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Column: More trees needed to counter greenhouse gases

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  • Sue Cowing

    Sue Cowing

Our climate-regulator, the polar ice cap, is breaking up, the Amazon rainforest is burning, and extreme weather events have become the norm — yet national leaders continue to deny, deregulate and debate instead of taking action. This may make us feel helpless, but we are not helpless.

One thing everybody in the world has in common: We all need to breathe oxygen every minute of every day. Trees are our major producers of it, but their numbers are declining here and around the world, and as they do, the percentage of other gases in our atmosphere, including greenhouse gases, increases. In addition to producing oxygen, living trees lock in carbon, moisten and cool the air, provide shade, provide canopy and habitat for other species, absorb run-off, and hold soil in place.

It has become clear that the most immediate and effective thing we can do to slow global warming and protect our own habitat is to plant trees. Millions and billions of trees. Not just in Africa and China and Brazil, but everywhere possible.

Hawaii’s green cover has decreased significantly over the last century, and we’ve lost about 90% of our endemic rainforests. Fortunately, we have plenty of land available for cultivating trees, and people are organizing to do so, with our help.

A Carbon Neutrality project, led by University of Hawaii-Manoa geography professor Camilo Mora (, planted a record-setting 1,000 trees in two hours in the forest near Tripler Hospital last November. Volunteers not only plant, but will monitor and maintain the trees through the critical two years it takes them to get established, relying in part on a watering system Mora’s team has developed for the purpose.

Mora is now recruiting 1,000 volunteers from the community to plant 11,000 koa, milo, ohia and other native trees on Oahu in one day, Oct. 26. He has a current crowd-funding goal of $55,000 for needed equipment and supplies. This effort won’t stop with the October event. The plan is to plant 100,000 trees in one day in 2020, and a million trees in one day in 2021. On Hawaii island, Reforest Hawaii (, Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative (, and Waikaloa Dry Forest Preserve ( are making similar efforts.

According to Mora, the carbon footprint of the average person in Hawaii could be offset by getting 12 5-year-old milo trees or three koa or 20 ‘ohia into the ground. If the current mass-planting projects succeed as planned, they will achieve the ultimate goal of erasing our entire state’s carbon footprint and making Hawaii the first carbon-neutral state.

An old slogan comes to mind: “Think globally, act locally.” And there’s another even older one: “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.” No need to wait for the leaders to come around. Whether they follow or not, this is something we can do right now, and it isn’t small. Each of us who invests time or money in these projects will make a significant contribution toward calming the planet, and will help ensure that our children, and our children’s children, will be able to live and breathe in it.

Sue Cowing is a Honolulu-based author.

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