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Unless you slept through science class in middle school, you probably learned about photosynthesis, though you might not remember the details. Essentially, it's the process through which trees use sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to fuel their growth, releasing oxygen along the way. It stands to reason that trees should at least be part of the answer to the climate crisis – yet one of the problems with relying on trees for carbon capture is how slowly they grow.
That issue led San Francisco start-up Living Carbon to embark on an ambitious plan to plant up to 5 million genetically-modified poplar trees within the next year. The company began planting the trees in southern Georgia in February. They plan to focus on environmentally-degraded private lands that lack a flourishing forest.
Living Carbon’s poplars have had genetic material from other plants inserted into their genome, making their version of photosynthesis more efficient so they can channel more energy into growth. In a proof-of-concept experiment, Living Carbon’s poplars grew up to 53% larger and captured 27% more carbon than unmodified trees. According to Living Carbon CEO Maddie Hall, the company’s trees have the potential to remove a gigaton of carbon from the atmosphere by 2030.
No easy solutions:
- Why poplars? Even in their unmodified form, poplars are known for their ability to neutralize industrial toxins and could help promote the growth of native plants.
- Although the plan sounds great in theory, Living Carbon has thus far only tested their trees in a greenhouse setting. They are now embarking on the first real-world attempt to use genetically-modified trees to capture large amounts of carbon, and it will be years until we know whether they have brought about a significant reduction in emissions.
- Living Carbon’s business model is also untested; based on how much carbon their trees actually store, they plan to sell carbon credits to corporations trying to reach zero emissions.
- Another issue is that trees eventually release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere when they die and decompose. Living Carbon plans to demonstrate that their trees’ carbon-capture abilities will outlast their lifespan and that the carbon will remain stored if they are cut down and turned into lumber. The company is also researching how to slow biomass decomposition.
- The technology to suck carbon out of the air and store it underground already exists, but has yet to be implemented on a large scale.