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Real vs fake – how to choose your Christmas tree?

As Christmas is just around the corner, many of us are facing the same question regarding the most essential symbol of the holidays: real or fake Christmas tree – which one is better for the environment? The short answer is: real, but let’s weigh all the pros and cons surrounding our festive evergreen to settle this annual debate for good.

Today, over eight million Christmas trees are sold annually in the United Kingdom and an estimated 25-30 million are sold in the US. While sales of fake trees have increased enormously over the past decade, sales of real trees have also remained relatively stable. The American Christmas Tree Association expects that approximately 21.6 million real trees and 12.9 million artificial trees will be purchased by US households this Christmas season.

If you opt for a fake tree, stick to it for a long time!

First, let’s take a look at the carbon footprint, in other words, the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by our Christmas tree which can be a useful indicator of the environmental impact. According to a study comparing the environmental impact of real and artificial trees, the emitted CO2 over the entire life cycle is approximately 3.1 kg CO2 per year for the natural tree and 8 kg CO2 per year for the artificial one. These CO2 emissions roughly correspond to driving an average car 125 km and 322 km, respectively.

Reusing a fake tree every year may seem like a more sustainable solution. However, defining the break‐even years to keep an artificial tree is definitely challenging as it depends on many factors, such as the End‐of‐Life option for the tree and the environmental impact category considered. According to some estimations, artificial trees need to be reused for at least 20 years if they are to compare favourably with natural trees.

“However, these trees are usually kept for about 6 years, so the carbon cost is definitely greater compared to the natural alternative,” forest and landscape ecologist Andy Finton told CNN. If artificial trees are used for a longer lifespan, that balance changes. Thus, if we are opting for an artificial tree, we should keep it as a permanent decorative element for as long as possible.

The festive carbon sink

Now you might think that regardless of the carbon footprint before it is cut down and displayed in our living room, a Christmas tree is grown on land that might otherwise be used for different purposes. The way we use our land is certainly contributing to climate change and growing Christmas trees is no exception. However, Christmas tree plantations can contribute in many ways to sustainable land management.

Firstly, although Christmas tree farms are monoculture plantations, meaning they typically produce only one or a few tree species, studies suggest that they still support biodiversity and wildlife.

Furthermore, while they are growing, Christmas trees are pulling carbon from the atmosphere, reducing the amount of carbon pollution and thus the pace of climate change. They act as carbon sinks, which is a reservoir where greenhouse gas is stored. According to estimations, during the entire 10-year life cycle of a Christmas tree, it accumulates a total of 18 kg of CO2. This implies that 3.3 tons of carbon or 12.2 tons of CO2 are absorbed annually per hectare planted with Christmas trees.

Finally, although cutting down a tree eventually releases carbon into the atmosphere, only a small part of Christmas trees get cut down each year, leaving the remaining trees to store carbon for years until they reach maturity.

Some important side notes and tips

We should note, that the differences in environmental impact between natural and artificial trees are heavily influenced by some important factors. For instance, consumers travel approximately 5 km to purchase their trees, however, if you go further to purchase your evergreen (studies suggest more than 16 km distance) you would be better off with an artificial one.

The overall impacts of the natural tree are also significantly influenced by the chosen
End‐of‐Life treatment. An average tree that is sent to a landfill has a carbon footprint of 16kg CO2. Additionally, there’s a financial burden, as trees that end up in landfills could cost a lot for local authorities. As the festivities are over, turn your Christmas tree instead into compost or reuse it as wood chippings. If your Christmas tree has its roots it can be also replanted in your garden.

Finally, we should remember that although the dilemma between natural and artificial Christmas trees will probably continue to surface every year before Christmas, regardless of the chosen type of tree, the impacts on the environment are negligible compared to other activities, such as car use. Experts emphasise that environmentally‐conscious consumers should focus on minimising car travel rather than choosing their tree type based on its production method.

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