Patrick Moore, Ph.D. , is the co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace. He is now an independent ecologist/environmentalist and proponent of sensible environmentalism.
As a lifelong environmentalist and leader in the international environment movement for more than 40 years, I've come to the conclusion that trees are the answer. To what you ask? Many of the questions about the future of our economy and environment. Questions like:
- "What is the most environmentally friendly material for home construction?"
- "How can we pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and how can we offset the greenhouse gas emissions caused by our excessive use of fossil fuels?"
- "How can we make the earth more beautiful and green?"
- "How can we provide more habitats for wildlife and biodiversity?"
- "How can we build healthy soils and keep our air and water clean?"
The answer to all of these questions and more is "trees."
Trees and forest ecosystems are essential for a sustainable future. We should be planting more trees and using more renewable wood, not less, as many leaders in today's environmental movement content. Wood is our most important renewable-energy resource, and is key to reducing our reliance on nonrenewable fuels and materials.
Wood is Good
Wood is the material embodiment of solar energy. The chlorophyll in the leaves of trees causes a reaction among carbon dioxide from the air, water from rainfall, and minerals from the soil to make the miraculous substance known as wood. When we burn wood to heat our homes, we are simply releasing the energy of the sun captured by the tree when it was growing in the forest. When we use wood to build our homes, we are storing the solar energy and carbon the wood contains.
Simply put, wood is the most abundant and environmentally friendly renewable source of energy and building material on earth. About 75 percent of all renewable energy comes from wood, used mainly for heating and cooking, as well as for making charcoal, drying lumber, and producing pulp and paper. In fact, two billion people – about a third of the world’s population – depend on wood as their primary source for heating and cooking. Wood provides more than 90 percent of our available renewable materials for buildings, furniture, packaging, and sanitary products. Activists place huge importance on solar panels made from nonrenewable aluminum, silicon, and gallium arsenide. But the most important solar collectors on earth are leaves and needles from trees.
Forests and Climate Change
Activists claim that forestry has a negative impact on the climate due to the release of CO2, from decomposing wood after it is harvested. But they fail to take into account how new trees absorb all that CO2 over time as they grow into a new forest. Nothing pulls more carbon from the air than trees. That's why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change supports growing more trees and using more wood as the best way to offset greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalists also fail to account for the reduction in wildfires in a managed forest, which reduces the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere.
When we use harvested wood to build homes, we are not using nonrenewable materials such as steel and concrete. Manufacturing these materials requires large amounts of energy often generated by using nonrenewal fossil fuels, thus putting more CO2 into the atmosphere. The combination of harvesting trees and reforesting, suppressing wildfires, and using wood instead of nonrenewable materials has a large net positive impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
A Healthy, Beautiful Habitat
Once a forest is cut, it isn't gone forever as environmentalists often claim. In fact, the new forest that grows back after logging is as diverse and beautiful as the one it replaced. Neither the biodiversity nor the spiritual quality of the original forest is automatically lost when a new forest appears.
And new forests can be purposefully managed to resemble the original forest. In nearly all of North America, second-growth forests are composed entirely of the native tree and plant species that were present in the original.
The truth is, forests and all the species in them are capable of recovering from total destruction without any help from us. They have been doing so for hundreds of millions of years as ice ages have come and gone, and fires have regularly ravaged the landscape.
But through careful forest management, forest area is growing in industrialized countries, not declining. And more forest area equals greater biodiversity. Even monoculture forests with exotic species of trees have much more diversity than surrounding farmland and towns.
Forests also help ensure healthy soils, clean water, and purified air using only biology, not technology. Trees produce soil with their litter and decaying trunks and limbs, and then they filter the water flowing through their roots toward streams. Their leaves and needles scrub pollution from the air.
Forestry Companies Grow Forests, Not Destroy Them
Activists would like us to believe the forest industry destroys the forest. But forestry companies are in the business of growing trees, not removing them permanently. Up until about 250 years ago, forests were exploited and the land was converted to farmland or forests were left to grow back on their own. Today the art and science of silviculture has emerged to increase the wood supply and feed the growing demand for wood.
Because of forest management, the forested area of Europe has tripled from 10 to 30 percent over the past 200 years. Similarly in China and India, the demand for food products has resulted in a doubling of forest area in recent decades.
The forests of Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, and Japan are all stable or growing in area because of sustainable forestry management. In the U.S. and Canada, we have the same amount of forest we had 100 years ago, despite tripling populations and even a larger increase in wood-products consumption.
When we buy wood from a lumberyard, it may seem we are causing a bit of the forest to be lost somewhere. But what we are really doing is sending a signal to the marketplace. The more wood we use, the more trees must grow and therefore the more land that will remain forested. Trees are no different than any other renewable crop; they just take longer to mature than annual farm harvests. As long as the demand for wood is strong, landowners will plant trees that supply wood – and that’s a win-win solution for the environment and the economy.
From the practical question of what to build a house with, to how to make the world prettier, trees provide an obvious solution. In other words, I am a tree-hugging, tree-cutting, tree-planting fanatic. Trees are indeed the answer.