I decided recently to look into the possibility of having a tree planted for me. I figured I could celebrate my daughter's first birthday, offset some of my family's carbon footprint and make the world a little greener. And besides, trees are nice. Planting them seems like the kind of eco-friendly gesture that couldn't possibly have a down side. Turns out I was wrong about the last part. There are numerous ways to plant trees. They might or might not help global warming, and cost anywhere from $1 to $1,000, depending on how big a tree you have in mind and whether you want it planted down the block or across the globe. I hate to say it, but tree planting is an issue where you can trust die-hard environmentalists to pick the issue to pieces and take all the fun out of it. There is a vigorous discussion on Grist's message boards on the pros and cons of planting trees to combat global warming. Here's what I've learned. Planting new trees in equatorial climes, to either replace or add to rainforest environments does seem to help cool the Earth and moderate global warming. This is a good thing to do. And if you pay to have trees planted through the Nature Conservancy, a sensible environmental organization, this is where they'll be planted. Because the Nature Conservancy plants seedlings in warm environments where they grow quickly, it can do it very cheaply, at $1 a tree. For a mere $50, you can generate a lot of important tree canopy.
Planting trees in urban and suburban environments is generally good. There has been a steady decline in recent decades in the number of trees that line the streets in American cities and we need to reverse this trend, according to the nonprofit group America Forests. Urban trees absorb pollution and keep air quality reasonably good and new research shows that if our air is cleaner, we live longer. Planting just one tree on your front lawn, your curb or in your backyard helps. In case you're like me and all the trees you plant in your backyard turn brown and die, you can also give money to an organization that plants urban trees. The New York Restoration Project, the Earthworks Project in Boston and Friends of the Urban Forest in San Francisco are all involved in re-greening their cities with new trees. But urban shade doesn't come cheap. At NYRP, tree-related donations start at $100 for a sapling and go up to $2,500 for a fruit tree. At Prospect Park, the urban oasis down the street from me, I would have to pay $750 to $1,000 to have one tree planted or $10,000 for a grove. For that price I get to have some say over what type of tree is planted and where in the park it's planted, so I can visit it when I want to. But even so -- ouch! A spokesperson for American Forests explains that planting trees costs more in the city because they need to be more mature than the seedlings you can plant in friendlier rural environments. Additionally, these prices often are meant to cover several years of pruning and fertilizers to make sure the tree thrives.
Now for what doesn't work: Replacing other types of natural environments, like grassy plains or snow fields, with new forest in cooler latitudes is a bad idea, won't curb global warming and might actually make it worse, some say. So it's important, when looking at tree-planting organizations or buying carbon credits, that the organization focuses on rebuilding existing forests the way American Forests and the Conservation Fund do. American Forests also manages to do its work for $1 a tree. You can be another Johnny Appleseed for not a lot of money, if you don't mind doing your good work far from where you live. The Carbon Fund provides a calculator on its Web site that lets visitors estimate their carbon footprint and then plant trees to offset it. Apparently, it would take eight trees to offset the carbon spew into the air every year. And the fund will plant them for me for $93.48 or $11.69 a tree. It's nice to know there are some options out there that will allow me to make the world a little cooler and shadier -- and without having to get my hands dirty.