How Trees Cause Global Warming

If we're supposed to stop greenhouse gas emissions, why do trees get a pass?

Talk about burying the lede - climate change warmists are systematically ignoring a well-known gas that accounts for 97% of all greenhouse gas warming in favor of taking about CO2 whose contribution is comparatively minimal!

You've probably heard about "carbon offsets."  Warmists want the whole world to get to "net zero" CO2 emissions, which means that no nation produces more planet-destroying CO2 than it absorbs.  This is important, they say, because CO2 is a "greenhouse gas" which traps heat which warms the planet.

Since all of us breathe out CO2 with every exhalation and the cows that produce our hamburgers also emit CO2 just by breathing, warmists assert that we must do something to get rid of enough CO2 to balance what we produce.  That's "net zero."

Since relatively few of us are, or care to be, in a position to stop producing CO2, people who desire to feel virtuous without changing their lifestyles buy "carbon offsets."  That means paying someone else to do something that absorbs CO2.  One of the most popular offsetting activities is paying people to plant trees.

A tree absorbs CO2 and produces oxygen.  The tree uses the carbon as part of its structure, so as long as the wood doesn't burn or rot, the tree "locks up" the carbon it took out of the air.  The agreeable fantasy is that trees are effective carbon sinks which will help Save the Planet, and that paying people to plant trees is thus a legitimate way to make people feel good by thinking that they're emitting less CO2.

You will find that the truth is often unpopular and the contest between agreeable fancy and disagreeable fact is unequal. For, in the vernacular, we Americans are suckers for good news.

    - Adlai Stevenson, three-time failed Democratic candidate for President

Convenient Untruths

There is a disagreeable fact concerning the idea of trees saving the planet - they produce water vapor.  Warmists focus on CO2 because it's easy to tax and control, but it's far from being a major contributor to warming.  The National Aeronautics and Space Agency published "Water Vapor Confirmed as Major Player in Climate Change" which points out:

Water vapor is known to be Earth's most abundant greenhouse gas ...

"This study confirms that what was predicted by the models is really happening in the atmosphere," said Eric Fetzer, an atmospheric scientist who works with AIRS data at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Water vapor is the big player in the atmosphere as far as climate is concerned."  [emphasis added]

The MIT Program on Global Change points out that water vapor accounts for most greenhouse-driven planet warming:

"I want to comment that the way-dominant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is not mentioned, namely water vapor," writes Ken Saunders of Pacific Palisades. "Water vapor accounts for about 97 percent of the total (natural plus man-emitted) greenhouse warming of the planet. See, e.g., John Houghton's 'The Physics of Atmospheres, 3rd edition,' Cambridge University Press, 2002."  [emphasis added]

Water vapor is produced when water evaporates from puddles to return as rain.  From the time the vapor enters to the atmosphere until it falls again as rain, it traps heat as "the big player" among greenhouse gases, accounting for 97% of all greenhouse warming.  But as Mr. Saunders said, nobody wants to talk about it.

Why isn't water vapor part of the warmist narrative?  Not even governments or Democrats could be so foolish as to imagine that they can "fix" it - how are we supposed to keep ocean or lake water from evaporating?  What sort of spectacularly destructive and chaotic results would any misbegotten attempt to do so create?  There's no profit in railing against water vapor, so warmists focus on CO2 - which could, in theory, be reduced at great expense in terms of money and economic comfort while benefiting the well-connected who get government subsidies for producing expensive, intermittent electricity.

Ignoring the obvious solution of paving over all the wetlands to reduce evaporation, we need to consider the fact that trees emit water vapor while trapping carbon. In a TED talk, Antonio Donato Nobre, a senior researcher at Brazil's National Institute of Amazonian Research, pointed out:

Through a process called transpiration, a large tree in the Amazon can release 1,000 liters of water into the atmosphere in a single day.

... hundreds of billions of trees in the jungle release as many as 20 billion metric tons of water into the atmosphere every day. That means that while the Amazon, which pours 17 billion tons of water into the Atlantic Ocean a day, may be the largest river on earth - it's still exceeded by the airborne river drifting above the canopy of the trees.

NASA wrote that water vapor is "the big player" in trapping heat.  Trees extract CO2 from the atmosphere and lock it up until the wood burns or rots, but along the way, all the water vapor the tree generates traps more heat than the CO2 it absorbs would have - remember, water vapor accounts for 97% of all heat trapped by greenhouse gases.  CO2w and all other greenhouse gases trap only 3% of the heat.

In terms of trapping CO2 for a short time, planting trees may contribute toward "net zero" in an accounting sense, but there's no planetary benefit whatsoever - at least, not from the global-warming perspective. It's just another way to signal virtue by transferring money to people who would probably be planting anyway because they want to harvest the trees for paper, lumber, or palm oil.

Saving the Planet by planting trees is another of those agreeable fantasies so beloved of our progressives.

Disagreeable Facts

In addition to praising CO2 offsets while ignoring water vapor, the real culprit, they've embraced the agreeable fantasy that industrial-scale devices which convert solar and wind energy into electricity are "renewable" in that the sun won't go out and the wind won't stop and "net zero" in that no CO2 is generated while the machinery runs.  This ignores the immense amount of fossil-fuel energy needed to produce the tons and tons of steel, cement, rare earths, and other elements needed for windmills and solar panels, both of which are extremely hard to recycle, but that's their narrative and they're sticking with it.

As Mr. Stevenson observed, Americans prefer to ignore disagreeable facts, particularly when facts interfere with a longstanding money-making scams like selling carbon credits or subsidizing "renewable" energy sources which stress the electricity distribution grid by providing intermittent power.

Over a 30-year period, $1 million worth of utility-scale solar or wind produces 40 million and 55 million kWh respectively: $1 million worth of shale wells produces enough natural gas to generate 300 million kWh over 30 years.

It costs about the same to build one shale well or two wind turbines: the latter, combined, produces 0.7 barrels of oil (equivalent energy) per hour when the wind is blowing, whereas the shale rig averages 10 barrels of oil per hour 24/7.

It costs less than $0.50 to store a barrel of oil, or its equivalent in natural gas, but it costs $200 to store the equivalent energy of a barrel of oil in batteries.

In order to compensate for episodic wind/solar output, U.S. utilities are using oil- and gas-burning reciprocating engines (big cruise-ship-like diesels); three times as many have been added to the grid since 2000 as in the 50 years prior to that. has a lot more inconvenient truths about renewable energy.

The next time someone complains that you're Killing the Planet by generating CO2 by driving your car or heating your home, just tell them that MIT says that 97% of all planetary greenhouse warming is produced by water vapor.  Until warmists start trying to do something about water vapor, we plan not to even think about the 3% of warming caused by all the other gases, and the much smaller fraction of that contributed by human activity.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments

Well, now, I see there is no question about what to do. We have to dry everything up so it looks like the prune-faced politicians. Maybe we can ship the water to Mars. I'm sure some crony company will suggest it and then the government can start a pipeline.

March 14, 2022 6:05 PM

The Inconvenient Truth is that water vapor has been deliberately left out of the climate models because it is to complex (read hard) to include.
What times we live in.

March 14, 2022 9:38 PM

There wasn't any place to put this information into the article about trees, but it's another carbon offset folly.

The Quest to Trap Carbon in Stone-and Beat Climate Change

It describes a HUGELY expensive machine that uses Iceland's abundant geothermal power to try to pull CO2 out of the air. Our article states that water vapor accounts for 97% of the heat trapped by all gases while CO2 and friends trap only 3%. The article says:

direct air capture faces huge obstacles. Despite carbon's enormous impact down at ground level, it is barely a trace element in the air - only about 415 out of every 1 million atmospheric particles are CO2. Imagine putting a single drop of ink into an Olympic-size swimming pool; the challenge of direct air capture is akin to taking the drop back out.

They are true about the tremendous obstacles, but they repeat the warmist myth, saying "Despite carbon's enormous impact down at ground level" which is hooey. CO2 is one of many gases which together account for no more than 3% of the warming!! Talking about its "tremendous impact" is what my mother would have called a lie.

March 15, 2022 12:28 AM

This would say deserts are pretty much free of whatever the climate alarmists worry about. Living in AZ, humidity is often 15-20 % and the trees ( I e cacti) have sharp needles that defend their water. While we get the usual amount of carbon scolding, it should be wasted elsewhere. Be tough on the locals who make a good living posing as climate wizards.

March 15, 2022 1:45 AM

It urns out that flushing dust off solar panels uses 10 billino gallons of water per year.

Cleaning solar panels uses way more water than you might think - unless you were right on the money thinking 10 billion gallons of water per year.

That amount of water is almost unbelievable, says Professor of Mechanical Engineering Kripa Varanasi, who, along with graduate student Sreedath Panath and a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wants to create a water-free way to clear dust off of photovoltaic panels.

"The water footprint of the solar industry is mind boggling," said Varanasi in a recent MIT news release , and it will be increasing as these installations continue to expand worldwide. "So, the industry has to be very careful and thoughtful about how to make this a sustainable solution."

With simple components - a metal-bar "electrode," a guide rail, and an electric motor - the MIT-developed sustainable system makes dust particles detach and virtually leap off the panel's surface, without the need for water or brushes.

The achievement, described last week in the journal Science Advances, relies on a process called electrostatic repulsion, or what's known as Coulombic forces.

March 23, 2022 2:54 AM

MIT is also pushing carbon capture. There's money in it, even though CO2 and all other gases besides water vapor account for only 3% of retained heat.

Setting carbon management in stone

Keeping global temperatures within limits deemed safe by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change means doing more than slashing carbon emissions. It means reversing them.

"If we want to be anywhere near those limits [of 1.5 or 2 C], then we have to be carbon neutral by 2050, and then carbon negative after that," says Matej Pec, a geoscientist and the Victor P. Starr Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS).

Going negative will require finding ways to radically increase the world's capacity to capture carbon from the atmosphere and put it somewhere where it will not leak back out. Carbon capture and storage projects already suck in tens of million metric tons of carbon each year. But putting a dent in emissions will mean capturing many billions of metric tons more. Today, people emit around 40 billion tons of carbon each year globally, mainly by burning fossil fuels.

Because of the need for new ideas when it comes to carbon storage, Pec has created a proposal for the MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition - a bold and sweeping effort by the Institute to support paradigm-shifting research and innovation to address the climate crisis. Called the Advanced Carbon Mineralization Initiative, his team's proposal aims to bring geologists, chemists, and biologists together to make permanently storing carbon underground workable under different geological conditions. That means finding ways to speed-up the process by which carbon pumped underground is turned into rock, or mineralized.

"That's what the geology has to offer," says Pec, who is a lead on the project, along with Ed Boyden, professor of biological engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and media arts and sciences, and Yogesh Surendranath, professor of chemistry. "You look for the places where you can safely and permanently store these huge volumes of CO2."

Pec's proposal is one of 27 finalists selected from a pool of almost 100 Climate Grand Challenge proposals submitted by collaborators from across the Institute. Each finalist team received $100,000 to further develop their research proposals. A subset of finalists will be announced in April, making up a portfolio of multiyear "flagship" projects receiving additional funding and support.

Building industries capable of going carbon negative presents huge technological, economic, environmental, and political challenges. For one, it's expensive and energy-intensive to capture carbon from the air with existing technologies, which are "hellishly complicated," says Pec. Much of the carbon capture underway today focuses on more concentrated sources like coal- or gas-burning power plants.

It's also difficult to find geologically suitable sites for storage. To keep it in the ground after it has been captured, carbon must either be trapped in airtight reservoirs or turned to stone.

March 24, 2022 12:34 PM

The statement that "A tree absorbs CO2 and produces oxygen" is correct, as far as it goes, but it is only half the cycle. The rest of the story is that when that tree dies and either rots or burns every atom of carbon gets converted back into CO2. The only question is how fast does this happen.

Another fact about trees is that they are not the best, grass is even better at using sunlight and water to capture carbon.

Finally growing grass and grazing animals on it increases carbon held in the soil, and that makes the soil both more fertile and hold more water (less runoff). Both the fertility and water holding abilities can last for centuries, unless poor farming methods destroys it (again). Thus maybe the best answer is more grassland and animals like cows grazing on it. But they really don't want to hear that suggestion.

April 21, 2022 2:33 AM

When there is sunlight, Plants and algae can use photosynthesis to process absorbed CO2 into sugars. When the sun goes down though, plants and algae change from photosynthesis as a primary process to transpiration as a primary process and this is where some of the sugars are used to create CO2 and energy. The net absorption over a whole day depends on species, weather and where. Will idiots owning light bulb companies or giant solar mirror array technology step up and lobby for 24hr lighting on plants to shift the balance? Will Govt 'officials' see their 'contributions' as a sufficient fact base to rapidly legislate that problem solving law into place and hire many, many cronies of cronies to inspect the proper and now mandatory lighting facilities? .... Too bad it will kill most plant life and cause the decomposition of plant life on to release more CO2 than ever before?

What about scattering ultra fine iron powder on our oceans to cause algae blooms instead...easier than planting trees? and the Sudhi industry will bloom because it will taste better than Gates-ian or WEF-in' weeds?

May 12, 2022 11:50 PM

Sushi industry

May 12, 2022 11:51 PM
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