Why a real tree might be your most environmentally wise choice

Why a real tree might be your most environmentally wise choice

It’s the holiday season again, and in the midst of making to-do lists and prepping for festive dinners, some people will once again ponder whether it is better for the environment to buy an artificial Christmas tree or to opt for the real thing.

It’s a good question to ask. We’re in the midst of a climate emergency and are becoming increasingly aware of our environmental impact.

Many of us are more likely to think about climate change when making purchases through the year. It makes sense to wonder if leaving trees in the ground to continue growing might not make a better contribution to the fight against climate change.

A natural tree of average size has a carbon footprint of about 3.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent — about the same as driving a car 14 kilometres.

This footprint increases dramatically if the tree is sent to landfill. When it decomposes, it will produce methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and generate a much larger footprint — close to 16 kilograms of CO2e.

If the tree is composted or recycled, a common practice in many major cities — the environmental footprint remains low.

By comparison, a two-metre tall artificial tree has a carbon footprint of about 40 kilograms CO2e, based on the production of the materials alone.

Different types of plastics are used in artificial tree products. Some, like polyvinyl chloride, are very difficult to recycle and should be avoided. Polyethylene trees, which tend to look more realistic, have higher price tags.

The vast majority of artificial trees are produced in China, Taiwan and South Korea. Shipping from these distant factories increases the trees’ carbon footprint.

An artificial tree has to be re-used for 10 to 12 years to match the footprint of a natural tree that is composted at end of life. Even then, recycling the materials in artificial trees is so difficult that it is not common practice. Some old trees can be repurposed, but most artificial products will end up in a landfill.

This gives ecologically minded Canadians some sense of the impacts of their choice. But other factors are also at play. Real trees are becoming scarce and more expensive. In the United States, the average price of a real tree in 2019 has increased to US$78 from US$75 in 2018.

Weather has taken a toll on Christmas trees. In the U.S., hot weather and too much rain are considered contributing factors to a shortage of trees, and wildfires damaged or destroyed some farms. Heat waves in 2017 and 2018 killed young seedlings in Oregon and will impact tree supply in years to come.

Climate change will likely exacerbate these factors and could drive up the price of trees for years to come. Researchers have found that certain pests, like the balsam twig aphid, already a major pest in the Quebec Christmas tree industry, will likely increase in a warming climate and harm commercial fir plantations.

Economics has also played a role in tree availability. Today’s trees were planted around the time of the recession of 2008.

The impacts of this economic downturn were far-reaching in the industry. As demand fell during those years, many growers went out of business. This reduced the number of trees planted and contributed to the scarcity in today’s Christmas tree marketplace.

Is it time to give up on real Christmas trees?

Holiday trees provide wildlife habitat, protect soil, moderate floods and drought, filter air and sequester carbon while they grow. Tree farms also provide local economic benefits that don’t come with foreign-made products.

The changing climate may not mean the end of holiday trees. Studies carried out in the Appalachians suggest that trees at lower elevations may be more likely to suffer from pests and damage as climate change progresses. They also found that tree farms at higher elevations may benefit from a longer growing season.

Research into the effects of temperature and precipitation extremes on cone formation may help growers maintain or enhance tree growth in response to changing environmental conditions. Forward-looking Christmas tree farmers may start planting a greater diversity of tree species to weather the impacts of climate change.

It is clear, however, that holiday trees face increasing risks from a changing climate and not all producers will be able to adopt cutting-edge methods; some will not choose the right trees.

Most Christmas tree operations in Canada are family businesses without deep pockets, and the costs of relocating tree farms to more friendly climes or higher elevations may put others out of business.

The cost of a Christmas tree will likely continue to rise in the future.

Warren Mabee is director of the Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University in Ontario. This piece is reprinted from The Conversation under a creative commons license.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Paul Harris, owner of Tribe restaurant downtown, said a lot of the blame for the latest restrictions that will close outdoor patios on Sunday can be blamed on those not obeying health regulations and the government for failing to enforce the rules.
Photo by Paul Cowley/Advocate staff
Restaurant owners frustrated by patio shutdowns

Outdoor patios must stop serving by midnight Sunday to stem rising COVID infections

The City of Red Deer said Wednesday that some outdoor activity rentals will be available starting Monday for households only. (Advocate File Photo)
City of Red Deer outlines activities available as new provincial COVID-19 restrictions set in

There will be limited recreation activities available across the City of Red… Continue reading

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta reports 2,271 new COVID-19 cases, Red Deer cases rise slightly

Across Alberta, there are 666 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 146 in the ICU

‘Love, Oran’ is a documentary feature made by Red Deer-raised filmmaker Colin Scheyen. It’s about hidden letters, found in a Woodlea home after 70 years, revealing a family secret. (Screenshot by Advocate staff).
Hidden letters reveal secrets of Red Deer family in a new documentary film

‘Love, Oran,’ by filmmaker Colin Scheyen is showing at Edmonton’s NorthwestFest

Red Deer Rebels’ three graduating players, Josh Tarzwell (left), Chris Douglas (middle) and Ethan Anders (right) will all move on to new opportunities next season. (Photo by ROB WALLATOR/Red Deer Rebels)
‘It was a rollercoaster’: Rebels’ graduating players look back on wild season

The nerves. Even three-and-a-half-years later, Josh Tarzwell still remembers the nervousness he… Continue reading

Jets beat Flames 4-0 to snap seven-game losing streak and clinch playoff spot

Jets beat Flames 4-0 to snap seven-game losing streak and clinch playoff spot

Team Canada skip Kerri Einarson, left, directs her teammates, lead Briane Meilleur, right, and second Shannon Birchard, against Estonia at the Women's World Curling Championship in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, May 5, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canada’s Einarson extends win streak to four games at world curling playdowns

Canada’s Einarson extends win streak to four games at world curling playdowns

CF Montreal head coach Wilfried Nancy, left, talks with midfielder Lassi Lappalainen during the second half of an MLS soccer match against Columbus Crew, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The game ended in a 0-0 tie. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Canadian MLS teams try to make best of relocation

Canadian MLS teams try to make best of relocation

Damian Warner, of Canada bronze, smiles during the medal ceremony for the decathlon at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Nariman El-Mofty
Decathlete Damian Warner says being a dad has brought balance and new perspective

Decathlete Damian Warner says being a dad has brought balance and new perspective

Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. gestures rounding third base after hitting his third home run against the Washington Nationals during the seventh inning of a baseball game Thursday, April 27, 2021, in Dunedin, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
Blue Jays shuffling back to Buffalo starting June 1

Blue Jays shuffling back to Buffalo starting June 1

Bedard, Wright lead Canadians into gold-medal game at U18 championship

Bedard, Wright lead Canadians into gold-medal game at U18 championship

Canada players are seen prior to the match against Costa Rica as part of the 2021 CONCACAF Futsal Championship in Guatemala City, Guatemala in this Wednesday, May 5, 2021 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, CONCACAF, Straffon Images, Norvin Mendoza *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Canada loses to Costa Rica but advances at CONCACAF Futsal Championship

Canada loses to Costa Rica but advances at CONCACAF Futsal Championship

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver addresses the audience at the Yukon Government swearing in ceremony, in the Yukon Government Legislature foyer, in Whitehorse, Monday, May 3, 2021. The Yukon government says travelers who can prove they've been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will no longer be required to self-isolate when they enter the territory beginning May 25. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Kelly
Yukon to lift requirement of 14-day self-isolation for arriving travellers on May 25

Yukon to lift requirement of 14-day self-isolation for arriving travellers on May 25

Most Read