How Much Carbon Does a Tree Capture? Why We Need Other Options

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TLDR: In regards to carbon management, many people ask “how much carbon does a tree capture?” While trees play a vital role in capturing carbon through the process of photosynthesis, it is not enough to offset the large amounts of carbon produced by human activities. To effectively mitigate the impacts of carbon emissions, we need to adopt a comprehensive approach that includes not only the preservation and growth of forests, but also the implementation of carbon capture and utilization projects. It is not an either-or solution, but a combination of efforts that must be pursued simultaneously. By working together, we can be one step closer to a net-neutral future.

How Much Carbon Does A Tree Capture? Why We Need Other Options

As the amount of carbon in the atmosphere continues to increase, there is a growing need to lower our collective carbon footprint. One of the most effective ways to do this is through CCUS (carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration) projects like Heartland Greenway. However, many wonder why we can’t just plant more trees.  Trees are a wonderful resource for reducing part of our carbon emissions, but it’s become too big a job for trees alone. How big? Let’s start with answering the question — how much carbon does a tree capture?

So, how much carbon does a tree capture?

Trees, plants, and other forestry take in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, which means planting more trees should reduce CO₂ levels, right? Not exactly. 

During the photosynthesis process, a chemical reaction creates and releases oxygen into the atmosphere that we need to breathe. In addition to the intake of CO₂ and the release of oxygen, trees also store carbon dioxide in their fibers, which helps continue to clean the air and reduce the effects of CO₂ on the environment. 

So, while trees are helpful in filtering out carbon dioxide, how much they can handle is the bigger question.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a typical hardwood tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide in a year. That means it will uptake approximately one ton of carbon dioxide by the time it is 40 years old. For perspective, a pine tree can absorb 30 pounds per year, and a birch can capture 20 pounds per year.  A small shrub may only capture a few pounds. 

Keep in mind these numbers are just estimates and may vary depending on the specific tree and its location. Trees in urban areas tend to capture less carbon than those in forests due to factors such as air pollution and competition for light and water.

The only problem is that on average, human activity puts about one billion tons of CO₂ into the air each year —  which is significantly more than trees take in, leaving far more carbon that needs to be captured. This is why many people are calling for additional decarbonization methods. Once built and fully operational, Heartland Greenway will capture up to 15 million metric tons of carbon per year.

Here are the key problems with trees as the sole means of offsetting our carbon impact.

Problem 1: Trees take time to grow

In order to offset the amount of carbon dioxide we produce as humans, the number of trees we would need, in addition to the trees in our existing forests, would be extremely large.

We would theoretically have to plant 4 billion trees to keep up with the amount of carbon dioxide we’re producing. Then, wait for four decades to see if the amount of mature tree growth is still efficient enough to offset the amount of carbon dioxide we are producing at that time. 

Although it’s a great idea, in theory, there just isn’t enough supply or time to meet our current needs, as we would always be in a carbon absorption deficit waiting for the growing trees to catch up with our carbon-capturing needs.  

Heartland Greenway, will have a have a completed full-scale CCUS platform built and operating in less than two years, which means there are 38 additional years mitigating carbon as opposed to waiting for trees to grow. 

Problem 2: Trees need specific environments to thrive

When we talk about trees as a means of carbon storage, we are talking about certain tree species that are fully grown with mature leaves. These species of trees need to thrive on high CO₂ levels, and not all trees do. 

Those trees only grow in specific environments, which limits the number of places we can plant them. 

Additionally, the current amount of CO₂ we are releasing into the air is resulting in a significant impact on trees, including an increase in their leaves. Although this may seem like a good thing, this fast growth of trees and leaves is actually resulting in a shorter overall tree lifespan, which means the trees will die much sooner than the size they would need to be to have a significant impact on carbon. 

However, CCUS pipelines used by Heartland Greenway take up a negligible amount of usable space as they are buried underground and are unaffected by the elements.

Problem 3: Trees need a lot of space

As humans continue to migrate throughout the country — and the world — there is a continuous need for new infrastructure. The global technological world makes it easier than ever for people to work remotely, which means that more and more people are choosing to live in new destinations, driving up home-building and deforestation in less populated areas.

Unfortunately, much of that space is needed for the number of trees necessary to offset our carbon emissions

However, once fully operational, the Heartland Greenland infrastructure will have the capacity to capture and store 15 million metric tons of carbon emissions, the annual equivalent of 18.3 million acres of US forest. That’s almost half the state of Iowa!

This means we could get all of the benefits of reforestation without having to wait 40 years for trees to grow, or replace existing farmland and homes with trees.

Problem 4: Trees don’t live forever

Although it varies greatly depending on the species of tree, on average, trees live for a few hundred years. That may seem like a long time, but knowing it takes trees almost 40 years to get to their full carbon-capturing potential, we would need to be continuously planting new trees to prepare for tree loss. 

Plus, once a tree dies, its biomass — which includes all of the carbon it has absorbed — begins to decompose. During the decomposition process, the carbon is then released back into the atmosphere. This means the newly planted trees would spend some of their capacity absorbing carbon from tree death, not human activity.

Problem 5: Continuous human carbon production 

Most importantly, trees simply can’t keep up with the amount of carbon we, as an industrialized society, are producing.

Even if we did have enough space to plant enough new trees of the right species that could eventually (after decades) mitigate the amount of carbon dioxide that is being released today, there would still be almost 40 years of carbon production and greenhouse gas emissions in the meantime that would have to be properly disposed of. 

Additionally, our current activity as humans continues to disrupt our forest ecosystems, which can reduce many of the carbon offsets trees may have.

Given these limitations, it is clear that we need additional resources to capture and sequester carbon effectively. One proven option is implementing large-scale CCUS technology like Heartland Greenway.

Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Sequestration

If you’re not familiar with Heartland Greenway or the term CCUS, (carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration), it is innovative infrastructure and technology that captures, dehydrates, and compresses CO₂ from the industrial source into a liquid and then transports it via underground pipeline. The CO₂ can be reutilized by other applications like soda production, protein processing, or wastewater management, or sequestered by injecting it more than a mile underground, far below critical water sources.

According to the CCS Association, we can now use CCUS to capture more than 95 percent of carbon dioxide before it is released into the atmosphere, which takes a lot of stress off of trees to do the work. 

If you’re wondering why we need to worry about carbon, it all comes down to quantity. 

For quite a long time, the Earth’s carbon cycle was balanced, as the amount of CO₂ that was stored in plants, such as trees, was greater than the CO₂ we were emitting as humans. However, after the Industrial Revolution in 1750 and uptick in the burning of fossil fuels, human activities drastically increased the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. 

As the amount of carbon dioxide released continues to increase, there can be harmful effects on the environment and the people, plants, and animals that live there — this includes potential impacts on the climate, extreme weather changes, lower air quality, and lower plant and animal diversity, all of which can have significant impacts on things like agriculture, business, and even overall quality of life. 

Since we know that planting trees alone can’t capture the necessary amount of carbon to fix this problem, we need to actively start taking steps to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, or these issues will continue to get worse. 

The good news is that we know that CCUS works, and according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), carbon capture and storage captured 40 million metric tons of CO₂ in 2021 alone, which is far more than mature trees can capture. Although this will make a significant impact, that number still needs to increase to keep up with our current carbon production, which is why we need additional carbon sequestration systems. Heartland Greenway’s technology will allow the Midwest to reduce carbon dioxide emissions drastically and is going to be a driving force in helping North America — and the rest of the world — reach net zero.   

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