How Christmas tree farms could be upcycled into urgently-needed sapling nurseries to help sustainably re-forest Britain
To minimise climate change impact, the world needs to urgently plant different tree species now – can the UK’s Christmas tree industry lead the way to do it safely?
Festive climate activism challenges
For climate activists seeking to change public behaviour in a carbon-reducing direction, traditional festivals present particular challenges. They may also present particular opportunities.
This article doesn’t address the gratuitous consumption of throwaway tat such festivals generate. It addresses a particular example that may be smaller in terms of tonnes of CO2 equivalent, but may have a disproportionately bigger impact in terms of pioneering new ways of shifting public perception and behaviour.
Festivals offer an excellent case study into behavioural change, because ‘traditions’ embody the kind of fixed attitudes held by citizens, institutions, societies and cultures, that need rapid adaptation if we’re to avoid the world effects of human-induced climate change on our civilisation.
If Christmas celebrants in one European country with a relatively low level of church-going can be induced to change their behaviour, might the same methods work for other European countries with higher degrees of religious observance?
If so, might they also persuade Hindus to go easy on the fireworks for ‘Green Diwali’, or Muslims to find a way to celebrate Eid without generating mountains of plastic tat?
The major challenge is obvious – traditional festivals are sacrosanct, some literally.
From a PR perspective, this makes any perceived ‘attack’ on them easy for the forces of inaction to repel. Simply hitch any suggestion of change to emotive drivers like religion, tradition or culture, and job done.
This makes Christmas, Diwali, Eid etc. a gift for climate Inactivists.
And an even greater challenge for climate activists.
Christmas, trees, and Britain
Take the British Christmas tree.
As in many countries with a Christian tradition, every year, British citizens take millions of young trees from the ground, keep them in their front rooms for a month or so, and then burn them, or throw them into landfill.
Christmas trees may be a small contributor to the UK’s carbon footprint, but they’re big symbols of humanity’s unthinking unsustainability.
There’s no PR mileage in pointing out that Britain’s Christmas tree ‘tradition’ only stretches back to Victorian England.
Most British people already know that. It doesn’t stop them buying millions of trees every Christmas, or make them any more likely to consider lower-carbon alternatives.
A Festive Face-off might help illuminate some issues…
British Christmas Tree Growers v Greenpeace Canada
Here are four excerpts from the ‘Fun Facts’ page of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association (BCTGA).
We’ve paired them with excerpts from Greenpeace Canada’s page on ‘Eco-Friendly Christmas Tree Options’.
We would have used Greenpeace UK’s website, but, perhaps knowing it’s a losing battle, the British site addresses the issue in a brief paragraph hidden among 16 Christmas tips.
The Canadian branch seems more willing to take a pop. This may or may not be related to the fact that around 41% of Canada is covered with trees, compared to 13% of the UK. The global average is 31%.
On with the festive face-off:
BCTGA Fun Fact 1
- It is estimated that 6 – 8 million Christmas trees are sold in the UK each year.
Greenpeace Canada 1
- Alongside zero waste wrapping, we can now add ‘the great tree debate’ to the list of viral Holiday eco-trends worth unpacking: which is more sustainable, a real tree or a fake tree? The truth is, they may both have their drawbacks and their benefits, according to the research that’s been conducted on the environmental impacts of each. While we might think of real trees as more sustainable because they suck up carbon dioxide and are compostable at the end of their use, when you look at the big picture, things start to get more complicated.
BCTGA Fun Fact 2
- A typical 6 to 7 feet high Christmas tree is between 10 and 12 years old.
- Seed is collected from trees either in the wild or in specially selected seed orchards and sown in a nursery where the seedlings then grow for three to four years.
- The young plants are then planted by a grower and grown on for a further seven to nine years.
Greenpeace Canada 2
- Christmas tree farms can displace biodiverse natural ecosystems
- According to research conducted by Ellipsos, there is some debate around whether trees absorb more carbon than they release in their first 20 years of life (Holiday trees are generally cut down in their teenage years, so don’t reach their ultimate carbon absorbing old-growth potential).
- Many commercial Christmas tree operations also use pesticides – some of which are even banned for use in gardening.
BCTGA Fun Fact 3
- Buying British means money is going directly back into the country’s economy and helping provide employment in the agricultural sector.
- It’s also good for the environment, Christmas trees provide shelter for birds and wildlife while the trees are growing.
- All BCTGA members are asked to comply with a code of practice so that British Christmas trees are grown to the best environmental and sustainable practice.
Greenpeace Canada 3
- While getting a permit to chop down a tree in the Canadian wilderness sounds nostalgic, there may be repercussions for unsuspecting wildlife – like this northern saw-whet owl who went viral last month after the tree he was chillin’ in got chopped and dragged from Oneonta to New York City. The owl was unharmed, but frankly this is not a death stare I’m willing to mess with.
BCTGA Fun Fact 4
- A real Christmas tree bought locally has the lowest carbon footprint.
- The Carbon Trust say a real Christmas tree has a “much lower” carbon footprint than an artificial tree, particularly if it is disposed of thoughtfully.
- They state that a natural two-metre Christmas tree without roots, disposed of into landfill generates a carbon footprint of around 16kg of CO2.
- If the same sized tree is disposed of by burning it on a bonfire, planting it or having it chipped to spread on a garden, it will have a carbon footprint of around 3.5kg of CO2 – an impressive four and a half times less carbon footprint.
- A two-metre Christmas tree made from plastic has a carbon footprint of around 40kg of CO2, over 10 times greater than that of a real tree, disposed of properly
- Unlike artificial trees, a real Christmas tree naturally absorbs CO2 and releases oxygen and the Soil Association also highlights how a real tree provides a habitat for wildlife and captures carbon from the atmosphere during the 10-12 years they take to grow.
- Unlike artificial trees, real trees can also be recycled. Many BCTGA members and local councils across the country offer Christmas tree collection services, where used Christmas trees are picked up and recycled.
- There is no need to worry about deforestation when buying a natural Christmas tree, because the majority are grown by BCTGA members as a horticultural crop and are not felled from pre-existing forests.
- When a Christmas tree is cut down, it is immediately replaced by another seedling, with up to 10 trees being planted for every average size tree that is grown.
Greenpeace Canada 4
- For those wanting to escape the fake vs real dichotomy, here are some other eco-friendly options:
- Make your own
- Get a live potted tree
- Get a second hand artificial tree
- Get a Norfolk Island pine
- Decorate a living outside tree
This article neither makes further comment on, nor adjudicates on, the science behind the two combatants in this gentlest of fights.
We’re neither an impatient crowd member egg-nogging them on to show a bit of aggression, nor a referee raising the victor’s arm.
The lessons we seek to draw from this punch-pullling play fight, is why both fighters are pulling their punches, and being playful.
The simple answer is that festivals are times for harmony. It doesn’t take a PR expert to realise BCTGW and Greenpeace are falling over themselves in their efforts not to draw blood, or appear the aggressor. They’re avoiding aggression in different ways, for different reasons.
The BCTGA is caught between two stories. They’re happy to deliver a good kicking to their joint enemy – the artificial tree purveyors of Big Oil by-product – but are much more cautious about over-doing their own sustainability credentials.
You don’t have to be a militant Green, finger-pointing, atheist ascetic to observe that the BCTGA claim that a ‘real Christmas tree bought locally has the lowest carbon footprint‘ begs the rather obvious ‘lower carbon footprint’ alternative – not having Christmas trees at all.
But the same fear of coming across as party-poopers runs through every light-hearted joke, and nice-guy joshing in Greenpeace Canada’s article. They’re so intent on not offending anyone, or hair-triggering a knee-jerk accusation of being unpatriotic, un-Christian, or un-Canadian, they risk not landing any punches at all. Their parting sentence is a limp slap.
If you end up going for a new artificial tree, try to select a high-quality one that will last a long time and can be passed on responsibly when you’re finished.
Greenpeace are experienced activists, who pick their battles carefully. We can see they don’t want to risk being cast as the Grinch.
But what’s the point of being a punch-bag?
BCTGA and Greenpeace are happy to gang up on Big Oil, suppliers of raw materials for the artificial tree industry.
This quote happens to come from Greenpeace, but could just as well have come from the BCTGA.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is one of the naughtiest plastics on the plastics list and pollutes across its entire lifespan, from production to end of life. Trees made from PVC are difficult to recycle and so end up going to landfill where they release more greenhouse gases and pollute ecosystems by leaching dangerous chemicals. They are also usually made in factories overseas and the GHG emissions associated with shipping increases their carbon footprint.
In business terms, Christmas trees is a battle Big Oil can well afford to lose. Even if the artificial tree industry goes up in flames, there are plenty of other willing customers for their PVC.
The more intriguing fight is the one between the BCTGA and Greenpeace, played out so politely on their websites. This is one to which Big Oil’s PR folk will be paying closer attention. If the Christmas tree growers lose this one, it could create a spark that spreads like wildfire if they don’t stamp it out early.
First, the science. From a direct carbon-reduction impact, the ‘real’ Christmas tree industry is not as unambiguously Bad as campaigners would prefer. The BCTGA’s observations about the carbon impact of burning/burying Christmas trees being relatively small is largely accurate, but that’s not the point this article is making.
Putting the BCWGA out of business would be a minor skirmish in the bigger battle against the forces of inaction promoted by the Three-Headed Beasts of Government, Business and Media. So minor it would barely be worth the investment of resources and energy.
But symbolism matters. In particular the close association of a ‘real’ Christmas tree with whatever ‘The Spirit of Christmas’ means to the people who buy them every year.
Symbols are important because the potential impact of nudging such ingrained behaviour would be a big deal – the kind of crack in the dam that might get Big Oil worried.
So far, they’ve had little reason to fret. The featherweight website battle with puffball gloves between Christmas Tree growers and climate activists is a non-event, with no noticeable impact on Christmas tree production.
Were Greenpeace UK to take the gloves off, what blows might they try to land on the BCTGA?
How might they convince British citizens to sacrifice their beloved Christmas trees to Do The Right Thing?
Conventional climate activist tactics would include:
- a petition (‘Ban all Christmas trees NOW!’)
- a clever social media campaign (‘Lose the tree. Save the Planet.’)
- Killer / emotive facts (‘Xmas Trees take up land the size of X / threaten small, furry mammal Y’)
Written down like that, you can immediately see why they don’t bother. Such a campaign would be gift-wrapped for any BCTGA PR manager, who’d only have to:
- Claim Greenpeace ‘want to kill Christmas’ and call the tabloid press
- Lobby government to kill any ban
- Keep Business As Usual
One way or another, Business As Usual is what’s killing us, as rising temperatures make more of us burn, drown and shrivel. Maybe it’s possible to engineer a win-win solution that:
- Stops the waste
- Makes the land occupied by Christmas tree plantations sustainable
- Increases future resilience to rising temperatures
- Promotes biodiversity
- Creates new jobs and grows the economy
- Benefits the BCTGA
Sounds like a Christmas fantasy? Hear us out.
Our modest proposal
Britain’s lack of trees makes its need to mitigate the worst effects of climate change particularly urgent.
In a recent report, Britain’s top tree experts outlined this urgency. Their report forms the basis of the solution described in the See Through News article Safely Plant More Diverse Tree Species In New Woodlands Now.
In brief, Britain needs to:
- Rip up the ‘Native Species Only’ list that was a good idea before human-induced climate change
- Start planting loads more trees adapted to more southerly latitudes right now
Put this to any tree expert, and they’ll tell you the biggest practical obstacle to this critical forestry revolution is Britain’s chronic lack of tree nurseries.
Imported seeds and saplings came with pests and diseases. Careful cultivation in specialist British nurseries is the best way to avoid past biosecurity mistakes, such as Ash dieback.
The Woodland Trust, Britain’s 2nd-biggest nature charity and 29th biggest charity overall, has created a scheme to promote the safe local propagation of tree species adapted to warmer temperatures.
The Trust is trying to establish its UK and Ireland Sourced and Grown Assurance scheme (UKISG) as a gold-standard accreditation for the UK’s existing nurseries, but the scheme faces familiar problems, mainly:
- Funding (it costs money for the Trust to run, and for the nurseries to get and keep accreditation)
- Take-up (it’s a voluntary scheme)
Acquiring land for a tree nursery and setting it up for business takes time and investment.
If only there were some ready-made nurseries and young-tree plantations available.
The BCTGA website lists 286 Christmas tree farms around the country.
But but but… Q&A
Q: But… why on earth would profitable Christmas tree businesses suddenly switch to growing woodland saplings?
A: Self Interest. They would still be in the business of growing trees, but have a far more diversified product range, shorter product cycles, and guaranteed increased long-term demand.
Q: But…why aren’t they doing so already, and what would it take for them to switch from selling one species of 10-year-old fir, to a variety of species as seeds, seedlings, whips and saplings?
A: Government regulation. A tax on live Christmas trees could be ramped up at the same rate as a subsidy for growing saplings for new woodland plantations is phased out, over a fixed period, of, say 30 years. The BCTGA members would all still be in the business of growing trees, they’d just have to re-brand as the British Sustainable Tree Growers Association. They’d not only be able to pass on stronger businesses to their children, but be able to look them in the eye when asked what they’re doing to promote carbon drawdown.
Q: But… changing the law would be too expensive!
A: Fiscal Rectitude. It needn’t cost anything. Over the period of the legislation, the tax raised could 100% fund the subsidy. The government need only provide a bridging loan to cover the gap while the tax is too low, and the subsidy too high to break even. If British politicians really don’t think national tree cover is the business of government, they could leave it to the finance sector to profit from a Tree Futures market. So long as they can convince voters the UK’s track record of trusting the private sector with natural resources is anything less than disastrous.
Q: But… why would any government introduce such regulation?
A: Strong leadership. It could be a vote-winner. Claims of being ‘world-leading’ go down particularly well with British voters still getting over Post-WW2 imperial decline. This one could actually be true, if they’re bold enough to go first. If they dither, the French might do it first.
Q: But… how could British voters ever support a ban on Christmas trees?
A: Clarity. It’s not a ban on Christmas trees. It’s a policy that gradually makes buying the live kind a bit more expensive every year, in return for reducing the risk of British woodlands being annihilated by rising temperatures over the foreseeable future. Shouldn’t be that hard a sell. Remember the dire warnings in the papers about what a disaster the EU ban on indoor smoking would be? They turned out to be a) largely paid for by Big Tobacco and b) completely wrong. Europeans, it turned out, very quickly appreciated the immediate personal benefits of the ban, whether or not they supported the long-term societal upside in smoke-free spaces and reduced health-care burden.
Q: But… what if poor people can’t afford Christmas trees?
A: Reframing. Instead of seeing losing something that Brits have only cared about since Dickens was alive, why not see a liberating consumers to enjoy greater choice?
Q: But …don’t Brit consumers already have lots of choice: Nordmann Fir, Fraser Fir, Noble Fir, Douglas Fir… ?
A: Innovation. They’re all virtually indistinguishable – the clue’s in the name. Greenpeace Canada listed a few sustainable options above (Make your own, Get a live potted tree, Decorate a living outside tree). Entirely new businesses could sprout and thrive.
Q: But…what kind of ‘new businesses’ could replace Christmas tree farms?
A: Give me a second. How about upcycling fruit tree pruning by-product to form fir-like structures that would be both sustainable and compostable? Smart designers could come up with some brilliant products.
Q: But… those industries don’t yet exist.
A: Green Growth. That’s the point. Creating new sustainable businesses to replace unsustainable ones will only happen if you change Business As Usual.
Q: But…what about the Spirit of Christmas?
A: Whose Spirit of Christmas? We’ve had more than a century of commerce foisting their definition of the ‘spirit of Christmas’ on us. We’ll now get to define it in many different ways, expressing our individuality, if we so choose. You can still buy a fir tree for a month before burning it, if that’s what you want.
Q: But… where would you hang all the baubles, and where would you put the presents?
A: Duh. You’re making our point. Functionally, the Christmas tree is actually just a bauble-suspension platform and present backdrop. Use your imagination.
A: Helping making the Inactive active is hard, isn’t it?
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