How Counting Trees Might Save the Planet

Trees use sun, rain and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen
Trees capture carbon from the atmosphere

Over the last few months I have been reading up on carbon capture technologies. I have been wondering for a while why there is so little discussion about carbon capture of trees. We are developing complex carbon capture technologies, a lot of high-tech solutions. But what about planting plain old trees, is that too low tech? So let’s take a look …

An interesting article from the Independent pointed me to ecologist Dr. Thomas Crowther and the Crowtherlab in Zurich. That in turn lead me to Trillion Trees, a collaboration between WWF, BirdLife International, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.  Their goal is to end deforestation and restore tree cover.

It turns out we have been underestimating the number of trees on earth. Crowtherlab is using a novel approach of counting by combining data from ground-based surveys and satellites. They arrived at a much higher number of trees than we previously thought: Three trillion, seven times more than we thought.

That sounds great! More threes than we thought. But not so fast… They also estimate that there were 6 trillion trees at the dawn of civilization, and that we continue to lose around 10 billion trees per year to human activities.

OK, now we do get into high tech again: By using AI and machine learning Crowtherlab predicts the number of trees that could be planted in empty patches and on degraded land worldwide. Their vision is to add another trillion to our current three trillion trees.

How can we add that many trees? The Trillion Trees collaboration’s vision has three components: 1. Planting new trees, 2. Halting tree loss, and 3. Protecting established forests.

While this is a vision for now, adding that many trees would capture massive amounts of carbon.

Planting an additional trillion trees would cancel out 10 years of carbon emissions.

What excites me most about this research is that translates into action. Based on Crowtherlab’s numbers, the Trillion Trees collaboration has developed updated targets. The conclusion? Planting trees on a large scale could capture massive amounts of carbon. Stay tuned for updates, more results and numbers.

Carbon Capture: Can Rocks Do the Job?

Here is an inspiring approach to removing carbon from the atmosphere: Pulverize volcanic rock, and then spread it over fields and farmland instead of fertilizer. The technique is called “enhanced rock weathering”. The Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation is investigating if this technique can be used to safely remove carbon from the atmosphere to cool our planet.

In a blogpost, Prof David Beerling, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation, explains how it works:

In nature, rain erodes rock over millions of years, breaking it down into small pieces. The rock grains react with carbon from the air. They pull carbon from the air into soils and eventually into the ocean, where it’s stored.

Pulverized rock sequesters carbon and is washed into the ocean
Pulverized volcanic rock captures carbon from the air and stores it in the ocean

His project is speeding this million year process up by using pulverized rock. By spreading it over fields, it pulls carbon into the soil and eventually into the sea.

Even though the project is a very early research project and estimates are still uncertain, here are some mind boggling numbers: Applying basalt powder to the corn belt of North America might sequester as much as 1.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – equivalent to 13% of the global annual emissions from agriculture.

What an inspiring project, I can’t wait to hear more about it as their research progresses!