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The great Christmas-tree debate should be settled for now. No more agonizing over artificial versus natural, not after the sustainable-development firm ellipsos released a bombshell study last year [PDF].
A life-cycle assessment — following “the recognized ISO 14040 and 14044 standards” and relying on “no funding (direct or indirect) by any of the concerned stakeholders” — determined that “a natural tree will generate 3.1 kg of greenhouse gases whereas the artificial tree will produce 8.1 kg per year.”
The president of the firm rightly called the finding “astonishing,” given that “the artificial tree is reusable” and “the natural tree requires annual trips to purchase it.”
The artificial tree incurs such a carbon footprint at its inception — with its manufacturing and then its transport from China — that it takes 20 years of use for it to match a natural tree. Since most people don’t find a raggedy fake tree entirely in keeping with the spirit of the season and throw out their artificial trees on average after a mere six years of use, the natural tree is clearly superior.
It sequesters carbon as it grows, and “watering the tree in the use stage only has marginal impacts.” St. Boniface, who cut down the tree of Thor as a slap to the Norse gods and first suggested the fir as a symbol of Christianity, would no doubt be greatly relieved.
Granted, the ellipsos study isn’t perfect. By its own reckoning, “It does not take into account noise, odor, human activities (eating, lodging, etc.), soil erosion that is avoided by the plantations, dioxin emissions from plastic in the artificial tree during use and disposal (if burned), impacts of fillers contained in PVC [polyvinyl chloride],” among other things.
Pending further peer-reviewed work at the Climate Research Unit in East Anglia and a definitive pronouncement from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, however, the natural tree should get a tentative eco nod in a boost to the natural-Christmas-tree industry (or “Big Tree” to its critics).
Following it all closely will be the new Christmas scolds, who are as annoying as the old Christmas scolds, except greener. H. L. Mencken famously put down the Puritans — decidedly cool on Christmas celebrations — as people worried that someone, somewhere may be happy. The new Christmas scolds worry that someone, somewhere may be emitting CO2 over a glass of eggnog: Blessed is good, merry is nice, peaceful is advisable — but carbon-neutral is absolutely essential.
Keep that in mind as you wrap your gifts — if you must. According to the Clean Air Council, “An additional 5 tons of waste is generated during the holidays. Four million tons of this is wrapping paper and shopping bags.” To avoid this carnage, kids either should be kept from ripping the wrapping paper so it can be reused — good luck — or the gifts should be placed in cloth gift sacks (ashes not included).
Did I mention kids? Aren’t they the root of much of the wanton Christmas waste? No sooner are they out of their diapers (using 8,000 to 10,000 of them prior to potty training) than they are thrilling to Christmas lights (an estimated 200 pounds of unnecessary carbon emissions per season) and demanding Zhu Zhu pets. The devastation visited upon the planet by fake hamsters is so vast that even the intrepid researchers of ellipsos have yet to grapple with it.
Ralph Reiland of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review points to a web publication called Alternative Consumer that recommends “A Freegan Christmas.” The festivities will include Christmas trees fashioned out of shopping bags and a celebratory vegetarian meal. No cards and no wrapping paper, of course. Someone captured the spirit of this holiday program long ago, “Bah! Humbug!”
It’s not an endorsement of every Christmas excess to appreciate merrymaking and gestures of generosity. After all, the Magi didn’t necessarily have to travel, or offer their gifts of frankincense and myrrh. That they did points to the ultimate reason for the joyous celebration of the season. Merry Christmas!
– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. © 2009 by King Features Syndicate.