Photo: Jason Leem/Unsplash

Saturday Night Live and the Land Carbon Sink

, Kendall Science Fellow | October 23, 2018, 10:31 am EDT
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Saturday Night Live (SNL) premiered a music video last weekend that was all about trees and climate change. And it resonated, because I also love trees. Chris Redd and Pete Davidson wrote the ecological anthem I didn’t know I needed (warning – video contains strong language).

Sadly, the video ends with a trauma doctor raining on their parade, reminding them of the complexity of our situation, and how reductions in fossil fuel use and changes to our transportation and food systems are just the beginning of our climate fight. But for me, as a scientist, “Trees” reminded me of how undervalued the role of the land carbon sink (all the carbon that’s stored in plants, soils etc.) is in our battle against climate change. So in hopes of validating other tree-lovers, I wrote them this additional verse.

I be loving these trees (TREES)

Taking it down and sequestering C (TREES)

Grab CO2, do what plants do, live a plant life, grow til they die (TREES)

I be loving these trees (TREES)

Get decomposed, fast and then slow, soil sticks around, holding C down (TREES)

So carbon can stay, as trees waste away (TREES)

Now that we’re all jamming to this new verse, let’s dissect the science behind the new lyrics.

Taking it down and sequestering C / Grab CO2, do what plants do, live a plant life, grow til it dies 

Trees, and plants generally, are the primary way that CO2 is taken out of the atmosphere. Although scientists are currently developing carbon capture technology, that pulls CO2 directly out of the air, plants were doing this before it was even cool. More trees mean more carbon leaving the atmosphere and getting stabilized inside plant tissue. Scientists have consistently noted the important contribution of the land carbon sink (and associated increases from more forested land and decreases from deforestation) in their calculations of net emissions. And most importantly, they’ve highlighted the role that reforestation and climate-forward land management can play in mitigating our greenhouse gas emissions.

Get decomposed, fast and then slow, soil sticks around, holding C down / So carbon can stay as trees waste away 

Trees are also the conduit to the largest pool of land carbon, soils. Although plants eventually die, and decomposition releases some of this carbon back to the atmosphere, a portion of that carbon is stabilized into soil. Over millennia, this recurring process has led to huge amounts of carbon accumulation in soil, at least double what’s stored in living vegetation. However, that’s not to say that soil carbon is then magically protected from climate change –  warming increases CO2  loss from soil, fires threaten to burn off organic horizons, and deforestation eliminates inputs of new carbon. But to their credit, trees not only remove carbon from the atmosphere, they facilitate its introduction into a larger, albeit threatened, carbon pool.

Combating climate change is a daunting and complex problem, whatever way you slice it. A comprehensive mitigation strategy must protect existing carbon pools, and increase carbon removal through all viable strategies, including trees. So, I stand with Chris Redd and Pete Davidson on this one. Trees are more than “not a bad thing,” they’re a critical part of our battle against climate change.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science Communication Tags: , , , , ,

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