Not long ago, we recorded and posted the 25th episode of our “Path to Zero” podcast. The subject at-hand was environmental justice and energy equity. That idea is revisited here but first, a quick focus on 25 as a milestone is in order. As each “Path to Zero” episode wraps up, we make a small contribution to the environment by planting a tree in honor of that episode’s guest. They pick the place, then we arrange the donation with the location, typically a national forest. With 25 trees now planted around the world, it’s a nice idea to imagine these trees as connected to one another, even if it is in a virtual way through our very own Propane National Forest.
It turns out to be more than a gesture. Not long ago, Brooke Jarvis, a contributor to Wired Magazine, declaredtrees as “The Greatest Climate-Protecting Technology Ever Devised.” About half of their mass is pure carbon that isn’t getting into the air, and old trees, by virtue of their age and size, can hold far more carbon than young ones. It’s true that young trees sequester carbon faster, but older, larger trees pull in the heaviest carbon loads. A 2017 study found that natural climate solutions – trees, along with grasslands, peat bogs, forest soils and other natural carbon eaters – could provide as much as 37% of the cost-effective carbon sequestration needed between now and 2030 to keep the worldwide warm up from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius.
Some aren’t happy about this pro-tree conversation. They view it as a shiny object that influencers, including fellow scientists, use to distract from the alarming and immediate need to slam the brakes on all fossil-based carbon emissions.
A Wider Path to Net Zero Emissions
That orientation is woefully out-of-step with the kind of thinking needed today. We live in an era where an “all of the above” point-of-view –– a wider path to net zero emissions –– ought to prevail, so frankly, it’s frustrating to see tunnel vision attitudes get ink in the opinion columns.
The World Bank tells us fossil fuels provide about 80% of the energy powering the world today. Advocating for an immediate stop isn’t realistic, and even with much greater awareness of the issue, it isn’t happening. The latest study from the Rhodium Group shows, in fact, that the U.S. is nowhere near on track to meet the recent White House pledge of 50%-52% U.S. cuts by 2030. Wide path thinking allows for more ideas to help. It also allows trees to be celebrated for all they do as shade and oxygen factories as well as dutiful carbon sinks.
When Good Trees Go Bad
Next question: Can we fireproof our trees? That would be wonderful because when it comes to wildfires, trees turn from terrific to terrifying.
Wildfires are once again raging across the West. While California is typically the focal point, the fires aren’t containing themselves to its borders. Across Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona, extreme temperatures are baking places like Las Vegas and St. George, Utah and trees are burning.
Burning wood throws soot into the air creating smog. Smog is close to the ground air pollution that stings the eyes and is especially hard on the lungs. Well-documented contributors to smog include heavy-carbon (gasoline, diesel) vehicles as well as industrial sources but smog can also be a product of burning wood. In fact, wood-burning fireplaces belch out 40 times more in emissions than, for example, propane fireplaces, which is one reason why places like Arizona have banned the practice for many years.
The absence of trees is also a recognized signal for the lack of equity in urban neighborhoods. Pew recently released a study with this challenge: “low-income neighborhoods and communities of color have significantly less tree canopy.” Increased heat, the island effect in cities, is not good, and neither are the negative health effects.
Strangely, in 2018, the EPA declared that burning wood is carbon neutral. That logic is tenuous, especially since burning wood puts CO2 in the atmosphere immediately and it takes between 40 and 100 years for re-planted trees to pull it out. Unfortunately, the idea has prompted the creation of biomass facilities that burn wood to fuel the all-electrification movement. It’s a bad idea. To quote a Tufts University professor, “I can’t think of anything that harms nature more than cutting down trees and burning them.” Even environmental hawk Bill McKibben, who once advocated for biomass burning, has reversed his support for the practice.
Precision Energy Innovation Holds The Key
No energy is perfect. Hydrogen, today’s newest future energy darling, isn’t all that it appears to be. Separating hydrogen from water by electrolysis requires massive amounts of electrical energy and substantial amounts of water. One physicist put it plainly: “More energy is needed to isolate hydrogen from natural compounds than can ever be recovered from its use.”
Nuclear, an absolutely obvious idea in the wide path era, has a reputation problem so deep that not even the new small modular reactor being built by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates is likely to change perspectives. Heavy carbon fuels like diesel are obviously problematic and even short-chain hydrocarbons like propane – more hydrogen than carbon – aren’t perfect solutions. All of these, however, can play a role in the path to net zero emissions if they’re used more precisely. In the case of trees and wood for fuel, precision means not at all, especially when obviously cleaner, low-cost options are available.
Precision energy innovation is finding its way into everything from truck engines to microgrids to camping stoves that allow people to enjoy the outdoors without harming it. As we’re investing in new technologies, however, it’s good to remember that trees, especially old ones, continue to make a substantial contribution to our net zero emissions future.