Wind turbines among trees image courtesy US Department of the Interior (usgs.gov)
Recently, I was asked whether it was better to plant trees or build a wind farm to fight global warming. It’s an interesting question, given that reforestation has been in the headlines so much recently. The answer, calculated further down, is that if there’s an option to build wind energy, that’s better than planting trees.
A wind farm is about 8 times more effective at reducing CO2e annually than a forest, and the reduction is permanent, not temporary. Additionally, it eliminates a bunch of other air and water pollution, and reduces habitat destruction.
This isn’t to say “Don’t plant trees!” of course. That would be silly. But where there’s a good wind resource, if you can swing building a wind farm instead of spending the money on a forest, the world will be better off in the long run.
First though, the question raised an interesting false dichotomy. A false dichotomy is a dichotomy that is not jointly exhaustive (there are other alternatives), or that is not mutually exclusive (the alternatives overlap), or that is possibly neither.
Wind generation and trees (shorter ones, not California’s red giants) can co-exist easily and often do. One might think an actual dichotomy would be wind vs solar energy. But no, hybrid wind solar farms work just fine.
And sometimes, there isn’t even an option to planting trees.
As Mark Z. Jacobson, the Stanford professor behind the 100% renewable plans for 139 countries by 2050, said when I asked him about this:
Wind turbines occupy the least footprint on the ground of any energy technology. The spacing area between them is always dual-purpose, so can be used for forestry, agricultural land, or solar panels.
That said, wind farms have one set of environmental advantages and trees have an overlapping set of advantages.
…Yeah, the wind farm would prevent the emission of about 8 times as much CO2e per year as the trees. And it would also prevent the sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, particulate, and hydrocarbon pollution emissions. And it would prevent the habitat destruction and water pollution related to the extraction, refinement and shipping of the fossil fuels. MORE