“A way to make a symbolic stand against Trump”
new energy: You have a plan that is at once very simple and very ambitious: offsetting the additional carbon emissions resulting from Donald Trump’s climate policies – by planting trees. How did you come up with this idea?
Daniel Price: The whole thing basically came from frustration. Back in March, Trump and his administration released an executive order saying that they were going to tear apart the Clean Power Plan, which was the Obama era policy to start doing something about climate change. A couple of months later they decided to pull out of the Paris Agreement, which means ignoring 200 years of science and insulting two decades of diplomacy. That made us quite angry, especially with the realisation of how urgent the situation is, that we need to keep moving forward quickly, not slowing things down. People feel so powerless in the face of what Trump is doing, so we just wanted a way to do something about it.
new energy: Do you see your initiative more as a way of criticising Trump or as an effort to really advance climate protection?
Price: It’s a twofold thing. Trump Forest gives people a way to make a symbolic stand against Trump and call out his dangerous climate ignorance. Secondly, it provides an actual physical way to do something about it, to offset the emissions. Trees are the cheapest and most effective way to draw carbon out of the atmosphere. Forestation and tree planting has actually to be a piece of the pie to slow down climate change.
new energy: Most people will know offsetting from air travel, where you can re-balance your personal carbon footprint. But why should we pay for someone else’s decisions, in this case Donald Trump’s?
Price: It’s a way for people to vent their frustration, but of course it’s very sad we have to step up and offset the decisions of the Trump administration. The reality is that we are all in this together. We have no time left. Since I’ve been involved in climate science, it just got more and more alarming. As I’m sure you are very aware, the current pledges under the Paris Agreement are nowhere near good enough to keep us at two degrees. At the moment we are looking at three plus degrees of warming. A lot of people have said it doesn’t really matter if the US pulls out, but the US is 17 percent of global emissions and if you lose that percentage of your team in any game, it’s going to slow you down.
new energy: Your focus is on the proposed rollback of the Clean Power Plan, which is only a small part of the overall situation. Are there only so many trees one can plant?
Price: Absolutely. People ask: is this really going to do something against climate change? The real answer in the big picture is no. We are looking at nearly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year. For trees to combat that alone is impossible. What needs to happen is a rapid decarbonisation of the global economy. A group of scientists recently proposed a way forward for humanity, a roadmap if you like, to start combating climate change. According to what they call the Carbon Law, we have to halve emissions every decade through the next three decades, which is an incredible challenge. But for Trump Forest, all we are trying to do is offset the additional emissions that will be released if the Clean Power Plan is revoked.
new energy: Your estimate is that you need around 10 billion trees for that, correct?
Price: Yes. With that stuff, the error margins are quite big and it’s difficult to put an accurate number on what exactly is required. But a study that was done to assess the US climate pledge for Paris put the Clean Power Plan at preventing 650 megatons of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere. So taking a standard carbon sequestration rate for an average tree, which obviously includes a very big range of uncertainty, the number we came up with is about 10 billion trees. We are talking about an area of 100,000 square kilometres, which is about a third of the size of Germany.
new energy: You started in spring. By now, in mid-September, you have 700,000 trees, pledged by nearly 2,500 people – which is impressive, but still leaves a long way to go. Do you have a timetable?
Price: It’s still a tiny part of what we are trying to achieve. I calculated the other night that 350,000 trees offset the lifetime emissions of only about 300 people, if you take the standard per capita carbon footprint for a New Zealander. To put that in context: The 650 million tons number is about the carbon emissions of 33 million Americans every year. So this number is very large, which is scary in terms of how much carbon that actually is, but also how difficult it will be to achieve this challenge. To have a timeframe is very difficult because it depends on how much it accelerates. We have seen an almost exponential curve from people lately, we went from about 50,000 trees to 370,000 in a matter of weeks. But we have to maintain that momentum.
new energy: How do you monitor whether the trees are planted additionally and actually deliver the expected amount of carbon reduction in the atmosphere?
Price: We do the best we can. Very early on, we partnered with a group called the Eden Reforestation Project, which is based in California. They have an incredible track record of putting trees in the ground. What we decided to do is focus our efforts on mangroves. Mangroves are an incredibly efficient carbon sink. They store up to three times as much as an average forest. The Eden Project does a lot of Mangrove planting in Madagascar, working with local farmers. There are three options: People can donate to the Eden Project, they can pledge trees from a local planting organisation, or they can just go and buy some trees and plant them in their garden. What they have to do is send us the receipt. We spend a lot of time checking and making sure those trees have actually been purchased. We are all working full-time on other jobs and this is completely unpaid, so we try our best.
new energy: The pledges are visible on your website, many people from developed nations have paid for the tree planting project in Madagascar. This might feel like outsourcing the solution. So if I planted a tree here in Germany, a pine for example, would that have less of an effect, climate-wise?
Price: From a botanical perspective, yes. But it’s totally up to people. If someone wants to self-plant a tree and watch it grow in their garden for 20 years it might give them some hope that they know this tree is standing there in defiance of Trump.
new energy: Any comment from the US administration yet? Considering the name…
Price: No, not at all. We’d love for a journalist to mention it in one of Trump’s press conferences. A lot of people have been sending in messages saying: “Why did you name the project after Trump?”. We did that because it gets attention. To be honest, we don’t care if he likes it or if he takes ownership of it, as long as we are removing carbon from the atmosphere. With all the other things Trump is doing, I’m very worried that climate change will just get lost again in the noise of it all. Perhaps the silver lining of this whole situation is that now climate change has a face, it has an enemy that people can see – which has always been a problem because it’s so abstract. Maybe, just maybe, with some hope, this may be the moment when the globe actually decides to do something serious about it.
is a climate scientist with a PhD in glaciology. Together with Jeff Willis and Adrien Taylor, he founded Trump Forest in March 2017. They first met around a public awareness campaign ahead of the Paris climate summit in 2015. All three of them currently live in New Zealand.
More on Trump Forest at https://trumpforest.com