Can Fake Trees be a Part of the Climate Change Solution?

For many years now, trees have been posited as the most viable solution to climate change and rising global temperatures. In a nutshell– they pull CO2 out of the air, provide shade that cools the surface of the earth, and attract rains in a timely manner. 

But what if the world could have something that functions just like a tree but so much more ‘efficiently’ that it cuts larger amounts of greenhouse gases from the air? Something like plastic trees?

Fake Trees to Offset Climate Change

Arizona State University engineering professor Klaus Lackner came up with this technique after observing trees for two whole decades [1]. He designed a mechanical tree that could one day absorb up to 32 tons of carbon dioxide in a single year as compared to trees that absorb <1 ton each in a lifetime. The ‘leaves’ of such a tree are 1,000 times more capable of taking in carbon dioxide than natural leaves. 

To put this into context, a hundred million of these mechanical trees would be able to remove 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in just a year. That’s 10% of the global carbon dioxide emissions per year [2]. 

Technological inventions along the same line are cropping up all across the globe, a result of explorations in geoengineering, which involves machinating some roles of the environment to offset climate change. 

Technologies such as fake trees sound promising, but there are more costs to them than what meets the eye.

The Financial Cost of Fake Trees

The proposed fake trees would suck carbon dioxide out of the air for USD200 per ton– a figure that can drop if production scales up. To some scientists, this is widely optimistic, yet others say oil companies can make use of the removed gas for enhanced oil recovery

Individually, the trees are said to cost between USD30,000 and USD 100,000 each with the added benefits that they don’t need special equipment to be installed and can be mass-produced to a large scale. While this may be worthwhile explorations for governments and large-scale organizations, it’s not viable for those without deep pockets. It is here that fake trees differ from real trees– the latter can be planted by anyone, nearly anywhere, with just a few dollars in hand. It could be done individually, or on a corporate or business-wide basis through platforms such as EcoMatcher

The Social Cost of Fake Trees

Scientists argue that it is one thing to install fake trees, yet a completely different ask to identify where to store the removed carbon dioxide.  There are concerns that there isn’t enough space to securely store carbon dioxide within oil wells or saline aquifers, which are water-permeable rocks soaked with saltwater. 

Olivine rock and basalt rock are natural alternatives proposed by geologists. But this could potentially involve damage to more natural resources– something the planet can’t be subjected to at this point. 

The maker of the fake trees holds that carbon dioxide is too useful a gas to be petrified. Instead, he warrants its use in the liquid fuel industry, to power vehicles that absolutely must run through hydrocarbon fuels such as diesel. It must be noted that this process requires massive energy input, whether renewable or non-renewable.

The Moral Cost of Fake Trees

The flip side to such technological innovations is the potential to make humans more removed from their ecosystem than ever before. The crux of rising temperatures is the release of greenhouse gases. In essence, critics fear that by providing tech-based alternatives, humans are incentivized not to curb their emissions and effectively pass the buck. The bottom line is that, while currently released greenhouse gases can be sequestered by fake trees, producing more only creates a vicious cycle that we can’t get out of. 

Added to the moral dilemma are fears of playing with natural systems. Planting more trees areas where more trees are beneficial can only positively contribute to stabilizing a tilting ecosystem. However, dabbling with technology in geoengineering could throw certain natural systems such as rainfall and weather patterns off-kilter. Such changes could cause effects that can’t be turned off or offset. 

Other Perks of Real Trees

Real trees aren’t beneficial only because they take in CO2 and give out oxygen. In urban settings, they provide welcome shade and drastically reduce temperatures. By doing this, they directly reduce energy consumption, which in turn reduces carbon emissions. They regulate weather and rainfall patterns and are thriving habitats for other species in the ecosystem. The reduction of runoff ensures rainwater replenishes groundwater; it also reduces the chances of pollutants being swept away into water bodies. Economically, trees and tree plantations provide employment and livelihood opportunities for thousands across the globe, especially in developing countries. At this stage, it’s hard for fake trees to swoop in and provide all of these benefits alongside carbon capture and storage. 

The Final Verdict

All of the above arguments culminate in one final question– can fake trees be part of a larger climate change solution?

The answer is both yes and no. We still have to decide whether the cost of such technology is worth the social price, especially in the face of other global crises. Financially, it isn’t viable to install ‘forests’ of these trees because, while technology is becoming more and more affordable, we’re not fully there yet. We also need to evaluate whether investing in technology could act as a ‘get out of jail free’ card for those directly responsible for greenhouse gases.

Finally, it is essential to keep in mind that trees provide benefits other than carbon sequestration– providing shade, countering pollution, conserving energy, protecting wildlife, and more. As of now, fake trees are far away from checking these boxes as well. It’s quite the gamble.

However, if we were looking at fake trees alongside continuous plantation of real trees in specific areas, then we may find ourselves well underway towards slowing down the climate crisis. Technology is not the end-all, especially in the context of natural ecosystems that thrive on decades-old forests.

EcoMatcher believes that balance is crucial. Technology is an enabler– using it to bolster natural systems without damaging it any further is a balance we need to maintain.