Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

The Great Christmas Tree Debate: Is It Better to Buy a Real Tree or a Fake One?

Popular
Evergreens pictured with foggy sky in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Dave Michuda / Unsplash

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 Decade to Grow or Keep

A natural tree of average size (2-2.5 metres tall, 10-15 years old) has a carbon footprint of about 3.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) — 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 10-12 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.

Burning Trees

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 U.S., the average price of a real tree in 2019 has increased to $78 from $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.

In Canada, consumers who want natural trees have been warned to shop early, as many sellers have limited inventory due to fire, frost and insect damage that has accelerated over recent years.

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 Québec Christmas tree industry, will likely increase in a warming climate and harm commercial fir plantations.

Oh, Christmas Tree

Economics has also played a role in tree availability. Today's trees were planted around the time of the Great 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.

The Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association has shrunk dramatically in the past 15 years — from 300 members to about 80 today.

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.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Deserted view of NH24 near Akshardham Temple on day nine of the 21-day nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus on April 2, 2020 in New Delhi, India. Raj K Raj / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

India is home to 21 of the world's 30 most polluted cities, but recently air pollution levels have started to drop dramatically as the second-most populated nation endures the second week of a 21-day lockdown amidst coronavirus fears, according to The Weather Channel.

Read More Show Less
A Unicef social mobilizer uses a speaker as she carries out public health awareness to prevent the spread and detect the symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus by UNICEF at Mangateen IDP camp in Juba, South Sudan on April 2. ALEX MCBRIDE / AFP / Getty Images

By Eddie Ndopu

  • South Africa is ground zero for the coronavirus pandemic in Africa.
  • Its townships are typical of high-density neighbourhoods across the continent where self-isolation will be extremely challenging.
  • The failure to eradicate extreme poverty is a threat beyond the countries in question.
Read More Show Less
Sponsored
The outside of the Food and Drug Administration headquarters in White Oak, Md. on Nov. 9, 2015. Al Drago / CQ Roll Call

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of two malarial drugs to treat and prevent COVID-19, the respiratory infection caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, despite only anecdotal evidence that either is proven effective in treating or slowing the progression of the disease in seriously ill patients.

Read More Show Less
Some speculate that the dissemination of the Antarctic beeches or Nothofagus moorei (seen above in Australia) dates to the time when Antarctica, Australia and South America were connected. Auscape / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

A team of scientists drilled into the ground near the South Pole to discover forest and fossils from the Cretaceous nearly 90 million years ago, which is the time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, as the BBC reported.

Read More Show Less
The recovery of elephant seals is one of the "signs of hope" that scientists say show the oceans can recover swiftly if we let them. NOAA / CC BY 2.0

The challenges facing the world's oceans are well known: plastic pollution could crowd out fish by 2050, and the climate crisis could wipe out coral reefs by 2100.

Read More Show Less