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Climate change and trees – a palliative and not a solution

Written By: - Date published: 12:00 pm, July 20th, 2016 - 108 comments
Categories: climate change, global warming, science, sustainability - Tags:

One alleviation that is often suggested for reducing or even reversing the effects of climate change is to plant trees, or some other form of vegetation. This is to suck up surplus carbon dioxide and to put it into a solid and relatively inert form. And it does. However to anyone who  has been trained in earth sciences or geology and who has acquired the timescales that says a thousand years is a mere blink of an eye, the idea seems ludicrous.

While in bed with some kind of bug, I caught up on my backlog of online version of The Economist. It included an article “Ravaged woodlands” talking about the effects of the warming in  the USA. It is worth reading to get an idea of the problems involved with using growing plants as a carbon store, especially during active climate shifts.

Politicised, documented and culturally sensitive, the ravaging of America’s forests is an important gauge of man’s ability to mitigate and adapt to the warming he has caused.

The scale of the tree loss is staggering. Last year over 10m of America’s 766m acres of forest were consumed by wildfires, sparked by lawn mowers, campers or lightning (see chart). This was the biggest area burned since 1960, when records began, despite a firefighting effort that involved over 30,000 people and cost the federal government over $2 billion.

This year’s fire season was expected to be less severe, winter rain and snow having taken the edge off a four-year drought in California and Oregon that had turned their woods to tinder. Yet it is running at par with the average of the past ten years, which include the five worst years on record. In the year to July 1st, 2.1m acres of America were razed by nearly 26,000 fires; 19 large ones are currently blazing, mainly in the West (see map).

The growth of wildfires is a worldwide problem, with even bigger burns elsewhere.

Of course as well as the shifts in water precipitation and temperatures, there are also have ecological shifts that accompany them. These are just as lethal for woodlands, jungles, and most organic stockpiles of carbon.

The devastation wreaked in American forests by insects is less headline-grabbing, but ecologically as dramatic. Last month the United States Forest Service (USFS), another of the federal agencies that together manage nearly half the land in western states, said that, since October, it had recorded 26m trees killed by the mutually-reinforcing effects of bugs and drought in the southern part of California’s Sierra Nevada range alone. That suggested 66m trees had died there since 2010.

Such destruction, caused partly by warming, will itself cause more warming. Many American forests are growing denser, in part owing to a reduction in logging, which makes them a significant carbon sink. They suck in greenhouse gases equivalent to around 13% of what America emits by burning fossil fuels. Yet the USFS predicts that within a couple of decades, because of slowing growth and climate-related blights, the forests will become an emissions source.

So a bare 150 years after the start of the excess fossil carbon being blown into the atmosphere, organic carbon sinks are starting to fail. The same effects are likely to happen across most Continental areas with their harsh extremes of weather and climate. Typically in the geological history, any major shift in climate will cause significiant shifts in ecological balances and especially with large plants.

From a geological timescale, the only longer term sequestration mechanisms for carbon have been some peat bogs, areas with rapid deposition of sediments over and with organic materials, and the accretion of carbonate shells. Typically these are all formed with large bodies of water and are quite geologically slow in their storage cycles.

While there are a number of man made artificial geological sequestration techniques, they look more like aspirations than being feasible on any widespread scale.

Shorter term sequestration methods using living plants simply don’t look possible to act as anything more than a wasteful palliative. The approach is unlikely to be able to to be effective over the thousands of years that the major existing released greenhouse gases will have an effect. Climate changes themselves and the downstream economic and societal effects are highly likely to disrupt any widespread program of carbon sequestration in plants within decades rather than the centuries they’d need to operate in.

And even if we stopped excreting excess carbon into the atmosphere and oceans today, my personal assessment is that we are likely to look forward to average worldwide temperatures at the end of the century well above 4 degrees Celsius. The International Panel on Climate Change tends towards conservatism because they only look at the known or highly likely effects. Since we simply don’t know a lot about the effects of rapid climate change in human timescales, there are likely to be a more feedback effects that enhance rather than diminish the effects of climate change. Look forward to ever more rapid climate changes and extreme weather.

What we do know is that plants and soils tend not to store large amounts of carbon when they are experiencing rapid climate shifts. They usually wind up burning or dying. So for the tree huggers amongst us (like me), perhaps this would be a good time to start encouraging a nice peat bog and the trees that grow with very wet roots.

108 comments on “Climate change and trees – a palliative and not a solution”

  1. Siobhan 1

    When I look at satellite pictures of NZ the brown blob that is the Kopuatai Peat Dome always makes me sad..there should be so many more.

    • Draco T Bastard 1.1

      When I look at satellite pictures of NZ I see the huge amount of damage that has been done by humans on our ecology. Before the arrival of humans here NZ had about 80% to 90% forest coverage. That had been seriously decreased by Māori and European arrival has made it even worse.

    • Macro 1.2

      Kopuatai Peat Dome – If you ever get the chance to visit – grab it.

      For those unfamiliar with the Peat dome – try hunting Fred the thread… who only lives in the cane rush Sporadanthus ferrugineus which only grows in the Kopuatai Peat Dome. A Ramsar Site. Access only through DOC permit etc.
      The thing about the peat dome is that it will only support the cane rush and other similar species because compounds such as phosphates are not present. The peat is built up (around 9 m deep) in what was once the Waikato river bed – diverted after the last major eruption from Lake Taupo.

    • Chooky 1.3

      thanks for that Siobhan and Macro on the Kopuatai Peat Dome…didnt know it existed

      one of my favourite books is Geoff Park’s ‘Nga Uruora – the Groves of Life: Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape’ ( Victoria University Press, 1995) …which is a history and exploration of some of the special swampy lowlands and the Maori kaitiaki or environmental caretakers (i wish they would reprint this special beloved book taonga..but I think it can still be got on Amazon)



      (Kaitiaki is a New Zealand term used for the Māori concept of guardianship, for the sky, the sea, and the land. A kaitiaki is a guardian, and the process and practices of protecting and looking after the environment are referred to as kaitiakitanga.)

  2. Draco T Bastard 2

    Clean energy won’t save us – only a new economic system can

    When it comes to climate change, the problem is not just the type of energy we are using, it’s what we’re doing with it. What would we do with 100% clean energy? Exactly what we are doing with fossil fuels: raze more forests, build more meat farms, expand industrial agriculture, produce more cement, and fill more landfill sites, all of which will pump deadly amounts of greenhouse gas into the air. We will do these things because our economic system demands endless compound growth, and for some reason we have not thought to question this.

    The simple fact of the matter is that to stop climate change then we need to change our economic system to one that doesn’t require the continued destruction of the environment.

    We need better ways to feed ourselves that allows us to bring food production fully into the city that it’s feeding. This will get rid of the hugely damaging farms and reduce GHG emissions from farming.

    We need to recycle everything so that we can cut down mining and other extractive industries to the bare minimum.

    Once we’ve pulled all the people into the cities then we can let nature take care of herself. Stop trying to keep the forests as they are because it simply won’t work. Yes, some species will go extinct but new species will also evolve. The land will flourish and green things will grow helping to reduce CO2 and other GHG gasses in the atmosphere in the short term and, as they die and return to the soil, become store for the long term as well.

    It’s what’s been happening ever since life arose.

    It’s us who are the problem and it’s us that need to change.

    • I tend to disagree with pulling people into the cities and let nature sort herself out. I prefer that we embrace nature and work as a part of nature by going back to the land, back to nature. It is and will be possible to live fruitful, rewarding and fulfilling lives simplier in the land. It is more likely because people have done it before whereas your proposal seems not like that. It wll still take hard work and plenty of tears but it is doable imo.

      • Draco T Bastard 2.1.1

        I consider that it is unlikely that we’ll be going back to being ignorant peasants.

        • weston

          you can stay in town if u wanna draco an eat artificial gmo bean curd or whateva as for me id rather be a so called ignorant peasant and live a full simple life growing what i can and providing the rest of my sustenance by hunting and fishing kinda how i do now .You can keep your city .

        • marty mars

          Ignorant peasants wow they were your ancestors too lucjy bastard

          • Draco T Bastard

            Yes and they spent centuries getting rid of the ignorance.

            • marty mars

              They knew more than you’ve forgotten. But please mock your ancestors all you want after all you descend from them.

              • Draco T Bastard

                Dude, our ancestors are the ones that started to systematically destroy the environment. That tells me that knew SFA.

                And I’m not mocking my ancestors at all. Just accepting that they were ignorant and that they worked to overcome that ignorance.

                You who want to return to nature seem to want to embrace that ignorance.

                • Colonial Viper

                  Pfffft. Save your modern man superiority complex Draco. The people who have truly fucked this world have done so in the last 50 years. So if you are talking about world destroying “ignorance” you just have to look at your parents generation and your own.

                  I’ll even better you one. Since the early 1990s everyone has known that disastrous climate change is on the cards. Yet we’ve done sweet FA about it.

                  So while our generation is not ignorant of the dangers, we are just grasping, greedy and ineffective.

                  • Yep the damage has been exponential, we don’t have to look far to find the real ignorane it’s usually the smiley face on the other side of the mirror. We are going to have to go back to go forward and luckily that is doable.

                • I agree with Draco. The damage was not done recently, “in the last 50 years”. The thinking that brought us here has been festering for 10’s of thousands of years and to see how we should be acting requires that we recognise what went wrong. Humans didn’t always act this way and some humans still don’t. Those that decided to take this path way back then, gained an advantage and used it ruthlessly. Their decedents (us) must look back before the moment when our people chose this totalitarian way, to see what humans did and thought before we stepped up onto our pedestal, and look sideways to see what the cultures that suffered at our hands still believe. That’s where we will find the path humans now need to follow. Whether we have time to do that is the question being debated here, I reckon. In summation, this is not a recent development.

            • b waghorn

              And yet you’ve managed to distil and hold onto 100% 0f your ancestors ignorance.
              Would you really trust big old corporates to deliver you your daily food as a lab grown goo.

              • Draco T Bastard

                When have I ever said that I trust corporates?
                What has corporates got to do with what I actually said?

                • b waghorn

                  oh comon you want us all to live in cities and give up farming. The only way that can be done is large scale goop farming in petree dishes .
                  Only big buiseness could feed 7 + bill humans in a closed loop.
                  Of course there are some of use who can’t digest even simple things like gluten or soy milk so the transition to goop will kill em.

                  • Draco T Bastard

                    The only way that can be done is large scale goop farming in petree dishes .

                    Not necessarily. Vertical farming looks promising.

                    Only big buiseness could feed 7 + bill humans in a closed loop.

                    Actually, big business couldn’t do it at all. Neither could small business. The reason being that a closed loop doesn’t allow for profit. Closed loop cities will force us to accept real economics and drop the delusional socio-economic system that we have now.

                    Of course there are some of use who can’t digest even simple things like gluten or soy milk so the transition to goop will kill em.

                    If that were true then they’d already be dead.

        • Robert Guyton

          Ignorant? Why do you say that? Enlightened soil-managers, more like. Your world view is … cynically-tinted, Draco.

      • Psycho Milt 2.1.2

        Yes, the interest level in a return to peasant life isn’t likely to be high. Also, subsistence agriculture for a population of 7 billion+ is a non-starter.

        Mind you, the way things are going the survivors in a couple of centuries might not have much of a choice about being ignorant peasants…

        • mauī

          The interest level doesn’t have to be high, you don’t have any choice if you can’t afford oil and there’s no trucks running in the streets. You’ll be heading straight to your garden.

          • Psycho Milt

            Should a day come on which governments react with consternation to there being no more oil and start wondering how people are going to transport things now, we’ll certainly all deserve to starve to death.

            • mauī

              It’s not a case of no oil, but oil that regular people can afford. That’s why some argue that the oil price got to $30 a barrel recently because much of the world economy is in the toilet and people can’t afford it. Anyway I don’t remember our government preparing us for $2 dollar a litre petrol and they won’t be preparing us for the eventuality of an oil shock either. Considering the region where we get our oil from is a major war zone I think we’ll be better off working out our own transport solutions, not looking for top down answers.

        • b waghorn

          I wouldn’t mind betting the survivors will be the very elite shit bags that are refusing to act on cc. I know if i was a 1% er i’d be fitting out a bolt hole with all sorts of bits n bobs to make surviving a shit storm more likely.

        • marty mars

          They won’t be survivors any more than you are.

          • Robert Guyton

            I reckon B Waghorn is right, but it doesn’t matter and getting snarky about them is only going to hamper our own efforts. Hating on others is self-defeating. Those who clawed their way to the top generally stay there, no matter what. Envy’s a poison. Let’s not sup from that chalice. We’ve got things to do.

            • marty mars

              Yes good point. I meant they will be people living, doing their best, with what they have, just like us.

            • b waghorn

              snarky who me? believe it or not i’m a cheerful bugger on the inside, i just use the standard to get it off my chest.

              • I didn’t mean that you were snarky, b. To be successful, we have to look to our own work, not the machinations of those who aren’t on board.

        • Robert Guyton

          Because you frame it as “peasant life”.
          Language is powerful. Use it for the betterment, Psycho.

  3. adam 3

    Thanks for that, even if it was a tad depressing.

    Silly question, would then draining swamps at this point be a very bad idea?

    I was thinking the mad rush for swamp Kauri.

  4. Stuart Munro 4

    I’m not sure I buy that planting is a wasteful palliative – non biological sequestration approaches thus far don’t seem to be very realistic.

    The problem with peat bogs is their relative inactivity – they lay down their carbon over millenia. But they’re a low activity system – they’d take millenia to absorb excess carbon.

    Planting on this scale can change climates. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/07/india-plants-50-million-trees-uttar-pradesh-reforestation/

    Jared Diamond found two states that successfully used reforestation to completely change their environment.

    NZ is fortunate in that we have among the fastest tree growth rates in the world. A government, as opposed to a failing neo-liberal kleptocracy, might harness that environmental advantage for good.

    No hope for the Key failed state of course – but fortunately humans don’t live forever.

    • Molly 4.1

      “I’m not sure I buy that planting is a wasteful palliative”

      Planting can have a number of other benefits to a transitioning world – apart from the negligible contribution to reducing climate change: reintroducing biodiversity, cleaning toxic land and water, sequestering water, helping to change the wider society’s view of values, giving workers a non-destructive method of earning their wages etc.

      Climate change is a multi-pronged and evolving problem, and a shift of many current ways of production and economy need to change to have a chance of addressing it. Even if planting is not the answer, it does have benefits that are part of it.

      • marty mars 4.1.1

        Yes and fruit and nut trees and so on for free food.

      • gsays 4.1.2

        yes to planting trees, however not the hectares of pinus radiata we have done in the past.

        as well as the reasons above, also for building purposes. macrocarpa, some gum species, totara etc.

        i forget where i heard this: rain falls where trees grow.

        not that this will save us from the effects of CC, palliative actions are appropriate now.

        • mauī

          Dense totara forests could be planted and gradually thinned out, unfortunately they don’t grow quite as fast as pine but still reasonably quick. Such a useful timber with it’s natural preservative. No idea why farmers haven’t used totara for shelter belts – building material, wind protection, natural restoration.

          • weston

            thanks for the cool story about the forest man maui i really enjoyed that an yeah lots of trees dont grow as quick as pine but then again pine is only good for firewood really and only soaking it in poisonous chemicals renders it ok to make buildings etc Farmers i.m.o.are quite often dumber than the animals they farm so not supprizing that they havnt in general taken full advantage of natives for shelter etc Dracos cliche of the “ignorant peasant ” could fully include most of the population including himself if being blind to alternatives was what was being pointed out .

        • Robert Guyton

          “palliative actions are appropriate now”

          plus, plus, plus. Let’s get busy!

        • Molly

          “i forget where i heard this: rain falls where trees grow.”
          Wangari Maathai is worth researching on this topic.

          Came across a documentary on her a few years ago, and she referred to the traditional respect given to “sacred trees” in her home village. When she returned after many years away, the trees had been cut down in many of the traditional communities, and with the loss of the trees came a reduction in traditional water sources. The trees acted as repositories, and water channels and natural pumps. When they were cut down, those sources dried up.

          The Green Belt movement was a grassroots movement that caused political and state outrage.

      • mauī 4.1.3

        Planting can have a number of other benefits to a transitioning world – apart from the negligible contribution to reducing climate change: reintroducing biodiversity, cleaning toxic land and water, sequestering water, helping to change the wider society’s view of values, giving workers a non-destructive method of earning their wages etc.

        Nice! Can also add stopping erosion, cooling water, providing shade on a hot summers day and providing shelter from the wind and rain, relating humans back with their environment. Here’s an inspiring video about an indian guy who planted his own forest.

    • Siobhan 4.2

      Re your “Planting on this scale can change climates.” I was wondering if you can provide a link that confirms this, as the article you linked to was about new plantings with a depressing 40% death rate.

      Jared Diamond cites Japans high level of forestation, and Iceland, but both seem to be cases of ‘changing the environment’, largely cutting erosion, rather than having any effect on emissions and therefore climate.

      I’m all for planting trees, and even more importantly stopping deforestation, and for a variety of environmental reasons, but finding any evidence of Planting in relation to Carbon Emissions is rather sketchy, in fact the whole thing, that is, thanks to the Emissions Trading Scheme, seems to be some sort of ponzi scheme.
      Tree planting is starting to get the same ‘token’ aspect as people buying not-quite-free-range-eggs and getting their shopping in brown paper eggs. Even our local furniture store has a big sign claiming “Everyday we plant a tree”, though I notice they recently painted that out so maybe the locals saw through that!

      • Stuart Munro 4.2.1

        Diamond of course wasn’t focusing on emissions per se, but on the environment from a human perspective of providing resources to alleviate poverty, especially food poverty. Japan was very successful at this, and Haiti and the Dominican Republic provided an interesting comparison of forested and non-forested ecologies on the same island – albiet with differing microclimates.


        I’m afraid you must ask someone else to endorse emissions trading – folk who routinely evade taxes were never going to run carbon credits as anything but a scam.

        Given that nothing else within the spectrum of emissions mitigation actually consumes CO2, planting is certainly one of the elements of reducing the harm. But a major lifestyle upgrade is overdue – though those invested in the status quo are likely to resist it. Such changes tend to be generational because ultimately there is no persuading stupid backward and corrupt munters like our current government. They will only respond when the harm affects them directly.

        Using forests for climatic purposes is here https://escholarship.org/uc/item/55d483sg#page-1 though as they point out forestry mitigates numerous local climatic effects, not just carbon.

        • Robert Guyton

          The returned forests will play a significant role in sequestering carbon, but nowhere near as important as farmed soil. A new culture of soil management will pull gazzillions of tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere and clutch it to its humic bosom.

          • Stuart Munro

            Sounds like Fukuoka

            Click to access Onestraw.pdf

            • Robert Guyton

              He was surely on the path but recent work by some in the biological farming industry have unveiled a process involving crop combinations that sequester carbon at an unprecedented rate. According to their spokesperson, farmers could save the day, if it’s at all save-able, by cropping us out of trouble. It would have to happen globally and it would have to have happened yesterday. Coupled with tree-planting and some other initiatives (keep that coal in those holes etc.) these proposals give me hope and that’s why I continue to plant and sow, cheerfully. In any case, the model for managing the environment and all that sail in her, is better learned from the plants than from scientists, in my view. I listen intently to what the scientists say, and I pay close attention to what I see and hear in my garden 🙂

          • Chuck

            “The returned forests will play a significant role in sequestering carbon, but nowhere near as important as farmed soil.”

            Biochar is a nutrient rich carbon based fertiliser, as a carbon sequestration solution it allows the soil to act as a carbon storehouse.

            I have seen reports that the worlds cultivated soils have lost 50 – 70% of their original carbon stock.

            2,500 billion tons of carbon in the worlds soil, compared to 800 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere and 560 billion tons in plant and animal life.

            Biochar is a viable option to aid carbon sequestration.

            • Robert Guyton

              Hi Chuck. I don’t reckon so. Charcoal is ‘dead’, though it can host life. A dynamic, living process will be the solution to our stuff-up, imho. Biochar seems a ‘silver-bullet’ sort of solution and doesn’t ring true to my ear. Happy to be corrected though.

              • Chuck

                Hi Robert, research is on going re- Biochar benefits to improve soils. To-date its been positive.

                For a local example http://biochar.co.nz/

                • Thanks, Chuck. I wonder if the terra preta soils were constructed using charcoal and humanure? Those societies had to have been disposing of their dung somehow. Nutrient out, nutrient in, that’s the way! Jungle soils are thin, with all the nutrients held in the vegetation. Burning that seems retrograde. Fungi can deconstruct lignin without all the heat and smoke, and add value as they do it.

                  • Chuck

                    If you have time this is a good read Robert.


                    • Thanks, Chuck. I did read it. I found this:
                      “If I told you that there was a soil amendment capable of: sequestering carbon; improving water holding capacity; increasing pH and CEC; capturing, holding and preventing nutrient leaching; reducing the need for mineral fertilisers; enhancing soil biology; increasing plant growth, productivity and health; remediating damaged and polluted soils; and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, you might reasonably be skeptical.

                      But with over 4000 peer-reviewed scientific publications on the topic, the evidence is mounting to back up this long list of claims. The material is biochar.”

                      My response is: yes, but the material is … humus.

        • Siobhan

          Thank you Stuart, I shall read this and try to make sense of it.. To me ‘it makes sense’ to plant trees, but then it seemed logical to protect American wilderness forests from fire…and look how that turned out.

    • save nz 4.3

      +100 “I’m not sure I buy that planting is a wasteful palliative”

    • Lloyd 4.4

      Tell the Zimbabweans about this. They have Robert Mugabe. Seems to live forever.

  5. Bill 5

    Just throwing this in ‘because’. Was watching a rather depressing doco on bio-fuel for power stations and how the southern wetland forests of the US are being clear-felled to provide the Drax power plant in the UK with wood-chips…delivered by fossil fueled shipping etc….

    Anyway. There was a biologist who pointed out that trees essentially grow from the air and not the ground. I think he reckoned that the total mass in a mature tree that comes from the earth (I guess he was talking dry weight or some such) was just a few kilos. Make sense when you think about it. Damn Disney and Warner Bros for planting false images!

  6. We’ve put the carbon equivalent of every tree grown since Christ through our exhaust pipes just in just the last 5 years. Which is about 15 cubic kilometers of crap. That isn’t including coal or natural gas.

    • weka 6.1

      Well if we’re going to throw around wild figures, some of the regenag people claim that soil farming can sequester all the carbon emitted since the industrial revolution.

      • Robert Atack 6.1.1

        Oct. 27, 2003 – A staggering 98 tons of prehistoric, buried plant material – that’s 196,000 pounds – is required to produce each gallon of gasoline we burn in our cars, SUVs, trucks and other vehicles, according to a study conducted at the University of Utah.
        “Can you imagine loading 40 acres worth of wheat – stalks, roots and all – into the tank of your car or SUV every 20 miles?” asks ecologist Jeff Dukes, whose study will be published in the November issue of the journal Climatic Change.

        But that’s how much ancient plant matter had to be buried millions of years ago and converted by pressure, heat and time into oil to produce one gallon of gas, Dukes concluded.
        Dukes also calculated that the amount of fossil fuel burned in a single year – 1997 was used in the study – totals 97 million billion pounds of carbon, which is equivalent to more than 400 times “all the plant matter that grows in the world in a year,” including vast amounts of microscopic plant life in the oceans.

  7. This morning I planted 9 trees. Just sayin’. I plan to plant a further 20 tomorrow, despite the thunderstorm that’s brewing as I type. Many trees grow easily from cuttings. This weekend, I’m working with a team of 12 people to fill a 10m x 3m cuttings bed with willow, native fuchsia and other tree cuttings. If there was something beyond the science that you are batting about on this post, it/they would, in my view, be rooting for us. While Robert and co tell me how futile my efforts are, I’ll be planting more trees and will keep planting trees until I’m too frail to stand.

  8. weka 9

    I’ll have a read of the Economist article later when I have time, but a few initial points,

    “What we do know is that plants and soils tend not to store large amounts of carbon when they are experiencing rapid climate shifts. They usually wind up burning or dying.”

    Soil farming uses nature mimicking closed loop cycles to sequester carbon. I’m not sure what happens to that when you get say a prairie fire, but I’m guessing it’s a different effect than a forest fire. The main way to release carbon from land that is sequestering in the soil is to plough it. So there is a double thing here. The cessation of the human made emissions from land misuse, and then the sequestration and other significant benefits from regenag. Soil farming isn’t a silver bullet, but if we were doing the right things (reducing human generated emissions), we could then find that the natural cycles we can engage with are more helpful. We need multiple strategies (and they all require an end to fossil fuel burning).

    There’s something going round twitter about the forest fires in Russia too. Scarey stuff. However, ecologies that have fire cycles presumably have also have historically had an equilibrium i.e the carbon emitted in the the fire part of the cycle is sequestered in the regrowth cycle, so stabilising the overall balance for the planet. I’d want to know in the longer history when we have had the numbers of fires we have now, and how those ecologies functioned. Needless to say, protecting forests is of paramount importance, and we should be using human systems to enforce that as much as possible, including restricting human access to vulnerable places.

    I’m not really a big fan of the maths, and prefer to apply the principles of deep green thinking which suggest that everything we do should be mimicking natural closed loop cycles and then to do additional activities to sequester additional carbon on top of that (plus stop emitting). All of that is doable, urgent and imperative no matter what the prognosis. Having said that I would be interested to see the audit on forests globally, land cleared, and where the balance lies in terms of additional forest fires vs what would happen if we were replanting (and not ploughing etc).

    I don’t really get the geographical time frame bit. Carbon has short and long cycles, shouldn’t we be trying to restore all of them?

    • lprent 9.1

      Basically I think that maths is worth pursuing. While we might lose the odd top of the pyramid over geological time, the trend in biological complexity is still towards more.

      But basically soils are pretty damn fragile. Ask Icelanders.

      • Pat 9.1.1

        I think your overstating the risk of forrest fires and die off in any case….even in a fire storm aftermath it is common to see standing trees (stored carbon) and regrowth is rapid….it is not a 100% loss.

        There is also the fact that while some areas will become more susceptible to fire and poor growth success other areas will improve with the changing weather patterns..nothing ventured nothing gained.

        There is one fact that cannot be disputed…it cannot be detrimental

      • weka 9.1.2

        “But basically soils are pretty damn fragile. Ask Icelanders.”

        I’m going to make an educated guess that Icelandic soil problems are due to habitat destruction by humans. Soil in intact ecosystems is pretty stable as far as I can tell. That’s from following the regenag work, which is in part based on biomimicry of the big plains systems in the US and Africa. The cycle of herd animals periodically grazing and fertilising over long periods of time builds carbon deep in the soil and there is stays unless something disturbs the soil or the cycle.

        Even where you have forest fires, I think the soil disturbance is from the heat but that recovers, and those fire cycle ecosystems are pretty fertile because the soil is relatively intact.

        Fire plays an important role in the forest carbon cycle. When a fire occurs, a portion of the trees, plants, grasses and other biomass are consumed and converted to CO2 and other gases, and another portion is converted to charcoal, an essentially permanent form of storage. Only 10 to 30 percent of the biomass in a forest is actually consumed by a fire; the majority remains on-site. Live trees will continue their role in the carbon cycle. Dead trees will slowly decompose and release carbon to the atmosphere or make new soil carbon. Regrowth after a fire will recapture carbon from the atmosphere, reversing the fire’s emissions. About one to 10 percent of biomass killed in a fire is converted to charcoal, a uniquely stable form of carbon that will persist for thousands of years.


        The question there is how much of the carbon cycling is released via decomposition and how much is captured in soil.

  9. Macro 10

    And just to “cheer” you all up – Conditions are Ripe for an Intense Fire season in Amazonia.
    By the way June was the 14th consecutive month of record Monthly Global Temperatures . The warmest June since records began in 1880.

  10. Throughout history, people have always enjoyed a cheery fire.

  11. b waghorn 12

    The main thing i get from the linked article is that yet again man has messed with the natural cycle ie putting out fires by 10 am the next day causing mega fires .
    Saying that planting trees is pointless plays into the nat line of we can’t do anything so why try.
    Planting will not be a silver bullet but it will help.

    • There are many fire-proof/retardant trees and shrubs that will serve as living fire-breaks. Tree technology is the field to be investing in 🙂

      • b waghorn 12.1.1

        people at my level don’t invest, but i did plant 20 trees in the last couple of days.

        • Robert Guyton

          20 is 20 steps forward, good for you and us. People at every level can “invest” in trees. Staying your chainsaw-hand is an investment. Cheering on a tree-planter is another 🙂

  12. Colonial Viper 13

    And even if we stopped excreting excess carbon into the atmosphere and oceans today, my personal assessment is that we are likely to look forward to average worldwide temperatures at the end of the century well above 4 degrees Celsius.

    This. I think we will see average global temps increase at about 0.5 deg C each decade now, with that rate of increase itself growing, decade by decade.

    2 deg C increase by ~2030 is now utterly unavoidable IMO.

  13. Colonial Viper 14

    Shorter term sequestration methods using living plants simply don’t look possible to act as anything more than a wasteful palliative.

    Correct. We need a broader approach. That of increasing the biomass of the entire planet, permanently.

    It’s not just trees, we need to increase the biomass of the planet, the same biomass we have been demolishing at a massive rate, by hundreds of gigatonnes, and sustain it. Forests, animals, jungles, fish stocks, plankton and more.

    • “wasteful palliative” – what are you talking about! What’s “wasteful” about a palliative? Don’t you understand the purpose of a palliative at all? You know, the “relieving pain” bit?
      ” relieving pain without dealing with the cause of the condition.”
      The “cause” of climate change is, by popular vote here, impossible to deal with. That leaves you with … palliative care and one other thing, hope. We are, collectively, not so clever that we can be certain that there is no way at all to solve the crisis. There is, therefore, hope. I’m for taking those measures that relieve pain, and at the same time, keeping a hopeful eye out for improvements to the patient’s condition. All else is self-defeating. Personally, I don’t yearn for defeat.

  14. Draco T Bastard 15

    2016 Climate Trends Continue to Break Records

    Two key climate change indicators — global surface temperatures and Arctic sea ice extent — have broken numerous records through the first half of 2016, according to NASA analyses of ground-based observations and satellite data.

    Each of the first six months of 2016 set a record as the warmest respective month globally in the modern temperature record, which dates to 1880, according to scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York. The six-month period from January to June was also the planet’s warmest half-year on record, with an average temperature 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the late nineteenth century.

    • Colonial Viper 15.1

      THanks for the link Draco.

      1.3 deg C, and during a time that El Nino has receeded as well.

      We are so fucked. We’ll hit 2 deg C warming before 2030 easily.

      Remember circa 2006 we were at 0.6 deg C to 0.8 deg C warming. Ten years later we are up 0.6 deg C.

      Another ten years and we will be sitting just under 2 deg C warming. Then chuck in the 1.0 to 1.5 deg C forced cooling due to global dimming. And we are clear over 3 deg C warming with approx 1/3 of it hidden by global dimming.

  15. Kriss X 16

    When a tree dies and decomposes all the CO2 is released back into the atmosphere.

    CO2 is not man made. It is simply liberated back to where it came from.

    It helps if you stick to the science and do not use it as a platform to advance political and social ideology.

    • Yes and if it wasn’t for all that CO2 being ‘sequested’ into the soil etc, humans would never have evolved, but we have sure fixed that, just a waiting game now for the environment to catch up to the 800 ppm+ CO2/ CO2e
      Planting seeds in the ground is a hell of a lot better than planting them in wombs )

    • What a load of nonsense, Kriss X. You have no understanding at all of how lignin from trees is transmogrified into humus and stored in the soil? Why then do you bother commenting here?

    • lprent 16.3

      You have to gain a geological timeframe. The vast limestone beds and the other carbon storage phases of our geological history allowed humans to be created.

      Of course as thinking beings we have to reverse that low temperature thinking by reversing that greenhouse cooling….


    • Stuart Munro 16.4

      Trees decompose slowly. In the time it takes for one to decompose a new one can grow. CO2 from burning fossil fuels is man made.

      • Pat 16.4.1


      • mauī 16.4.2

        If you go for a walk in one of our beech forests, the old tree that has come down often has hundreds, maybe thousands of young beech saplings growing in the light well it’s opened up. That’s only a year or two after the tree has come down too, so its barely started breaking down. To me anyway this seems like a carbon negative event.

  16. Pat 17

    Trees may not be the solution, indeed human extinction is likely the only solution however reforestation (on a massive scale) should be attempted unless we have decided the situation is hopeless….which I suspect will be the conclusion in the very near future.

    so as we say goodbye we can at least enjoy the shade of a tree.

    • Pat – you can expect much more than that, imo, from an active relationship with trees. Plant them, fight for those that already grow and they will reward you enormously. Don’t stop, keep going, plant them and plant them. Side with the trees, eschew the doomsayers.

  17. Lloyd 19

    Ok LPrent, you think planting trees is a waste of time because they burn, even though most of NZ has a wonderful tree growing climate (at least now – and probably into the future – we are surrounded by oceans which provide rain).

    How about shells made of calcium carbonate? New Zealand has one of the fastest growing shell-fish – the green-lipped mussel. This bivalve grows so fast that the Maui platform sitting off the coast of Taranaki has to be water-blasted by divers regularly to stop the accumulation physically overloading the drilling platform.

    Mussels filter out zoo-plankton from sea water – leaving more phyto-plankton, which will absorb more carbon dioxide from the sea – a positive feedback loop in favour of sequestration.

    If we filled the south Taranaki bight with mussel farms we could sequester more carbon dioxide than we produce, making New Zealand much more like 100% pure.

    Main problems I see are:

    – consenting.

    -providing a growing surface without strangling passing cetaceans.

    – servicing the farms with as low a carbon dioxide production as possible (electric boats?).

    -storing the shells in a permanent manner.

  18. Murray Simmonds 20

    And the elephant in the room:

    Green plants (trees included) not only strip the carbon out of CO2 and sequester it in one form or another (mostly the lignin in wood in the case of woody plants), They also happen to produce oxygen as a by-product of the process.

    Oxygen just happens to be quite handy stuff to have around in the atmosphere. The internal combustion engine for example comes to a grinding halt without it.

    As does breathing.

    I’m off to plant some more trees . . .

  19. Murray Simmonds 21

    In other words:

    There are very few natural processes on this planet that are capable of reversing the inexorable process of oxidation.

    Photosynthesis, by reversing the process of carbon-oxidation, just happens to be one of them.

    I unashamedly vote for photosynthesis!

  20. One Anonymous Bloke 22

    Lprent, what’s your opinion of the Carbfix project?

    Basaltic rocks are abundant on the Earth’s surface; ~10% of the continents and much of the ocean floor is composed of basalt…

    The theoretical mineral CO2 storage capacity of the ocean ridges, using the Icelandic analogue, is orders of magnitude larger than the anticipated release of CO2 caused by burning of all fossil fuel on Earth. The storage capacity of basaltic rocks worldwide is therefore huge.


  21. Jenny 23

    Good to see a post like this that hi lights the intractable nature of the problem. And from someone who has studied earth sciences, who can confidently state that on current projections we are heading for a 4 degree C rise in global average temperatures. When we see what difference 1 degree C rise has made, it is not hard to imagine that 4 degrees C would be catastrophic, entailing massive death and destruction on a truely global scale.

    Climate change is the greatest human and environmental crisis/challenge of all time. (bar none, but a still possible, all out, global wide, thermo-nuclear exchange. In my opinion, [you might agree], all out thermonuclear war would be less damaging to the biosphere than climate change).

    So what do we do if planting trees will not be enough to sequester all the excess CO2 we are producing, and have produced in the past?

    We need to cut back.

    ”Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it”
    Oscar Wilde

    What humanity can do about “the weather” is cut back fossil fuel production.

    The minimum we need to do here in New Zealand is end new extreme fossil fuel extraction methods like deep sea oil drilling.*

    Deep sea oil drilling is New Zealand’s version of the XL Pipeline**, a symbolic red line on climate change that should not be crossed under any circumstances.

    The key here is that New Zealand is responsible for only 0.2 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. This means that our greatest contribution as a nation to fighting climate change must be by setting an example.

    As well as canceling all deep sea oil drilling and exploration.

    A permanent moratorium needs to be placed on opening up any new coal mines. At present there are 3 proposed new coal mining projects in the pipeline and about to be started in this country.

    At one time Lynn I remember you did a post, going into the last election, where you asked us what should The Standard become?

    I remember commentating on that thread, that The Standard become a campaigning and advocacy website pushing political demands to shape events rather than just being a commentator..

    An on-line Thunderer if you will.***

    Why for instance should Groups like Greenpeace, Forest and Bird, Oxfam and others, have to run petitions and collect over 63 thousand names to get the politicians to debate climate change when this is the issue of our age?


    Every party needs to be challenged over their support for climate destroying operations such as deep sea drilling and new coal mines. The Standard editorials could champion this.

    *[In a talk given by Gareth Hughes of the Green Party about deep sea oil drilling, Hughes spoke of being on an MP tour of an off shore oil drilling platform. He was impressed, and said you couldn’t fault their safety and environmental procedures, and realistically the chance of a spill is very slight. But, he said we must oppose deep oil drilling firstly on climate change grounds.
    (of course there is always some risk of a spill which can never be completely negated, which even National admits).]

    **[It’s argued by some that by developing the oil sands, fossil fuels will be readily available and the trend toward warming of the atmosphere won’t be curbed.
    Mr Obama’s decision to approve or refuse the pipeline is therefore held up as symbolic of America’s energy future…
    …”But Keystone, a piece of steel, something you can picture farmers having to deal with it, it’s much more evocative and emotional for environmentalists, and they’ve done a lot of work to elevate it as a symbol.”
    On the Republican side, Senate Majority Leader McConnell has said Keystone XL is just common sense.
    “It’s a shovel-ready jobs project that would help thousands of Americans find work,” he said. “It would increase our supply of North American energy. And it would do all that with minimal net climate impact.]

    ***[WHY IS The Times called The Thunderer?” asks a reader from Bedfordshire. “Is it because of its fierce editorials berating the governments of the day? They don’t seem to be as fierce today as, say, in the 1960s, although some of your columnists can be very fierce!”]

  22. Jenny 24

    “While there are a number of man made artificial geological sequestration techniques, they look more like aspirations than being feasible on any widespread scale.”

    This above statement seems to hint at a condemnation of the Emissions Trading Scheme which relies heavily on carbon credits from so called “sequestration”.

    Currently every political party from the Right to the Left in parliament, except National and Labour, have called for the scrapping of the ETS.

    This could be one of the things that the The Standard could campaign for. If the Labour Party could be shifted from their support for the ETS there is a very real chance that the opposition parties could win a members bill and defeat and embarrass the government over this issue.

    Without the ETS the government, (or some future government), to meet our signed up for international obligations, would probably have to take some more meaningful action against climate change.

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