By Allison Chinchar
When you think of Florida, beaches and palm trees come to mind. But what if those palm trees were slowly replaced with other trees? That could happen over time because of climate change, and communities in South Florida are trying to save the world from the climate crisis, one tree at a time.
“Palm trees do not sequester carbon at the same rate as our native canopy trees and do not provide shade, cool down streets and sidewalks to help counter the urban heat island effect that canopy trees do,” said Penni Redford, the Resilience and Climate Change Manager for West Palm Beach.
With atmospheric carbon dioxide levels today higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Earth needs to remove it or humans have to stop adding it. In fact, the last time carbon dioxide concentration was this high was more than 3 million years ago.
Scientists are working on solutions to capture and safely contain atmospheric carbon. One approach is called “terrestrial sequestration” — which is essentially planting trees. A tree absorbs carbon during photosynthesis and stores it for the life of the tree.
But Florida’s beloved palms are the least effective at carbon sequestration. The average palm in southern Florida only absorbs 5 pounds of CO2 per year. Compared to other trees — oaks, mahogany, pines, and cedars — that can sequester more than 3,000 pounds of CO2 over their lifetime, it may be best to exclude palms in favor of more broadleaf trees or conifers.
Miami is also joining the initiative to shift planting priority to a variety of trees — just not palms. Miami Beach’s Rising Above program to combat the climate crisis includes an urban forestry master plan which details the environmental benefits of planting shade trees, including species such as oak, ash, elm and sycamore, in place of palms.