.
As a plant ecologist by training — someone who studies the interrelationships between plants and their environments — I’m a fan of trees, especially trees that are outside, growing in their native habitats. But my family feels strongly about having a live Christmas tree this year. They want that lovely pine-tree smell and that Christmas-y feeling it evokes. Can I make a choice I feel good about?
Both growing Christmas trees and manufacturing artificial trees expend resources. When comparing buying a new artificial tree versus cutting a live tree, live trees win, as artificial require greater inputs to manufacture and ship. However, comparative analyses estimate that once you use your artificial tree for six years or more, it becomes the more environmentally friendly option.
In truth, the question of whether to choose a real versus an artificial tree is the wrong question. The environmental impact of either type of tree is pretty small compared to other choices we will make this holiday season. Christmas tree-sized trees store approximately 40 pounds of carbon dioxide in their trunks, roots, and branches. This carbon is released once the tree is disposed of — whether it be by burning, composting, or landfilling. As a comparison, the same amount of carbon is released by expending 2 gallons of gas in an automobile — driving around 50 miles.
The carbon footprint of shipping for gifts purchased online rapidly dwarfs the impact of a live Christmas tree. Though hard numbers are difficult to find, 350 Seattle estimated Amazon’s total package deliveries in 2017 to release 19 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Using Save the Post Office’s numbers of 3.3 billion packages delivered by Amazon in 2017 results in a rough estimate of 13 pounds of carbon dioxide per package delivered — or about a third of that Christmas tree. And flying to celebrate with loved ones is far worse — a one-way cross-country flight results in releasing about 125,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (the equivalent of 6,250 gallons of gasoline).
Making smart choices for the planet has a lot more to do with these sorts of decisions, rather than the choice of the type of Christmas tree.
There are other ways to feel good about your choice of a live Christmas tree. Last year, a friend of mine purchased a native shrub at a local nursery, decorated it in place of a tree, and then planted it in her front yard after the season had passed. Now she has a lovely flowering plant in view of her office window and habitat for native critters to boot.
So, what will we end up choosing for our tree this year? If my family wins the argument and we get a live tree, I don’t think I’ll lose sleep over our choice. But I’m still rooting for our 10-year old artificial tree. It’s not the prettiest tree, but pulling it out of the box doesn’t expend any additional resources — other than my own.
Theresa Crimmins is the associate director for the USA National Phenology Network and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. She holds a Ph.D. from the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona.