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Don't buy a Christmas tree, plant one

December 21, 2018

The Christmas Trees for the Forest initiative aims to save threatened woodlands during the festive season by encouraging people to donate a Christmas tree to the forests — instead of cutting one down.

Planting Christmas trees
Image: Bergwaldprojekt e.V.

"Buy trees instead of gifts," insists Swiss-based Bergwaldprojekt (Mountain Forest Project). The organization wants to bolster native forests that have suffered an unseasonably long and dry summer — due in part to climate change.

Despite the fact that traditional Christmas tree plantations are also struggling to survive this year, 27 million trees will be cut down and decorated in homes across Germany.

Read more: Climate change threatens Germany's Christmas trees

When the holiday season is over, most will end up in landfills — and will emit climate change-inducing carbon instead of sequestering it as they would in living forests.

Real or plastic?

It seems that whichever kind of Christmas tree you choose, real or plastic, it comes with an environmental footprint.

Unlike locally grown trees, the plastic variety are usually imported from across the planet, entailing plenty of emissions from transport; plus they're made of non-biodegradable PVC and — unlike small conifers — are difficult to recycle.  

One sustainable alternative floated in recent years is renting, but even then delivery means there are transport emissions to worry about.

Read moreChristmas trees: Plastic or real? That's the eco-question

Keep it in the ground

The only way to offset the cultural yearning for Christmas trees in Germany and elsewhere might be to plant a tree.

With its Christmas Trees for the Forest initiative, the Bergwaldprojekt will do the planting for you for only €17 ($19.30) — and also ensure the tree's ongoing maintenance and protection. 

"With our tree donation you make family, friends or colleagues a special Christmas present that does not consume more resources but benefits the forest," promises the woodland conservation organization.

Failing crop

Following months of drought in Germany, Christmas tree growth has suffered in plantation forests that struggle to adapt to the dry soils and lack of rainfall.  

Crops have been severely depleted, with up to 30 percent of the Christmas tree crop failing in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia alone.

Christmas trees for a sustainable future
Christmas trees for a sustainable futureImage: DW/T. Walker

Read more: Germany's Christmas trees threatened by climate change

The German Association of Christmas Tree Growers has acknowledged that shortage of rain has affected tree size, price and availability.

"In some places, it hardly rained between April and October," the organization says on its website. "The soils are extremely dry in these places."

Still, the association adds that popular imported varieties such as the Nordmann fir — which originates in the Caucasus where long, dry summers are the norm — can better endure such conditions, thanks to its deep taproots.

The Bergwaldprojekt, however, would rather see local trees given a chance. 

It aims to regenerate mixed native forests precisely because it believes monoculture forests are less adaptable to annual temperature rises and prolonged drought — especially the shallow-rooted spruce that dominate Christmas tree plantations.

Read moreWhat's lurking in the German forest?

A biodiverse Christmas

Bergwaldprojekt volunteers preparing the forest ground for new growth
Bergwaldprojekt volunteers preparing the forest ground for new growthImage: Bergwaldprojekt e.V.

"The Bergwaldprojekt plants indigenous trees in various areas all over Germany to protect native forests," Peter Naumann, a forester with the Bergwaldprojekt, told DW.

"Mostly, we plant the trees in the low mountain ranges — silver firs, common beeches, oaks and hornbeams — but also rarer broadleaved trees suitable for dry and warm areas, such as mountain ashes, sorb trees, walnut trees and Norway maples."

Sponsored Christmas trees will be part of this effort.

According to a 2017 report by researchers at the Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig, mixed native forests are more climate resistant, and therefore have the best chance of surviving in a warming world.

And that's not the only disadvantage of monocultures. Naumann says biodiversity is essential for self-regulating forests that don't need pesticides like  glyphosate.    

"The production of Christmas trees from plantations is not sustainable because native species are not planted that might play an important role for biotopes or weed control," Naumann said.

Wood for the trees

The Association of Christmas Tree Growers insists its members use few chemical herbicides since sheep eat most of the weeds on German plantations.

Meanwhile, due to the long production period of nine to 10 years, an ecosystem of sorts is created "for many living things and plants," the association's website claims.

While Christmas tree growers imply that glyphosate use is minimal, or that imported species can help fight climate change, Naumann insists that monoculture is not a sustainable forest model for the roughly 30 million trees cut annually. 

"The production of Christmas trees is only sustainable if customers go back to spruces, silver firs and pines from native forests, because these trees are cut down as part of the near-natural forest management and are not taken from plantations," he said.

Of course, donating a tree to such a mixed forest will also help the cause this Christmas.

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.