Science·What on Earth?

Real versus fake Christmas trees: Which one's greener?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the sustainability of real and artificial Christmas trees and how to eat your way to a healthier world.

Also: Eating your way to a healthier world

White text against a semicircle made of lines and blue and green stripes
(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hey, folks! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • O Christmas tree, how sustainable are thy branches?
  • Meet a young B.C. activist going to the UN climate conference
  • Global carbon emissions: Where are they all coming from?
  • How to eat for a healthier planet

Real versus fake Christmas trees: Which one's greener?

(Philippe Desmazes/Getty Images)

Many of us have a cherished December tradition that involves a needle-y tree decked out in lights and seasonal bling. Whether that tree was cut down at a farm or churned out in a factory, you might be looking for affirmation that what you're doing is greener than the alternative.

So what does science say? At least two studies have looked into this — one funded by the American Christmas Tree Association, which represents artificial tree manufacturers, and an independent study by Montreal-based environmental consulting firm Ellipsos.

The main problem with real trees is the impact of Christmas tree farms, which in some cases displace natural ecosystems, Ellipsos found. It's arguably also a waste to cut down a real tree for a single use before turning it into mulch, compost or, at worst, landfill. When it comes to the artificial option, the main impacts are that their manufacture depletes natural resources and generates greenhouse gas emissions.

Real trees suck up carbon dioxide, but Ellipsos found there is debate about whether trees absorb more carbon than they release in their first 20 years — and Christmas trees are usually cut down during their teenage years.

Both studies found that a real tree generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions per Christmas than an artificial one, but that changes if you keep your artificial tree for longer, since the emissions are divided over many years. To minimize the carbon impact, the studies say you should keep the same artificial tree for at least eight years, and preferably more than 20.

That said, both studies found the overall environmental impact of buying a Christmas tree is minimal compared to, say, flying or driving a few hours to spend Christmas with family and friends.

Still, there are things you can do to make your tree tradition greener:

If you get a real tree, buy one that is locally grown and don't drive far to get it. Both studies suggested those transportation emissions make a big difference.

If you get an artificial tree, make it last. Buy used, if possible, and keep it for as long as you can.

When you're done with your tree, dispose of it responsibly. Donate your artificial tree to a new home. Get your real tree turned into mulch. (Many cities do this.)

Speaking of disposal, some companies, including ones in B.C., Ontario and Alberta, now allow you to skip that step altogether by renting out potted live Christmas trees that are planted the following spring.

Emily Chung

Greening the holidays

The holiday season is soon upon us, and that means gifts, food and otherwise lavish celebrations. But given increasing awareness of the environmental impacts of our lifestyle choices, some people are seeking to cut back.

In what ways are you making the holidays greener?

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Going to COP24: B.C. activist Marina Melanidis

(Marina Melanidis)

Marina Melanidis recently graduated from the University of British Columbia with a B.Sc. in natural resources conservation. Later this week, the 23-year-old Canadian will be attending COP24, the UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland, as part of a B.C. youth delegation. This week, Melanidis shares her hopes. Next week, she will report on her experience at COP24.

I must confess, attending one of the annual climate change conferences hosted by the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) has been a dream of mine for years. I've been engaged in climate action since I was young and first learned that the forests, mountains and oceans I grew up with and loved were at risk from global warming.

At COP24, world leaders are coming together to figure out how they will implement the Paris agreement and limit warming to 1.5 degrees. However, even if we can manage this, we will all still witness drastic shifts to the world around us. This is not an issue we can afford to let linger any longer.

The young people of B.C. know this. We have consulted with almost 300 youth in the lead-up to COP24, and almost half think about the consequences of climate change every day! Yet less than seven per cent of B.C. youth feel as though their voices are represented in the climate discussion in Canada. Youth may be the group that has contributed the least to the climate crisis, yet we are also the group that will face the brunt of its consequences.

Youth are powerful! We are hard-working, willing to embrace change and we care about our future. I will be addressing the lack of meaningful youth involvement in climate action, both internationally and right here at home, at COP24. Together with my fellow delegates, we will work to ensure that the voices of youth are no longer being ignored and we will push for the resources and opportunities that will empower youth across the country to act on climate.

The Big Picture: Sources of carbon emissions

There's a lot of talk about the need for us to cut carbon emissions. But what sectors are the biggest generators of these noxious gases? The graph below, which draws on 2014 data from the United Nations, provides an overview.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • There has been much speculation about what agreements will come out of the UN climate conference going on in Poland. In the meantime, COP24 has witnessed passionate calls to arms from David Attenborough (naturalist and narrator of the Planet Earth TV series) and 15-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who told one panel, "Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago."

  • B.C. laid out its climate strategy this week, and environmentalists are pleased. Among other things, the plan known as Clean BC will require all new buildings to be zero-emission by 2032, all new cars to be zero-emission by 2040 and will redirect carbon tax revenues into helping the biggest businesses to go greener.

  • Governments around the world are debating how to reduce the impact of fossil fuels on the environment, but oil and gas companies are also feeling pressure from within. At the urging of shareholders, Dutch Royal Shell announced that it would set stronger emissions targets — and tie executive pay to meeting those targets.

Better food choices for a healthier planet

You've probably heard by now that a plant-based diet generates far fewer carbon emissions than one that's heavy on meat. But let's face it, going vegan is a major lifestyle change, and for that reason, daunting.

The good news is you don't need to replace your annual holiday turkey with tofurkey in order to cut your culinary carbon footprint. I wrote a piece for CBC News this week citing research that shows there are lots of simple things you can do, starting now, that can make a big difference.

And most of them will save you money and help you eat healthier at the same time:

Waste less food. Food production generates lots of emissions whether you eat the food or throw it out. Decomposing waste food produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. You can cut your emissions from food significantly just by eating more and throwing out less of what you buy.

Prepare more food at home. Commercially prepared sandwiches generate double the greenhouse gas emissions of a sandwich made at home, a recent University of Manchester study found. By making food at home, you reduce both food waste and energy devoted to refrigeration, assembly and packaging.

Eat less. Statistics show that a) many Canadians are consuming more calories than they need, and b) many Canadians are overweight or obese. If you cut back your food intake to the right amount, you can reduce your emissions -- and probably shed a few pounds, too.

Eat less meat, dairy and eggs. Most Canadians — vegetarians included — are eating far more protein than they need, a University of Waterloo analysis suggests. And animal protein tends to have a much higher carbon footprint than plant protein, especially red meat. Eating smaller servings or replacing some servings with alternatives like tofu, beans or lentils each day or week could make a big difference.

Avoid greenhouse-grown veggies. Buying local isn't always greener, especially when it comes to tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce grown indoors during the Canadian winter. That takes a lot of heat and power. When salad ingredients aren't in season locally, imported might actually be the greener choice.

All that said, many vegan recipes are delicious. (I'm particularly fond of vegan "cheesecake" and this stir fry with tempeh and cashews.)

— Emily Chung

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty