Some of my environmentally conscious friends have expressed concern about having a real Christmas tree in their house – it seems wasteful to cut down an entire tree just for a month or so of décor. After all, climate change is a huge problem, and its potential impacts on the world (most especially the poor) seem contrary to the Christmas spirit.
It’s not a new worry – Teddy Roosevelt actually banned the White House Christmas Tree during his time in office, as he was worried about the conservation implications of people running out to cut down the forest.
We can rest easy, though – the live Christmas tree industry that has developed since that time is actually a benefit to the global climate. Here’s why:
When a tree is cut down, the tree farmer has a real financial interest to plant a new one in its stead. Since trees need carbon dioxide to grow and survive, they pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it as its leaves, branches, trunk, and roots. With huge swaths of land planted with new trees – about 350 million are grown across the country – this is a net benefit to our air and helps slow the rate of climate change. Younger trees absorb more carbon than older ones, so the planting of new trees to replace the ones used for Christmas each year helps clean our air even more.
It could get even better – Mother Jones  recently reported that with better land management, tree farm soil could absorb up to 20 times as much carbon as the trees themselves. That’s potentially enough to allow Christmas tree farmers to sell their carbon offsets on the carbon market, making their sustainable management of acres and acres of trees even more profitable. Everybody wins.
There is always the “but fake trees are reusable!” argument. Consider, though, the environmental cost of the plastic (a petroleum-based product) and the unknown chemicals that go into a fake tree. Further, think of the transport and labor, as most artificial Christmas trees are produced in China.
Real trees can be reusable, too, if you’re creative: some sources suggest growing a small pine tree in a pot, or planting one outside to decorate with popcorn and cranberries. Even if those options are not appealing, remember that a live tree can later be recycled for compost or wood chips, providing economic benefit in the absence of a decorative one.
If you want to take your environmentally friendly Christmas tree to the next level, consider buying it locally. Given everything mentioned above, the transport of your greenery is the main environmental cost you incur with a decision to go for a living tree. Many farmers markets are offering trees this year, guaranteeing the least amount of travel-induced carbon.
Being environmentally conscious doesn’t have to mean that we can’t enjoy the things we love or that our economy has to suffer. Christmas trees are the perfect example of how everyone can benefit when we care for the earth.
Janelle Tupper is Campaigns Assistant for Sojourners.
Photo: Family lugging their freshly cut tree, ©