Trees can help reverse effects of climate change

green wavy leaves with acorns
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As the summer progressed and the news filled with increased extreme weather events came across our screens, it became even harder to ignore the impacts of climate change on our lives. Especially when those impacts hit hard at home from increased vector diseases to the flooding in Northeastern Illinois. Then, the International Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, came out with an even stronger harbinger of our changing climate with some of the strongest language ever used to describe the likelihood of changes in the climate over the next century.

The IPCC’s Working Group 1 released their contribution for the Sixth Assessment Report on the physical science basis of climate change. There are three main takeaways:

  1. Our climate is currently changing at an unprecedented rate due to human activities, and we are more certain of that now than at any other time. (the term used to describe this in the report was “unequivocal” or leaving no doubt).
  2. In future projections of climate change across all scenarios (ranging from net negative emissions to very high emissions), there will be an increase in the global temperature over the next 30 years.
  3. By limiting CO2 emissions, we can limit human-induced global warming, however, it will take approximately 20 years to see the effect of that limiting.

Those three takeaways alone seem very daunting and can cause many of us to follow a spiral of despair when it comes to climate change, but it does not mean that all hope is lost. It means that reducing our emissions and adapting our landscapes for the future are now more important than ever. We can use this knowledge to inform our future decisions regarding our lifestyles, landscapes, and actions.

Given that we are in OAKtober, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the impact and choices we make regarding our trees.

Using trees as a method of climate mitigation is not new. Researchers have found that increased tree populations in urban areas can reduce the heat island effect, improve energy efficiency- reducing cooling costs of homes, and improve air and water quality in that area. In a 2011 study of the ability for trees to sequester carbon, researchers found that the Urban Forest of Chicago has a carbon sequestration rate of 25,200 tons/year which is valued at $14.8 million/year.

The positive impact of trees goes beyond direct climate mitigation. Trees positively impact human health, reduce crime rates, and reduce noise pollution as well.

This idea may seem easy-peasy, however planting trees to mitigate climate change does have some considerations before jumping in headfirst. First, trees are not and can not be the only method we have to mitigate the impacts of climate change. It is simply a tool to increase carbon-storing. Additionally, we have drastically altered our forests and some may not recover to their original carbon-storing glory.

Lastly, as trees are typically a long-lived organism, their ability to adapt to the change in climate that is expected must be considered in restoration and landscape efforts. These factors should be considered when decided what species of tree and where to plant it and also when restoring forested ecosystems, but it certainly should not deter us from considering a tree when planting them in our landscape or assisting in the restoration efforts of forests.

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Abigail Garofalo is an Energy and Environmental Stewardship Educator for Cook County. She manages the Cook County Master Naturalist program and the Conservation@Home program for University of Illinois Extension. She has a BS in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences and MS in Agricultural Leadership Education both from University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. Her background in is environmental outreach and interpretation and works to create a culture of environmentalism through community building.

Naturalist News is a blog by University of Illinois Extension Master Naturalist staff and volunteers who bring you stories highlighting the individuals, places, wildlife and plants that make this state amazing. Join us each week to learn something new, be inspired and become connected to your own community by recognizing the amazing ways we are all intertwined.

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