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REDDheads: Freeman Dyson and his CO2 sucking tree plantations

Freeman Dyson is a theoretical physicist and mathematician. He is known for his work in quantum electrodynamics, solid-state physics, astronomy and nuclear engineering.

He’s had some pretty wacky ideas. Dyson trees, for example. These are hypothetical genetically engineered plants that can grow on comets. The plants would use solar energy for photosynthesis and nutrients from the comet, to create a breathable atmosphere and a self-sustaining habitat for humans who would then be able to survive in the outer solar system.

He has also proposed setting off nuclear explosions underneath spaceships to propel them around the solar system.

And he’s a climate skeptic. In an interview in April 2015, he said,

“Man-made climate change certainly is real. There’s no doubt it’s real. The question is how much and whether it’s good or bad. Those are quite separate questions. I would say it’s on the whole good, also it’s not as large an effect as most people imagine.”

Plant trees to absorb CO2

Back in 1976, Dyson asked himself a question.

“Suppose that with the rising level of CO2 we run into an acute ecological disaster. Would it then be possible for us to halt or reverse the rise in CO2 within a few years by means less drastic than the shutdown of industrial civilization?”

Dyson wrote a paper titled, “Can we control the Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere?”, published in the scientific journal Energy. His response to his own question was a tentative yes:

“It should be possible in case of a world-wide emergency to plant enough trees and other fast-growing plants to absorb the excess CO2 and bring the annual increase to a halt.”

In his paper, Dyson noted that the long-term response must be to stop burning fossil fuels. A global shift could not be carried out in a few years, but, Dyson argued, a start could be made immediately and a substantial reduction in fossil-fuel burning might be achieved in one or two decades.

Meanwhile, growing trees and fast-growing plants “would provide the necessary short-term response to hold the CO2 at bay while the shift away from fossil fuels is being implemented.” Dyson also suggested a tax on every burner of fossil fuels, to pay for “his share of the operation of purging CO2 from the atmosphere”.

Land grabbing

Dyson noted that large areas of land would be required. He also acknowledged that it would be expensive, although he considered the costs “not unreasonable for a world-wide effort in response to a dire global emergency”.

In any case, he wrote, it would be cheaper “if most of the planting were done by labor-intensive methods in countries where labor is cheap”.

Dyson’s proposal was, in other words, a neo-colonial land grab on a massive scale.

Dyson thought it “highly unlikely” that his proposed emergency programme would ever be implemented. Nevertheless, Dyson’s proposal has proved popular.

Larry Lohmann, in a Corner House Briefing titled, “The Dyson Effect” lists some of the people who subsequently took up Dyson’s idea:

  • Norman Myers, a wildlife biologist, calculated that a eucalyptus or pine plantation the size of Western Europe, or perhaps Zaire, ought to be enough to remove three billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air.
  • Gregg Marland, a scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, figured that a tree farm the size of Australia could compensate for all current fossil fuel emissions.
  • Roger Sedjo of the Washington-based think tank Resources for the Future thought that a plantation half the size of the US was more like it, and helpfully volunteered “degraded” lands in “the tropics” for the job.

In 2008, in a book review in the New York Review of Books, one of Dyson’s arguments was that carbon emissions are not a problem because in a few years genetic engineers will develop “carbon-eating trees” that will sequester carbon in soils. Writing on the Real Climate website, David Archer responded to this argument as follows:

Ah, the famed Dyson vision thing, this is what we came for. The seasonal cycle in atmospheric CO2 shows that the lifetime of a CO2 molecule in the air before it is exchanged with another in the land biosphere is about 12 years. Therefore if the trees could simply be persuaded to drop diamonds instead of leaves, repairing the damage to the atmosphere could be fast, I suppose. The problem here, unrecognized by Dyson, is that the business-as-usual he’s defending would release almost as much carbon to the air by the end of the century as the entire reservoir of carbon stored on land, in living things and in soils combined. The land carbon reservoir would have to double in size in order keep up with us. This is too visionary for me to bet the farm on.


This post is part of a series based on a report I wrote in 2017 for the German NGO Stiftung Asienhaus. Download the report here: “REDDheads: The people behind REDD and the climate scam in Southeast Asia”.

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