by Gloria Tatum with additional reporting by Stephen Wing
Georgia is losing more trees than any other state in the nation, and Atlanta is the fifth-fastest city in the country in urban tree loss, according to scientists David Nowak and Eric Greenfield, who conducted a study to document tree depletion.
Trees are more than just decorative props for Atlanta’s claim to fame as the “City in the Forest.” Trees perform many vital functions in maintaining human health, and are critical to stabilizing the Earth’s climate and ensuring human survival in the future.
Over the past six years, Atlanta has had more than 90,000 trees cut down, as reported by Bill Torpy in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Recently 146 trees were cut down in front of Piedmont Hospital, 40 old growth white oak trees were removed in Kirkwood for townhomes, 800 trees were clear cut in the Peachtree Hills neighborhood for townhomes and an assisted living and skilled nursing home, and 200 trees destroyed at Horizon School in Lake Claire for more homes.
These are just a few recent incidents of legal mass tree destruction permitted by city authorities — and it’s not even the tip of the iceberg if you include all the illegal tree cutting.
Now developers want to clear-cut another 112 trees on Peachtree Road for an office building and a four-story parking deck in front of the Darlington Apartments building, currently under renovation.
“This is another site approved by Michael Browning, plan reviewer for the City of Atlanta, where there does not seem to be an attempt to save any trees,” said Stephanie Coffin, arborist and tree activist, in an email to The Streets of Atlanta. “Browning has been present at every large tree takedown in the city in the last several years.”
One more sacrifice of trees for development may not seem important in itself, but if you multiply that by thousands of mass clear cutting of trees in the city, a pattern emerges of short-sighted planning and a municipal policy of climate denial.
The developer’s site plan at 2021 Peachtree Road was approved despite violations of the Atlanta Tree Protection Ordinance (ATPO). Section 158-28 of the TPO states that “there shall be no net loss of trees within the boundaries of the city.” The clear-cutting of all 112 trees at the site is in violation of this requirement. If the developer would redesign the plan, many of these mature trees could be saved.
The current plan will only replace 80 trees on-site of the 112, substituting very tiny trees for the fully grown canopy trees. It will take years for these baby trees to mature enough to become a carbon pool or “sink” which absorbs and stores carbon dioxide as efficiently as mature trees.
“This is a regressive site plan which will negatively impact the residential neighborhood behind the site with a mini-heat island in the back of the building,” Jenny Umberger states in her appeal to the Tree Conservation Commission. “This appeal asks that the developer make changes to add green space, more native trees, more trees of greater size. The replacement trees are barely larger than sticks and only 3 of the 7 species are native species.”
Behind the Darlington is a huge parking lot with one tree tagged for destruction, just a big, hot, ugly, asphalt heat island.
According to Coffin, “Another problem is the planting of crape myrtles on the street which will not provide much shade or pollution abatement from the heavily congested street. A small native canopy tree or a double row of trees would at least ameliorate air pollution and create a safer pedestrian path.”
Today, the City of Atlanta values development and developers over the benefits of trees. But with the looming dangers and expenses of climate change, that will change in the near future.
A recent United Nations report warns that if cities continue to ignore climate change they will be in peril of a “deadly collision between climate change and urbanization.” The report estimates that the world’s cities are responsible for about 70% of emissions, and calls on urban planners to develop a vision for the future that considers climate change.
There are several ways to combat climate change and most involve going green: green renewables, green transit, invest in the green economy and stop cutting down trees that are our front line soldiers in the fight against climate change.
Many cities around the world are embracing clean energy solutions and growth patterns more in balance with the Earth’s limited resources and endangered ecosystems. They are moving away from fossil fuels for more solar and other renewables, electric vehicles, recycling and zero waste, rooftop gardens with plants and shrubs – and will legally protect their mature tree canopy to lower the temperature, curb stormwater runoff, sequester carbon emissions, and help clean the air.
If anyone still wonders whether climate change caused by human activity is real, the evidence is mounting that it is already happening and rapidly gaining momentum. Climate change is causing extreme weather events including more intense rain downpours, 100-year floods, extreme cold and heat waves, droughts, stronger and more frequent hurricanes and tornadoes, record-breaking hurricane seasons such as we saw this year, and out-of-control wildfires like the ones that recently ravaged California.
All this precisely matches the projections of the scientists who have been raising the alarm for decades, except that it is all hitting us sooner and faster than expected. These are the experts who are actually paid to study atmospheric trends. By contrast, almost all “climate change deniers” in Congress and the media are funded by the fossil fuel industry, which has invested millions in creating smokescreens of uncertainty since Exxon’s own studies revealed the long-term negative effects of burning carbon back in the 1970s.
These climate change events will cost cities more money. According to the U.S Forest Service, when cities conduct cost-and-benefit analyses, they tend to overlook trees and plants. It is time for Atlanta to become aware of the increasing cost of ignoring climate change and start prioritizing the irreplaceable contribution of our trees.
Trees can influence the everyday lives of city dwellers by reducing stormwater runoff, reducing urban heat islands, decreasing utility costs, increasing economic growth, and providing clean air and drinking water — and the aesthetic value of trees is priceless for people’s physical and mental health.
The amount of pavement in cities creates “heat islands,” but mature urban trees can lower temperatures by 5 or 10 degrees. A 25-foot shade tree can reduce the annual heating cost of a home by 8 to 12%.
Two healthy trees will supply 500 pounds of oxygen annually, all that one person needs for a year. And trees reduce air pollution by absorbing gaseous pollutants. Urban tree canopies reduce smog levels by up to 6%. The U.S. Forest Service puts a $3.8 billion value on the air pollution annually removed by urban trees.
A major study in Chicago estimated that trees annually removed 15 metric tons of carbon monoxide, 84 tons of sulfur dioxide, 89 tons of nitrogen dioxide, 191 tons of ozone, and 212 tons of small particulates. The value of this pollution removal was $1 million in the city and $9.2 million for the entire Chicago area. This is just the beginning of the many benefits trees perform, according to Trees Atlanta.
Forested land also filters drinking water; the state of New York’s $2 million investment in watersheds with trees around New York City saved the state $10 to $100 billion by avoiding the construction and annual operating costs of new water filtration stations.
Trees combined with shrubs and grass are important in soil stabilizatin to help control bank erosion and landslides.
Urban trees greatly contribute to the health and conservation of local biodiversity. A mature oak tree can support over 500 types of pollinators and create a habitat for insects, bugs, birds, butterflies, and squirrels. Trees also screen out urban noises. A row of trees can cut the ambient noise level in half.
But the most important benefit of urban tree cover is protection from the effects of climate change. Higher temperatures are rapidly altering weather patterns, and there are two ways people can change this trend: (1) reabsorbing carbon dioxide and (2) reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Trees can help in both ways because they absorb and store carbon.
Planting and retaining urban trees and forests is an easy way to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the wood of the tree. Dr. Richard Houghton, an ecologist and carbon cycle expert, estimates that aggressive forest management, including tree planting, could offset half of the current carbon emission on Earth over the next decade. Urban trees in the U.S. store a total of 708 million tons of carbon, an environmental benefit worth $1.5 billion a year to our economy (Nowak et al. 2013).
The scientific evidence for climate change is overwhelming. The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 2.05 degrees Fahrenheit mostly in the last 40 years driven largely by human-made emissions, with the six warmest years on record taking place since 2014. Since scientific measurement and record-keeping began, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) has never been above 300 parts per million (ppm) until recently. Today it is dangerously above 400 ppm.
According to the National Aeronautics and Spece Administration (NASA) the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting. Greenland lost 279 billion tons of ice per year between 2003 and 2019, while Antarctica lost about 148 billion tons of ice per year. Glaciers are retreating in the Alps, the Himalayas, the Andes, the Rockies, Alaska, and Africa. Meanwhile, the ocean is warning and becoming acidic. With all that melting ice, plus the expansion of water as it warms, sea levels are rising. Global sea level rose about 8 inches in the last century, but in the past 20 years the rate has nearly doubled and continues to accelerate every year.
These changes are causing extreme weather events.
According to a recent study, climate change is causing the spread of wildlife diseases caused by bacteria, fungi, viruses, and infectious worms into regions previously too cold for them to survive. “We know that 75% of emerging infectious diseases have a wildlife origin [like COVID-19]. We should be concerned for our own health when we see studies suggesting an increase in infectious disease in wildlife,” said Jason Rohr, co-author of a study at the University of Notre Dame, quoted by Reuters.
Planet Earth is fast approaching environmental thresholds that, if crossed, will create serious disruptions to ecosystems, economies, and society, according to Science magazine. One method recommended by climate scientists for mitigating such hazardous shifts is the restoration of forests and an end to cutting down trees for short-term gain for more high-end housing and townhomes in cities.
If Atlanta does not heed the climate change warning, our “City in a Forest” will turn into a “Concrete Jungle,” like New York City, with more skyscrapers than trees. Without mature trees in Downtown, Midtown, and Uptown Atlanta, the coming environmental changes will make living in the city increasingly unpleasant as global temperatures go up. Atlanta can no longer afford “business as usual,” cutting every tree to make it easier for developers to build in Atlanta.