Planting trees saves more than just the environment

With thanks from CSIRO Science by email:

Koala with garbage

Like most Friday mornings, Rick nearly forgot to take his rubbish out for collection.

Illustrated by Mike McRae

Love it or hate it, it’s impossible to get by in today’s world without money. While we might sometimes think the world would be a better place without it, economics is a good way of comparing how much we value different things. So can we put a price on the environment? A study from the US has done just that.

Few environmentally aware people would think that planting trees is a bad thing, especially in the middle of a city. Yet it costs money to do this. Trees need to not only be planted, but they need to be looked after, have their leaves swept up, and cut down if they get sick and die. City councils also need to pay insurance costs in case somebody is injured by falling branches or trips over protruding roots.

For city planners to decide whether it’s worth spending money on planting trees in their parks or along the streets, they need to know what the benefits will be in terms of costs.

“The right tree in the right place can put money in our pockets,” says researcher Dr Greg McPherson.

The shade they produce could lead to savings in electricity by reducing cooling costs or decreasing the damage caused by sunlight, while clever positioning of the trees could control water flow following rain. The researcher’s studies also take into account improvements to air quality and increases in real estate prices (everybody likes looking at trees, right?).

Planting gardens on the roofs of buildings could also save more than just money. While soil and plants can act as great insulators, the right choice of plants could potentially help protect a building from fire.

All of these things will vary from place to place, however Greg says the benefits always outweigh the costs. For instance, in New York planting trees saves $5 for every $1 spent. Adapting the models developed in the US for Australia could show us where planting trees can help our local economy.

Failing to invest in the future health of our environment could be an expensive mistake. Knowing we’re saving money by planting a few trees might be a good incentive for town planners to make our cities a little greener.

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