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Christmas and the environment: Trees, carbon footprints and the chance of snow

Artificial trees generally have a carbon footprint smaller than real trees after 4.7 years of use. - Graphic courtesy of Climate Central

By Jim Bloch

Is it better for the environment to buy a real Christmas tree or an artificial one? With a warming climate, can we expect a white Christmas?

Real vs. fake trees

It turns out that buying an artificial tree and keeping it for more than 4.7 years is environmentally more beneficial than buying 4.7 real trees over 4.7 years, according to a 2017 study by WAP Sustainability Consulting for the American Christmas Tree Association.

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Fake trees “are often made from PVC and steel in China, so their single-year footprint is higher than real trees,” according to Climate Central, the non-advocacy group that researches and reports on climate change. “Consider buying secondhand or donating yours when you’re done — Goodwill accepts gently used trees in their original box.”

Climate Central suggested buying a live tree and planting it in the spring.

When you’re done with a cut tree, consider “donating it for ocean dune restoration or mulching or composting it,” said the group.

Michigan is the third-largest grower of Christmas trees in the country with more than 1.7 million harvested in 2012, behind North Carolina at 4.3 million and Oregon at 6.4 million. That may mean less transportation and a lower carbon footprint from tree farm to your point of purchase.

“LED versions of holiday lights are 90 percent more efficient than older incandescent versions with one-fifth the carbon footprint of traditional lights,” said Climate Central.

Warming Christmas

Decembers are getting warmer along with every other month in the calendar.

“The U.S. December temperature average has climbed just over two degrees Fahrenheit in the last half-century,” according to Climate Central. “Over two-thirds of the 244 cities analyzed have warmed at least one degree F since 1970, while only three percent have cooled one degree F.”

Detroit has warmed an average of 3.5 degrees F in December since 1970. A number of other northern cities have warmed more the six degrees in that period, including Burlington, VT and Fargo, ND.

A warming world means more evaporation from the land, lakes and seas, which means more water in the atmosphere and the possibility of snow when the temperatures are right. But that’s happening less frequently than a half-century ago.

Decembers in Detroit are an average of 3.5 degrees F warmer than they were 50 years ago. – Graphic courtesy of Climate Central

A white Christmas?

Climate Central defines a white Christmas as one in which there is at least one inch of snowfall. In Detroit, the chances of that this year are 38 percent.

“(A)s the world warms, the overall area of North America covered by snow is decreasing,” according to the organization. “One reason is because an increasing percentage of winter precipitation is falling as rain instead of snow in many locations. A Climate Central report found that between sea level and 5,000 feet in elevation across the Western U.S., a smaller percentage of winter precipitation is falling as snow.”

So light up those LED lights on your seven-year-old made-in-China tree, stream an old Christmas movie that features a fake Hollywood rendition of real snow and sing along: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…”

The historic probability of having one inch of snow on Christmas is decreasing. – Graphic courtesy of Climate Central

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