The carbon footprint of Christmas: More trees, please

“O Christmas tree,” begins the traditional Christmas melody that pays tribute to the role of the tree in modern holiday decorating and traditions. The tune originated from “O Tannenbaum,” which was written in Germany in 1824 in honor of the evergreen tree and its constancy and faithfulness. Certainly, trees are a faithful and ever-present inclusion in holiday celebrations.

Today, there are 25 to 30 million real Christmas trees sold in the U.S. every year. This represents roughly 10 percent of the over 350 million real Christmas trees growing on farms across the country, with Oregon, Washington, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin taking the lead as the top Christmas tree farm producers.

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What role do trees play in the overall carbon footprint of the holiday season in the U.S.? Holiday emissions are derived from food, travel, shopping, electricity and Christmas trees. Research suggests that during the holiday season, each person produces an additional 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2). This is equivalent to about three weeks of driving or about 3.8 percent of an individual’s annual carbon footprint of 36,000 lbs.

Overall, holiday trees are a relatively small percentage of each person’s holiday carbon footprint. Recognizing the role that trees play in our holiday décor and traditions, the holidays are also a time to honor the role that trees play in offsetting America’s annual carbon footprint as well. A recent study from the U.S. Forest Service calculates that U.S. forests offset between 10 to 20 percent of U.S. emissions each year.

With 81 percent of the U.S. population living in and celebrating the holidays in urban areas, urban trees are our carbon friends as well, sequestering over 51 billion pounds of carbon a year. City trees provide shade for homes and commercial buildings, which reduces the need for air conditioning during increasingly warm summer months by up to $25 to $50. Always multi-tasking, while trees offset our carbon footprint and shade community benches that beckon our hard-working population to take a moment of rest, fruit trees in cities such as  Tucson and Atlanta offer fresh citrus and stone fruits to refugees and homeless residents.

The city of Tampa, Florida estimates that trees save the city nearly $35 million a year in reduced costs for public health, stormwater management, energy savings and erosion prevention. New York City has paid homage to the over 590,000 trees lining their busy streets by mapping every single tree and keeping a public log of the care and maintenance for each one as well. Cities in the Pacific Northwest, such as Portland and Seattle, have calculated land and property values increase by up to 10 percent relative to the health of urban tree cover. Cities like Phoenix in the desert southwest are investing increasingly scarce water supplies in trees to shade streets from the glaringly hot summer sun.

Trees play most prominently in our minds during the holiday season as we shelter gifts for loved ones under their branches. However, it is just as important to recognize the value of trees the rest of the year as well. After the holiday season, recycling trees can continue their life cycle by mulching them into compost to be used for landscaping, gardening, and local agriculture.

If you would like to give a gift that keeps giving, consider donating a shade tree in your city or the city of a loved one. Local park and recreation departments or the Arbor Day Foundation have various donation programs to increase shade and tree cover in cities across the country. For added shade at your home, many local utility companies offer low-cost locally appropriate trees to customers to reduce electricity bills.

Under the glow of holiday lights and among the traditional tunes, may we continue to recognize the role that trees play in our culture, climate and customs.

Amy McCoy is the co-founder of Martin & McCoy LLC, a water policy consulting firm and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.