Planting, Busing, and Densifying: A Three-Pronged Approach to Mitigating Climate Change

Credit: Getty Images (various)

While politicians debate its existence or if humanity is even at fault, climate change is happening, and increasingly presenting life-threatening challenges. The science is clear: Human activity, by way of generated greenhouse gasses, is the single largest contributor to climate change. While tackling climate change will require multifaceted and nuanced approaches by all citizens of the world, three particular actions stand out as perhaps the most significant changes that could be made in modern society. By planting billions of trees, expanding public transportation, and embracing higher density development, Americans could make a significant impact in mitigating the effects of climate change as well as improving their everyday lives.

Trees are perhaps the single largest carbon sink on our planet, and planting more could help remove a significant amount of carbon from the atmosphere, thereby preventing the acceleration of climate change. According to a popular study that researched the effect of trees on climate change, “photosynthetic carbon capture by trees is likely to be among our most effective strategies to limit the rise of CO2 concentrations across the globe” (Bastin 1). This study, published in the academic journal Science, found that Earth has viable space for almost a billion hectares of additional trees and, if planted, these trees could reduce carbon in the atmosphere by 25%. Focused efforts by nations to plant and maintain these trees could also help employ thousands of people, much like the popular Civilian Concentration Corps which was formed by the U.S. government in the early 20th Century to combat Depression-era unemployment while enlisting Americans to work on various environmental projects across the county. These trees would also have the added benefit of lowering local temperatures, especially in urban environments, and would provide healthier air as they remove pollution from the atmosphere.

Some speculation and doubt has been cast on the idea of planting such a large number of trees to combat climate change. As Alan Buis points out in his rebuttal to the study for NASA, “reforesting an area the size of the United States and Canada combined (1 to 2 billion hectares) could take between one and two thousand years” (Buis 2). Further, not all reforested areas may be suitable environments to support the same carbon sequestering once the trees are planted, and these trees could take a century to even reach maturity. However, Buis does concede that the efforts may actually work to mitigate the effects of climate change, as evidenced in China where the government has spent the last fifteen years planting millions of trees, increasing forest cover by 20% and offsetting 33% of their annual fossil fuel emissions. Buis does state that further studies must be performed to determine the cost-benefit analysis regarding such major tree planting efforts, but saving existing trees and forests is paramount to preventing major climate disaster.

Cars, SUVs, and trucks are the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in America, right behind the electric power industry. Reducing the emissions from these vehicles requires a range of strategies, including raising mileage efficiency requirements and subsidizing electric vehicles. However, increasing access and expanding networks for public transportation is likely the single greatest way to slashing this huge source of greenhouse gas. According to a study published by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in 2009, “subways and metros produce about 75% less in greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than an average single-occupancy vehicle. Light rail systems produce 57% less and bus transit produces 32% less” (Hodges 3). Not only are public transit vehicles more efficient during transportation, but their manufacturing and maintenance also require significantly less materials and emissions than the personal car, truck, or SUV. That, and more and more public transportation vehicles are being powered by renewable and cleaner resources than fossil fuels, such as the New York City Transit’s subways which use electricity generated by solar panels.

While public transportation is both cost effective and climate-friendly, a large reason that most Americans refuse to leave their personal vehicles behind each day is because of the lack of availability. Public transit is typically only convenient in major cities, and many southern states balk at the idea of installing subways or light rails. What’s greatly misunderstood by many Americans is the freedom offered by convenient public transit, and the financial burden that can be lifted for those that cannot afford to buy and maintain an expensive personal vehicle, or even choose not to, simply to commute to work each day and perform basic errands. This concept has taken hold in many other countries, especially in Europe and Asia, but many Americans can tie their identity to their personal vehicles and are reluctant to give them up. As America continues to expand, land comes at a higher premium, and less space can be devoted to miles and miles of roads and parking lots. The DOT study also found that “public transportation reduces emissions by facilitating higher density development, which conserves land and decreases the distances people need to travel to reach destinations” (Hodges 3).

In most cities in the United States, 75% of residential land is zoned for single-family homes. This means that a vast majority of land can only contain homes built to house one family, making condos, apartments, townhouses, and duplexes illegal. By embracing high density zoning, or compact development, less land can be devoted to empty lots and yards, urban sprawl can be reduced, trip lengths for residents reduced, and overall carbon footprints of neighborhoods slashed. In a study published in the journal Energy Policy that looked at urban vs rural neighborhood greenhouse gas emissions, researchers found that “analyses show that doubling population-weighted density is associated with a reduction in CO2 emissions from household travel and residential energy consumption by 48% and 35%, respectively” (Lee 4). This means that compact residential zones both cut down on single occupant vehicle usage, as well as energy consumed for heating and cooling.

While many Americans are desperate to find affordable housing, the strict single-family zoning requirements make the housing market even more expensive. Raising zoning density would greatly raise the number of homes available, while also reducing housing costs. If sprawl continues and compact development is not embraced soon, Americans will eventually run out of room for wasteful subdivisions and single-family acre lots. Populations will outpace housing, housing costs will skyrocket, roads will be gridlocked, and the effects both on and by climate change will be severe. Global temperatures will rise, catastrophic storms will increase with intensity and frequency, and heat waves will be devastating. To prevent further destruction of our climate, as well as future problems caused by additional sprawl, the Energy Policy study concluded that “our research findings corroborate that urban land use and transportation policies to build more compact cities should play a crucial part of any strategic efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize climate at all levels of government” (Lee 4).

To conclude, the three main goals that will make the most impact in mitigating the effects of climate change include planting nearly a billion hectares of trees, improving access to public transportation, and expanding zoning density for more compact neighborhoods. Trees are the single largest carbon sinks for our atmosphere, and work to provide cleaner and healthier air. The destruction of forests, especially in the last fifty years, has had a terrible effect on our environment, but we can replant and work to reverse the damage. Public transportation, while often derided, serves as an extremely efficient and clean mode of transit for millions of Americans, and can better serve millions more if access is improved and more cities adopt public transit as opposed to favoring single occupant vehicles. While a vast majority of America only allows for single-family homes, embracing denser zoning for multifamily homes will not only make neighborhoods more compact and affordable, it will also severely cut down on emissions both by transportation and energy usage for cooling and heating. While mitigating the effects of climate change will require many more solutions and approaches, these three stand to make the biggest impact in terms of reducing and removing greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

Works Cited

Bastin, Jean-Francois, et al. “The Global Tree Restoration Potential.” Science, vol 365, issue 6448,

American Association for the Advancement of Science, 5 Jul 2019, DOI:10.1126/science.
Aax0848
. Accessed 23 November 2021.

Buis, Alan. “Examining the Viability of Planting Trees to Help Mitigate Climate Change.” NASA

Global Climate Change, https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2927/examining-the-viability-of-planting-trees-to-help-mitigate-climate-change/. Accessed 19 November 2021.

Hodges, Tina, et al. “Public Transportation’s Role in Responding to Climate Change.” Department of

Transportation, https://www.transit.dot.gov/sites/fta.dot.gov/files/docs/PublicTransportations
RoleInRespondingToClimateChange2010.pdf
. Accessed 18 November 2021.

Lee, Sungwon, and Burmsoo Lee. “The Influence of Urban Form On GHG Emissions in the U.S.

Household Sector.” Energy Policy, Vol. 68, pp. 534–549, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.
2014.01.024
. Accessed 23 November 2021.

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