Decarbonizing Christmas trees

Decarbonizing Christmas trees

In this exploration of the sustainability of artificial Christmas trees, we delve into the environmental impact of their increasing popularity.

Alexander Pfeiffer
 min read

A Path to a Greener Holiday Season

The holiday season brings a flurry of activity and traditions, chief among them is the setting up of Christmas trees in homes worldwide. Recently, artificial Christmas trees have gained significant traction. Their appeal lies in their convenience and cost-effectiveness: they look pristine year after year, require no maintenance like watering or needle clean-up, and eliminate the need for annual disposal. This convenience has led to a noteworthy shift in consumer preferences. In the United States, for instance, the use of artificial trees in homes displaying Christmas trees jumped from 46% in 1992 to 58% by 2004, the last year for which we could find conclusive information, indicating a substantial move away from natural trees.

The Hidden Environmental Cost

However, the environmental impact of these artificial trees is a growing concern. Constructed from materials such as plastic, aluminium, and steel, their production involves processes that are traditionally high in carbon emissions. This raises an important question: despite their convenience, are artificial Christmas trees truly in line with the growing environmental consciousness?

In-Depth Analysis of the Carbon Footprint

To understand the true environmental impact, we closely examined the production of a typical artificial Christmas tree. Standing at 1.80 meters (5 foot 11 inch) and weighing 11.7 kg (26 lbs.), this tree comprises Polyethylene (PE) for its needles and branches, a steel stand, an aluminium trunk, and a Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bag. These components are sourced from various global locations, including China, the EU, and the US, using conventional production methods with a limited use of recycled materials.

Carbon - and cost-baseline analysis of an artificial christmas tree

Our analysis through the Terralytiq Platform paints a stark picture. The production of such a tree costs about $17.60 and results in 54.2 kg of CO2eq. emissions, not including logistics emissions, before it even reaches retail stores in the US or Europe. With 12.9 million artificial Christmas trees sold in the US each year (according to Nielsen Research), the cumulative CO2 impact is approximately 700 ktCO2, comparable to the annual emissions of over 150,000 internal combustion engine cars. This data inevitably leads us to question the sustainability of these popular holiday items.

Sustainable Alternatives: A Glimpse into the Future

Despite these concerns, the future is not bleak. We have identified a range of sustainable alternatives in our proprietary climate tech library that are already available today. These alternatives offer pathways to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of artificial Christmas trees. They involve:

  • Switching to Renewable Electricity: Using lower-carbon electricity sources for production
  • Increasing Recycled Feedstock: Particularly for materials like aluminum and steel
  • Electrification of Fossil Fuel Uses: Replacing fossil fuels use with electrified alternative means of the same processes
  • Adoption of Green Energy Standards: This includes the use of green biofuels and renewable electricity
  • Hydrogen as an Alternative Fuel: To replace traditional fossil fuels in production processes
  • Process Innovations: Such as switching to inert anode technology in aluminum production
  • Implementing CCUS: Carbon capture, utilization, and storage in emission-heavy processes
  • Transitioning to Biofuels: For various stages of production

The Roadmap to 2030: Implementing Change

We analyzed in total 84 different sustainable alternatives for the four main materials used in artificial Christmas trees and plotted them on a Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC).

The MACC is a strategic tool in our environmental analysis, plotting carbon reduction initiatives against their cost-effectiveness. On the MACC, the X-axis illustrates the emission reduction potential, while the Y-axis shows the cost per unit of reduced emissions. Initiatives are ordered from the most cost-effective on the left to the most expensive on the right.

Macc for Artificial Christmas Tree with initiatives clustered by Component / Material
Macc for Artificial Christmas Tree with initiatives clustered by Carbon Reduction Strategy

Our findings indicate that significant reductions in carbon footprint are achievable with current technologies, and would only increase cost insignificantly or even reduce cost – especially for materials like aluminium and steel.

It’s important to note that it’s not feasible to implement all 84 identified alternatives simultaneously, as some are mutually exclusive. For instance, one cannot adopt an electrified process while simultaneously replacing natural gas with biogas in a furnace. Therefore, our analysis focuses on two distinct example pathways: Pathway A, which incorporates 6 selected initiatives, and Pathway B, which integrates 10 different initiatives. These pathways demonstrate the practical application of these alternatives in a complementary manner.

Pathway A: Emphasizes cost-effective and carbon-reducing initiatives. By 2030, implementing these measures could result in a tree with 68% less carbon and a 19% reduction in cost.

Pathway B: Incorporates additional, more expensive initiatives to further reduce carbon emissions. This pathway could lead to a 95% reduction in carbon emissions while still yielding a 7% decrease in production costs by 2030.

The Business Case for Decarbonization

Our research clearly demonstrates that decarbonization is not only environmentally prudent but also economically viable. Producers of artificial Christmas trees can benefit financially by gradually adopting these new technologies. This transition could start with simple steps such as using more recycled materials and demanding renewable energy for production processes.

Real-World Applications and Regulatory Influence

For this change to materialize, importers in regions like the US and the EU play a crucial role. They can drive this transformation by setting clear requirements for their suppliers, such as the incremental use of recycled materials and adherence to renewable energy standards in production. Additionally, regulatory frameworks in various regions, like the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) in the EU, could incentivize or even mandate such sustainable practices.

Conclusion: Towards a Greener Christmas

Our detailed analysis of the production and environmental impact of artificial Christmas trees reveals a clear path forward. By embracing sustainable production methods, manufacturers and consumers can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of these popular holiday symbols. The potential reduction of carbon emissions is not just a win for the environment but also for business economics. This shift towards sustainability promises a future where the joy of the holiday season is matched by a commitment to preserving our planet, making for a truly merry and eco-friendly Christmas celebration. 🌲🌎

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