Surely cutting down a tree will have a bigger environmental impact than choosing a plastic one for Christmas? It may seem counterintuitive to suggest otherwise. In most circumstances, however, that is the case. Read further to understand why.
Many of us concerned with what we can do to reduce our emissions feel concerned around Christmas time. It’s a time of celebration, a time where we splurge and enjoy ourselves but we’re also conscious about the potential for long term impact. So, we weigh up our options and try to do what’s best. What about our Christmas tree? Should we choose a real or fake Christmas tree?
Like me, I’m sure many of you would have thought that it would be the responsible thing to do for the planet to buy a fake Christmas tree and reuse it year after year. The reality is that if we take sufficient care about how we discard it, a natural tree actually might be the better option.
If you buy a locally grown and provided tree it can be anything from 2.5 CO2e to 4.5kg CO2e. This is quite low. In fact, the emissions are about the same as half an average Irish person’s [NDC] weekly consumption of milk [OWID]. The majority of the emissions are when the tree is discarded. If you choose to discard it in landfill, instead of chipping it or using as mulch, the emissions can increase to between 16kg CO2e and 21kg CO2e because it releases methane as it decomposes.
A mass-produced fake tree, comprised of steel and plastic, shipped from China or some other distant location will likely be in excess of 40kg CO2e [CARBON]. Only if you retain and use the tree for at least 8 -10 years would it be preferable, from the point of view of its carbon emissions, to have a fake tree.
It’s not quite that straightforward. Natural trees, grown and harvested specifically for the purpose, actually contribute to reducing carbon. They capture carbon from the air making them net positive through their lifetime. On the other hand a fake tree contributes negatively in two further ways:
All told, if you have a fake tree, don’t replace it with a real one. The carbon emissions from our Christmas tree is relatively negligible in comparison to other aspects of our lives.
When your replica Christmas tree has reached its end of usable life as a tree, look for ways to further reuse it. Perhaps make decorations, such as a Christmas wreath, combining other recycled items. If you are debating whether to switch to plastic this year, the recommendation is not to.
* The petrochemicals industry directly and other industries supplying them are responsible for ~10% of GHG emissions globally. In the past 25 years emissions associated with petrochemicals have doubled and that trajectory is expected to increase if our plastic use, in particular does not reduce. [LUCRIS]. Petrochemicals are the long term bet that the oil and gas industry is investing in because they’ve known since the 1970’s the damage that burning fossil fuels is doing. They have actively attempted to hide from and confuse people about the long term damage being caused by fossil fuels and the impact of plastics [GUARDIAN][UNOHC]
Buy a real tree from a local grower, either a potted tree which can continue to grow after it has been part of the festivities or get it chipped/shredded when you’re finished with it. Better still, find a local charity or not for profit organisation and sponsor a tree plant.
What are other recommendations of things you can do during the festive season to ensure you minimise your impact on climate?
Every Little Thing Counts
The Carbon Trust’s tips for a more sustainable Christmas (CarbonTrust, 2021) – Accessed 28 Nov 2022
Christmas Tree Footprint Calculator (omnicalculator.com, 2022) – Accessed on 28 Nov 2022
48% Increase in Dairy Consumption for under-35s during lockdown (National Dairy Council, 2021) – Accessed on 28 Nov 2021
Dairy vs. plant-based milk: what are the environmental impacts? (OurWorldInData.org, 2022) – Accessed on 28 Nov 2022
Petrochemicals and Climate Change – Tracing Globally Growing Emissions and Key Blind Spots in a Fossil-Based Industry (IMES/EESS report; Vol. 126, 2022) – Accessed on 28 Nov 2022
How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled – (NPR, 2020) – Accessed on 18 Nov 2022
Plastic Recycling is a Clear Example of Disinformation in the Context of Toxics, Special Rapporteur on Hazardous Wastes Tells Human Rights Council (United Nations, 2021) – Accessed on 28 Nov 2022
‘Plastic recycling is a myth’: what really happens to your rubbish? (Guardian, 2019) – Accessed 28 Nov 2022
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