When emissions turn personal: How many trees are needed to offset your carbon footprint?
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions need to fall by 50% between 2020-2030 and reach 'net zero' by 2050 in order to meet targets set under the 2015 Paris Agreementi. The global debate that surrounds climate change typically focuses on governments and companies, overlooking the ultimate driver of emissions: the consumer.
How consumer choices impact the environment
All emissions are generated ultimately to accommodate consumer behavior and spending patterns. Consumers' day-to-day activities – from taking a shower, to buying products, to using transport, to watching television – all carry what the average person tends to underappreciate as their personal emission footprint.
This underappreciation and/or lack of understanding may, in turn, explain the difficulties in changing consumer behavior in order to reduce emissions and achieve long-term climate change targets.
How trees offer a solution
Reforestation offers potential in fighting climate change as trees are natural "capturers" of carbon dioxide (CO2); the primary culprit behind GHG emissions. Currently, approximately 30% of annual CO2 emissions get stored or captured by the world's forests (natural sequestration). Some 47% of emissions remain in the atmosphere, with this share expected to grow under more extreme global warming scenarios and without aggressive (re)forestation plansii.
Unfortunately, in just over 30 years, a global total of 420 million hectares of forest has been lost due to deforestation. Even the Amazon forest has become a net emitter of carbon. Announced reforestation plans by key countries, whilst positive, appear to address less than 15% of current annual CO2 emissionsiii.
Lifestyle activities and their associated Treeprint
'Treeprint' refers to the number of mature trees (and their carbon-storage potential) needed in order to offset emissions associated with a certain activity. Once consumers appreciate the Treeprint necessary to counterbalance their carbon footprint, they can reduce certain activities accordingly, or plant the calculated number of trees in order to create a net carbon footprint.
The carbon footprint of some lifestyle activities – divided into eating and drinking, travel and tourism, clothing and shopping, fitness and entertainment, and domestic activities – and their associated Treeprint may be surprising. For example, switching from a steak frites meal to a vegetarian Bolognese would result in a 94% drop in emissions. Car-related emissions are predicted to make up 56% of all domestic travel-related transport emissions by 2030iv. And a white tea is 87% better for the environment than a latte.
All emissions globally are ultimately generated in order to accommodate consumer behavior and spending patterns.
There are no easy solutions to halting climate change and achieving net zero. By taking the time to understand and reduce their most environmentally intense daily activities, consumers can better appreciate their personal role in contributing to these global goals.