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

Workers were busy getting a tall crane in place Thursday morning for the construction of the new courthouse in downtown Red Deer. The facility will include modern technology and replace the existing courthouse upon completion expected in spring 2023. Photo by Paul Cowley/Advocate staff
Work on Red Deer Justice Centre progressing

Construction of the new courthouse in downtown Red Deer was visible Thursday… Continue reading

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance responds to a question during a news conference Friday, June 26, 2020 in Ottawa. Vance is ordering his troops to be ready to pick up COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. and Europe on short notice, and prepare to help distribute the doses while responding to floods and other emergencies. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Defence chief says CAF will be ready after ordering COVID-19 vaccine prep last week

OTTAWA — The Canadian Armed Forces received formal orders last week to… Continue reading

Geoff Neville poses for a photo with his sons Casey, 3, left, and Ryder, 6, in this undated handout photo. Geoff Neville is a rotational worker in Newfoundland and Labrador who works in a mine in Nunavut for 14 days in a row and then gets 14 days off to come home and see his family. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Geoff Neville
‘I’d love to be home:’ N.L. rotational workers facing bullying online

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — As Geoff Neville waited this week in a… Continue reading

Justice Minister David Lametti arrives for a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday November 26, 2020. The Liberal government is set to introduce long-awaited legislation today to enshrine the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canadian law. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Bill to enshrine UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canadian law

OTTAWA — The Liberal government is set to introduce long-awaited legislation today… Continue reading

In this Nov. 26, 2020, photo, President Donald Trump speaks with reporters after participating in a video teleconference call with members of the military on Thanksgiving, at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Trump expected to flex pardon powers on way out door

WASHINGTON — Advocates and lawyers anticipate a flurry of clemency action from… Continue reading

Dan Cochrane, senior pastor at CrossRoads Church. Contributed photo
CrossRoads Church closes its doors for two weeks after staff member tests positive for COVID-19

CrossRoads Church made the decision to cancel in-house services for two weeks… Continue reading

Mikael Kingsbury, of Canada, trains during the FIS Freestyle World Cup skiing competition Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, in Park City, Utah. Kingsbury will miss moguls races for the first time in his World Cup career after suffering a back injury in training on Sunday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jeff Swinger
Canadian moguls star Mikael Kingsbury out four to six weeks with back injury

MONTREAL — Canada’s Mikael Kingsbury will miss moguls races for the first… Continue reading

Detail of James Wilson Morrice's "LaPlage."
James Wilson Morrice canvas outperforms at auction with more than million-dollar sale

A canvas by Montreal-born artist James Wilson Morrice exceeded expectations with a… Continue reading

Bank buildings are photographed in Toronto's financial district on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. International comparisons suggest Canadian financiers are oiling the wheels of the fossil fuel industry at a far greater rate than their peers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin
‘Canada really sticks out:’ Studies show banks not so green on climate change

International analyses suggest Canadian financiers are oiling the wheels of the fossil… Continue reading

Goals galore for Ronaldo, Giroud, Neymar in Champions League

Goals galore for Ronaldo, Giroud, Neymar in Champions League

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins is seen at a media availablity to introduce new pitcher Shun Yamaguchi in Toronto on January 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Jays ‘prepared’ if things pick up on free agency and trade fronts this off-season

Jays ‘prepared’ if things pick up on free agency and trade fronts this off-season

Shaquille Murray-Lawrence, left, and teammate Taylor Austin are shown during training in Whistler, B.C., in this undated handout photo. Montreal Allouettes running back Shaquille Murray-Lawrence is used to pysching himself up to sprint down a field, evading a crush of muscled men the entire way. But mentally preparing for his latest venture required bracing for a whole new set of anxieties. As he got ready to hop in a bobsleigh for the first time, Murray-Lawrence knew he'd be zipping down an icy track faster than cars are allowed to travel down most highways. Murrary-Lawrence, 27, is one of three CFL players who joined the national bobsleigh team after the league canceled its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Shaquille Murray-Lawrence
Sliding into a new sport: CFLers turn to bobsled after football season wiped out

Sliding into a new sport: CFLers turn to bobsled after football season wiped out

North Carolina State defensive lineman Daniel Joseph (99) celebrates with linebacker Isaiah Moore after Moore forced a Liberty safety during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Raleigh, N.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ethan Hyman, The News & Observer via AP, Pool
Canadian defensive lineman Daniel Joseph enjoying a banner first campaign at NC State

Canadian defensive lineman Daniel Joseph enjoying a banner first campaign at NC State

A Canadian Pacific Railway employee walks along the side of a locomotive in a marshalling yard in Calgary on May 16, 2012. CP says an investigation is underway following the release of a video showing one of the company's trains running over dozens of pronghorn antelope in southwestern Saskatchewan.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
CP investigating after video shows train running over pronghorn antelope herd

CP investigating after video shows train running over pronghorn antelope herd

Most Read