Harnett County,
North Carolina

Cooperative Extension 

Should I plant a tree to offset my carbon footprint?


Question Should I plant a tree to offset my carbon footprint?

Answer It is extremely difficult to be brief and accurate with a response to this question. Carbon gases are part of the atmosphere that surrounds the earth. Solar radiation reaches the earth, then it is trapped by carbon gases as it tries to escape back into space. Greenhouses use plastic or glass to trap solar radiation which warms their interiors. This process is natural, and life on the earth as we know it would not exist without this effect. Some scientists think the earth’s temperature would be nearly 54 degrees (F) cooler without the “greenhouse effect.”

Nowadays some people are concerned the carbon gases in our atmosphere are increasing and therefore trapping more heat. This would cause our average temperatures to rise. Some scientists estimate the earth’s temperature rose slightly over 1 degree in the 20th century. Keep in mind the earth’s temperature has been rising and falling in cycles ever since the earth was formed.

While this process is natural, our impact on the environment is not. It is logical that humans should be good stewards of the earth which they rely on for their existence. Many techniques have been proposed to slow the increase of carbon gases. A few examples include renewable energy (which do not produce carbon byproducts), methane collection, energy efficiency, industrial pollution management and land-use change.

Land-use covers solutions like forest management. Trees take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Trees also store the carbon. That’s what plants primarily consist of – carbon. So everybody agrees that trees should be planted to help solve our problem.

Here’s the catch. Not all trees trap the same amount of carbon. However, scientists now believe the big difference between efficiencies is related to location. The place with the most bang for our arboreal (means tree like) buck is going to be the rainforests. No big surprise there. The surprise relates to the other locations. Some scientists think planting trees outside the tropics will actually raise the earth’s temperature. They think the sunlight absorbed by the trees will negate the carbon trapped by the same trees. This situation is most obvious in snow covered areas.

Snow reflects more energy than trees. Therefore, snowy regions stay cooler when they are covered with snow instead of trees (called the albedo effect).

Most of the United States falls somewhere between the rainforest and albedo effect. Planting trees certainly won’t hurt us in NC, but it may not be silver bullet we need. Maybe we should look at the hundreds of other reasons to plant trees.

For more info on the “greenhouse effect”, visit http://www.ucar.edu/learn/1_3_1.htm or http://www.eia.doe.gov/bookshelf/brochures/greenhouse/Chapter1.htm If you do not have internet access, then call 893-7530 or email me at gpierce@harnett.org

Two other natural solutions include volcanoes and fishing holes. Volcanoes can’t be controlled, but they can cause global cooling. Yeaaaa, Mount Redoubt. http://www.geology.sdsu.edu/how_volcanoes_work/climate_effects.html Digging a pond may be our best solution. Some scientists think, acre for acre, fresh water ponds are better carbon traps than our trees or oceans. http://www.pondconservation.org.uk/News/pressreleases2008/pondstrapmorecarbonthantheworldsoceans.htm Daddy was right. Sometimes we’re better off going fishing.

Gary L. Pierce

Horticulture Extension Agent

Harnett County

Board of Commissioners
GIS Portal
Register of Deeds Search
Employee Information