Although the current holiday period is undeniably different with various libertarian restrictions on travel and physical socializing with friends and kin, one corona safe tradition associated with this period holds up – a real Christmas tree. Adding more cheer is that it could even be a good thing, not least from birdlife and climate perspectives.
Generally thought to have originated from 16th century Germany when evergreen trees or plants were first decorated, in this part of the world the choice tends to be the endemic Norway spruce (Picea abies) or in more recent years the non-endemic Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana).
The choice of species is naturally a matter of preference and pocket. Apart from shape, size, and scent, the firs generally speaking do have a physiological feature that vastly simplifies indoor operations and management (O&M) – better needle retention and softer, blunt needles. Spruce will invariably start shedding its needles, which are both sharper and stiffer, at the first sign of thirst.
For some though, the daily needle clean-up is part of the experience, a reminder of the transient nature of life itself.
Given that Christianity with all its denominations is one of the “world religions”, it is little wonder that the real Christmas trees and greenery business is a big little business, at least in the northern hemisphere. Real Christmas trees are one of the few decorations not manufactured in Santa’s global tinsel and tangle workshops in Yiwu city and surrounding Far East hinterlands (sorry kids, the North Pole and Rovaniemi were both outsourced yonks ago).
In the United States (US), all 50 states have Christmas tree production. According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), which celebrates its 65th anniversary this year (2020), 26.2 million real Christmas trees were purchased in 2019 in the US and most shoppers (32 percent) purchased their tree from a ”choose & cut farm”.
In Europe, the Christmas tree and greenery industry is represented by the t(h)ree-decade old Christmas Tree Growers Council of Europe (CTGCE), an umbrella organization of 12 national associations. Sweden though is not a member of CTGCE, the business is in its infancy.
Yet, as ironic as it may seem in a forest-rich country like Sweden, most Christmas trees are apparently imported – after discounting the many forest owners who head into the woods to cut their own real specimen, likely to have been singled out during regular forest management operations, mushroom picking or when hunting.
“Apparently” as there no reliable statistics available for the number of Christmas trees sold, the land area cultivated, number of growers, or how many trees are actually imported annually. Although the number is unknown, the import is from neighboring countries, in particular, Denmark and Norway but also from Germany and Poland.
According to EU Trade, the top five EU-27 Christmas tree exporters in 2019 were Denmark (9 million), the Netherlands (1.5 million), Belgium (1.2 million), Germany (980 000), and Poland (480 000). The UK has an annual production of around 8 million trees and Germany is the largest producer with around 23 million trees.
The big-box DIY stores are major retailers which makes sense as they have the logistics and storage capacities already in place. The tag on this year’s real Christmas tree, and the fact that it was purchased at a Denmark-headed DIY chain, confirmed it was of Danske Juletræer (Danish Christmas tree Association) member origins.
While Denmark is much closer to home than China, the whole 1.8 m tree – stem, branches, and top – traveled some distance albeit in a smart volume-reducing format. This surely raises a quandary in certain no tree cutting quarters, compounded no doubt by its single-use and ultimate transient energy recovery once used. Not to mention that it took eight to ten years to grow to “living room” maturity.
There are options to ease those oft-urban quandaries ranging from abstaining to choosing a locally produced potted real Christmas tree that can be replanted after its indoor spell.
But there’s more to it. The per ha productivity of Christmas tree plantations can be enhanced and the use of herbicides and artificial fertilizers reduced by using biological grass control – sheep. Shropshire sheep are ideal it seems as they are not tempted to browse or damage the trees. And although Christmas tree farming (it counts as agriculture) implies evergreen monocultures, a Christmas tree stand can host a wide variety of birds, thanks to the availability of insects in the low vegetation, shelter, and nesting opportunities.
Furthermore, according to Danske Juletræer during the entire 10-year life cycle of a typical Danish Christmas tree, the tree accumulates a total of 18 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2). With the high stocking rate, over 12 tonnes of CO2 are absorbed annually per hectare planted with Christmas trees.
When the Christmas trees are harvested, needles, branches, and large amounts of roots are left behind which slowly becoming part of the soil’s carbon pool. Soil preparation in conjunction with Christmas tree production is gentle, as it only takes place every tenth year and “scratches” in the surface of the soil.
This results in more undisturbed carbon storage compared to that of other agricultural production. In France, Association Française du Sapin de Noël Naturel (AFSNN) peg full life-cycle emissions for a real Christmas tree to be 3.1 kg CO2eq.
Thus, real Christmas trees can serve as agroforestry examples of a positive land-sink which is good news. Since 1980, the world has seen increased biogenic carbon resources over land every year except for three, according to the most recent Global Carbon Project (GCP) report.
The positive annual average has resulted in increased sequestration of about 12.5 GtCO2 per year, mainly in growing forests, but also in other vegetation and soil. Overall, since 1980, the incremental new biomass has sequestered 200 – 250 GtCO2. Over the past decade, deforestation, mainly in the tropics, cause an average loss of 5.7 GtCO2 annually while net carbon stocks in the world’s forests increase by the equivalent of about 7 GtCO2 annually.
As the GCP concludes measures to better manage land could both halt deforestation and help increase the CO2 sink from regrowth. Real Christmas trees can help to do precisely that, and more – by replacing fossil fuels in energy with bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
That’s why Christmas, with shepherds and sheep, is incomplete without a whole real Christmas tree.