Tackling the Tree Debate

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We’re delving into the environmental impact of real vs. artificial trees. This is not an easy question to answer. To assess the carbon footprints of each choice, a few things need to be considered—the full life cycle of trees, from farming or production to transport, use, and disposal.

Because of their PVC production and shipping from China, fake trees have a much higher single-year footprint than natural trees. However, if the same artificial tree is used for five or more years, the total footprints are more comparable (per multiple studies of trees’ life-cycle impacts). Donating is another option—Goodwill accepts gently-used fake trees in their original box.

For natural trees, impacts are highest from transport and disposal. According to one analysis, driving 10 miles roundtrip to buy the tree may offset its carbon storage benefits. But there are many ways to give trees a second life, from planting to donating it for ocean dune restoration. Some trees can even be treats for farm or zoo animals—from goats to otters!

Tree-trimming itself has its own footprint. According to PE Americas, a string of 400 incandescent tree lights can produce 1.5-3.5 times more CO2 emissions than the actual tree. LED lights have one fifth the footprint. As climate change affects Christmas tree availability, greening the holidays could help sustain those trees for Christmases yet to come. 

METHODOLOGY: Christmas temperature extremes and December temperature trends are calculated using data from the Applied Climate Information System. Extremes are given for each station’s entire period of record, while trends begin in 1970 for consistency between stations. Displayed trend lines are based on a mathematical linear regression. A White Christmas is defined as having at least 1” of snow depth, based on analysis of the 1981-2010 NOAA/NCEI climatological normal. For more details, see our previous release here.

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