2019 marked quantum jump in climate activism with students all over the world walking out of schools demanding action against climate change. Swedish teen Greta Thunberg captured the imagination of a generation and was named the 2019 Time Person of the Year. Multiple US States announced clean energy targets. Duke Energy, the largest electricity producer in the US, pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050. Well before 2019, an entire industry has been working away at maintaining the sustainability of cities – the landscape industry. Landscapers design, build and maintain green spaces in urban areas – parks, golf courses, school grounds, home lawns, trees on streets and so on. The landscape industry includes arborists, architects and lawn care professionals. But why is landscaping so important? Because it contributes directly to mitigate climate change.
Landscape industry builds Carbon Sinks
There are two ways to mitigate climate change – reducing the amount of carbon dioxide being emitted or absorbing the carbon dioxide that has been emitted back into the earth (called carbon sequestration). The renewable energy industry reduces the amount of carbon dioxide being emitted. How? As the share of solar energy increases in the energy basket, the share of coal power goes down. This means less carbon is emitted for every unit of electricity produced.
Land with vegetation on top of it acts as a carbon sink. Carbon is stored in plants and within the soil where colonies of microorganisms break down dead organic matter to return nutrients to the soil. The landscape industry keeps the soil and plants in good shape through various services to maintain and increase contribution to carbon sequestration.
A 1-acre lawn can hold 0.46 tons of carbon every year(1)http://multivu.prnewswire.com/broadcast/33322/33322cr.pdf. NASA estimates there are 40 million acres of turfgrass across the USA(2)https://www.isprs.org/proceedings/XXXVI/8-W27/milesi.pdf. This totals to 18.4 million tonnes of carbon absorbed every year. The total contribution of urban trees in the USA is 25.6 million tonnes of carbon every year(3)https://www.fs.fed.us/nrs/pubs/jrnl/2013/nrs_2013_nowak_001.pdf.
Not including other forms of vegetation in landscapes (like shrubs), this totals to 44.0 million tonnes. This is equivalent to carbon footprint of 3 million Americans(4)https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC?locations=US.
Landscape industry reduces local warming
Due to the continuous expanse of concrete and impervious surfaces, heat islands develop in urban areas during summer months. An analysis of the 57 largest cities in the US found that cities were warmer by 2.4-degree Fahrenheit compared to surrounding rural areas(5)https://www.climatecentral.org/news/urban-heat-islands-threaten-us-health-17919#more. This increases energy consumption inside buildings due to increased demand for air-conditioning by up to 19%(6)https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0360544219303895.
Green spaces provide the perfect punctuation needed in the concrete stretch of land to mitigate the heat island effect. Evapotranspiration, the return of water vapor from trees and other vegetation back to the atmosphere, in combination with shading can reduce roughly 40% of electricity consumption in the US(7)https://www.vibrantcitieslab.com/research/energy-use-impact/. This is massive since the generation of electricity produces more carbon than any other industry in the US.
Opportunity for landscapers to contribute
It is difficult to find funds for initiatives to combat climate change as free markets do not factor in negative externalities associated with transactions. But the landscape industry is an exception to this rule as it generates revenue for managing green spaces.
The total federal budget for climate funding is $13.6 billion dollars(8)https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-18-223. This was divided between the development of technology to combat climate change, research to understand the impacts of climate change and international assistance. The estimated total revenue of the landscape industry in 2019 was $99 billion(9)https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-18-223. The tree care industry had a revenue of $24 billion. This totals to $123 billion.
Of course, this is not to say that the entire $123 billion dollar goes into climate action. Moreover, landscaping itself generates carbon and can be done more sustainably by promoting ecosystems that require less intervention. However, this clearly presents a huge opportunity for landscape industry to take lead in the war against climate change. The industry has the technical expertise and financial resources to leverage green spaces to mitigate climate change.
With great power comes great responsibility
The consumer of landscape services has become more climate-conscious than ever. Businesses are setting climate goals to mitigate their impact on the environment(10)https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/climate-change/pledge. Homeownership among millennials, the cohort most conscious about climate change in the US population, has reached 64%(11)https://www.statista.com/topics/4403/millennials-and-real-estate-in-the-us/.
Landscape industry, as the guardians of our green spaces, are ideally placed to educate businesses and homeowners on how they could enhance their contribution to the environment. If you are a landscape professional and are reading this, the next time you send out a proposal for a maintenance project, think about including a note on the carbon mitigated by the lawn and trees inside a customer’s property. You can be the guide that converts climate awareness into climate action for Americans.
- To estimate the carbon sink of lawns, a good rule of thumb is 0.46 tons per acre(12)http://multivu.prnewswire.com/broadcast/33322/33322cr.pdf.
- To estimate the carbon sink of trees, iTree Design is the best free tool available(13)https://design.itreetools.org/. i-Tree Design allows anyone to make a simple estimation of the benefits provided by individual trees. With inputs of location, species, tree size, and condition, users will receive an understanding of tree benefits related to greenhouse gas mitigation, air quality improvements, and stormwater interception. With the additional step of drawing a building footprint – and virtually “planting” or placing a tree – tree effects on building energy use can be evaluated. Building footprint can be evaluated by Attentive AI in the shortest turnaround time. Contact us to know more.
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