Can Trees Really Fight Climate Change?

published on July 13, 2020

Hey smart people, Joe hereFact: Earth is experiencing climate changeon a scale and pace never before seen sinceour species has been on the planet, and we’recausing it by pumping more heat-trapping carboninto the atmosphere than Earth’s naturalsystems can take outNow fixing a problem as massive as climatechange is gonna take a ton of different solutions,but more and more people are asking if treesmight be a big part of the answer For thepast 370 million years or so, they’ve beenone of the major ways Earth sucks excess carbon

Out of the atmosphere and stores it awayAnd along with green plants and algae, thisnatural technology captures carbon betterand cheaper than any human technology we’vecome up with so farBut, can trees actually make a big enoughdifference in cleaning up our mess? Or arewe… well, barking up the wrong tree?I’m gonna dig into 3 different ways treesmight help solve climate change: Planting

A bunch more trees, saving the trees we’vealready got, and whether the field of syntheticbiology might give scientists the power tohack photosynthesis and make trees even betterat being treesOPENIf you were paying attention to YouTube lastyear then you probably heard about TeamTreesA project created by MrBeast, with help fromMark Rober, to raise $20 million dollars to

Plant 20 million trees by… well, now 2020And they succeeded Or really, all of us didWe basically took over YouTube with tree videos,and to date, TeamTrees has raised over twenty-ONEmillion dollars to plant 21 million trees,which is insanely awesomeBut the TeamTrees team made one thing veryclear: Planting a few million trees isn’tgoing to solve climate change on its ownSo, like, what does 21 million trees do forthe climate? Tom from the channel Aspect Science

Made a great video analyzing how TeamTreesworks that you should check out  But… longstory short, 21 million trees covers a lotless area than you think, and according toresearchers , an area of new forest thatsize can capture 4 million tons of carbondioxide… spread out over tens of yearsConsidering that the world is emitting almost10 *billion* tons of carbon every year, wewould have to do TeamTrees literally thousandsof times to plant enough trees to suck it

All up Sounds pretty impossible, doesn’tit? Well it might not be“Meet Felix Finkbeiner”Today we want to convince the world to planta trillion treesThat's roughly the number of trees we havespace for globallyThe seed for this idea began when Felix wasin just fourth grade, during a presentationI was giving about climate change back thereto tell my classmates that we should plant

1 million trees in each country of the worldMy classmates loved the idea they were superenthusiastic about planting trees over Afew weeks later we planted our first treewithout really knowing where we would go fromthere Local journalists reported about thisfirst tree, that's how some other schoolsfound out about it and that's when a realcompetition kicked off – who would plant themost trees and that's how plan for the planetspread a few years after that class projectFelix his group planted its millionth tree

And he was invited to tell a story beforethe United Nations But for us children forestsare our future and there he met someone veryspecial, by far the most important personin this story was a woman called man GavinMatai from KenyaThere are some people who’ve changed theworld in incredible ways that almost everyoneknows about Gutenberg and the printing pressAlbert Einstein and relativity Jonas Salkand the polio vaccine But there are othersthat, for some reason, we never learn about

Wangari Maathai is one of those people Maathaiwas an African biologist who had an idea:women planting trees across Africa could improvecommunities, conserve the environment, andimprove human rights at the same time Shewon the Nobel Peace Prize for her work, butfew people know her nameOne of them most beautiful things she didwas she said she used tree planting as notonly a tool for a nature conservation, butalso for women's empowerment When I was nine

Years old I heard about this fantastic work,but I didn't I didn't understand the truedepth I only understood that tree plantinghelps tackle the climate crisis and savesthe polar bear She won the Nobel Peace Prizefor her work, but few people know her nameSo what impact would planting a trillion treeshave? We used to have a roughly six trilliontrees on earth, so this was before humansstarted cutting them down, and now we haveabout half of that remaining So we've gotthree trillion instead of six trillion trees

Now Ideally we'd when I come back I go backto the six trillion right, get back everytree we lost, but of course we need spacefor our settlements and much more for agricultureBut we can get about another one trillionback They wouldn't solve the climate crisison their own, of course, we also need to drasticallyreduce our global co2 footprint, but theymake it possible to ensure that the globaltemperature does not rise by more than twodegrees And if we manage to plant these treesthey would capture about a quarter of human-made

Co2 emissionsRemember, trees are basically big carbon storagemachines that suck CO2 out of the atmosphereand turn it into more tree Cutting thosetrees down and either burning them or lettingthem decompose just puts that carbon backin the atmosphereMost deforestation happens in Earth’s tropicalregions If this tropical deforestation werea country, it would be the third biggest emitterof carbon in the world after China and the

US Almost 1/3rd of all the world’s carbonemissions since 1850 have come from deforestationThese days, forests remove about a quarterof the CO2 humans emit into the atmosphereeach year and store it away There is morecarbon locked up in the world’s trees thanin all the fossil fuels still remaining inthe ground  And beyond carbon, tropicalforests act sort of like the planet’s airconditioning They pull moisture out of theground, release water vapor into the sky,and literally create rain and weather patterns

Across the globe Cutting down these tropicalforests can raise nearby temperatures by asmuch as 3˚CSo keeping the trees we have is essentialif we want to keep climate change from gettingeven worse To put the challenge into scale,if TeamTrees gave us 21 million trees? The2019 Amazon wildfires that took over socialmedia? They burned at least a billion treesAnd this year’s Australian bushfires mayhave burned more than 10 billion trees

Luckily, protecting the trees we already haveis cheaper and easier than planting new onesBut natural processes like photosynthesis,on land and in the ocean, are only absorbingabout half the CO2 we currently emit everyyear I mean, if you think of this like money,we’re spending more than we earn in ourcarbon budget And many experts think savingtrees and planting as many new ones as wecan are both part of the answerBut there is one more idea that could makea big difference, and it relies on something

Called “synthetic biology”When plants like trees take carbon dioxideout of the air, they use a tiny molecularmachine inside their cells called an enzymeto grab CO2, stick that carbon onto anothermolecule, and eventually make sugar Thismolecular machine’s name is a mouthful–Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphatecarboxylase oxygenase–but you can call itRuBisCO for shortJust about everything on Earth that does photosynthesis–algae,cyanobacteria, grass, trees–you name it,

Uses RuBisCO to grab carbon out of the airScientists think it’s the most abundantenzyme on Earth This little molecular machinehas completely reshaped our planet Problemis… RuBisCO isn’t very good at its jobMany molecular enzyme machines can carry outthousands of chemical reactions in a singlesecond RuBisCO is super slow It can onlygrab 5 to 10 CO2’s every second And, about1 out of every 5 times, RuBisCO grabs thewrong molecule–oxygen–instead of CO2,

And wastes energy in the process If we couldmake this biological chemistry work betterand faster, maybe we could pull even morecarbon out of the atmosphereSome scientists have put genes for RuBisCOinside bacteria in an effort to rapidly evolvea more efficient enzyme By manipulating thegenetic sequence in the DNA code for the enzyme,researchers can make many more versions ofRuBisCO than nature can on its own, and perhapsone will be faster and more efficient at grabbingcarbon out of the sky

Other researchers are digging through theenormous toolbox of chemical reactions thatexists in nature to look for totally new waysto capture carbon These researchers startby designing a highly efficient chemical reactionon paper, then plugging in individual molecularmachines from different species in order tobuild the chemical process from scratch Theseare pathways that don’t exist in nature(built almost like Legos) by combining differentmolecular machines that DO exist

But even if scientists do figure out a wayto improve on biological chemistry, we can’tinstantly go upgrade every photosyntheticorganism on Earth, including trees But itmight give us a new way of capturing carbonusing biological reactors at places whereemissions are high, or even lead to devicescapable of artificial photosynthesis thatcan work alongside the trees and plants wealready haveUnfortunately, it will take decades of researchto engineer these molecular machines to be

Even close to what nature can already do todayusing low-tech carbon-sucking, light-eatingmachines like trees Trees are a solutionwe already have But as I hope you’ve realizedby now, even if we saved every tree that alreadyexists, and even if we planted trees in everyspot on Earth that could hold them, we stillwouldn’t be absorbing all the climate-changingcarbon that we emit each yearThe bottom line is this: No matter what climatechange solution we are talking about, whether

It’s trees or electric cars or next-generationnuclear reactors or synthetic meat… noneof it will work unless we stop putting somany greenhouse gases into the atmosphereIt’s really that simple Solving climatechange isn’t just about what we do, it’sabout what we stop doing tooStay curious

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