By John Fischer

There’s a simple solution for global warming and climate change right in your backyard (at least there should be)—trees. Trees absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) in both their roots and above-ground growth, and they do it quickly. Every summer, CO2 levels drop by five to seven parts per million (ppm) as plants in the northern hemisphere, where most of the landmass on Earth is, grow. If there were a trillion more trees on the planet, they could absorb one third of the CO2 emitted in the last 100 years. Paired with significant emission reductions, we could achieve CO2 stability.

The not-so-simple part of the solution is that most people don’t have room for 130 trees in their backyard. So we have to find other places for the trees to grow. Ideally, we would let natural regrowth occur in places that have been deforested—not put in mono-crop plantations of trees on land that has never before been forested. And while people often point to the Amazon rainforest as the best place to get tree growth, mid-latitude farmland (where we are) can be even more effective at absorbing carbon by growing forests.

Illustration by Dan Pegoda

A squirrel used to be able to travel from the Atlantic ocean to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground. The entire eastern half of the country was forested. Most of that forest has been cleared and replaced with commodity crop fields of genetically modified corn and soybeans. We don’t eat much of the crop; rather, we feed it to animals that would not normally eat it and distill the corn to make fuel. And we pay farmers to grow these crops to subsidize meat production. If US farmers were paid to instead let some of their land return to its natural forested state, we could save resources, restore natural ecosystems, and make a big dent in the CO2 removal needs necessary to stabilize our climate. Put the idea into practice worldwide, and we could get CO2 concentrations back to pre-industrial levels.

This reforestation idea has been tried successfully. New England used to be a land of rocky, low-productivity farms. When easier-to-farm agricultural lands opened up in the Midwest, the rocky New England farms quickly reverted to forest. A hike in the New England woods will often take you past the foundation of an old farmhouse—full of tall maples, oaks, and pines. The same could be true of Iowa corn fields or industrial soybean farms in Ohio that are currently polluting the Great Lakes. Ending feedlot meat production will reduce methane production and keep valuable water in aquifers.

Yes, it will require some lifestyle changes for consumers and farmers. Less time on a tractor, more time in the forest for growers, and a diet more reliant on plant-based food. Planting a few trees in your yard is a great idea, too. It keeps your home cooler, provides habitat for animals, and makes for a nice leaf show in the fall.

Almost one-third of total CO2 emissions over time have come from the US. While other countries have passed us in current emissions levels, global climate change is a cumulative problem. We all need to do our part. Keeping the forests we have intact is invaluable—anywhere in the world. But insisting that the Amazon remain forested while our pre-settlement forests function as farmland is unsustainable, uncooperative, and unfair.