Is Bamboo More Powerful Than Trees in Preventing Climate Change?

Two backpackers relaxing on a fence, looking at a lake surrounded by trees; bamboo forest for climate change

During the great lockdown of 2020, we had a lot of time to think and ask questions. It turns out 9 out of 10 people want a more sustainable world. Many of us are looking for more eco-friendly products to do our part. Bamboo consistently tops the list as one of the most sustainable alternatives to many of our most used items, including wood. It grows faster and absorbs more carbon than trees, and regenerates itself making it one of the most renewable resources on Earth.

Technically wood is also a renewable resource, but considering we’re clear-cutting 15 billion trees every year, and trees take 30-40 years to mature, they may not be renewable enough. At our current rate, the rainforest is predicted to be gone by the year 2100. The amount of carbon trees absorb is no longer enough to neutralize the amount created in our top polluting industries. All these extra greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere which leads to climate change.

Trees can no longer manage the stress we’re putting on our environment. So is bamboo the answer to climate change we’ve been looking for?

In This Article
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    How Is Bamboo Different From Trees?

    Bamboo Is Considered Grass (Usually)

    First, let’s clear up a common misconception. Bamboo is not a tree. It’s technically grass. It has a hollow stem (culm) and reaches its full height and diameter in a single growing season. Trees continue to increase in diameter each year, which is why you can see tree rings when they're cut down. They grow as one bark-covered stem that lives for many years. Once that stem (trunk) is cut, the tree dies. Bamboo naturally grows new stems year after year from its root system.

    Some countries classify bamboo as a tree making it illegal to harvest or transport without a permit. The governing agencies claim this protects the bamboo and surrounding ecosystem from overharvesting. Many farmers feel it's a way for governments to collect payments on naturally growing bamboo.

    There Are More Species of Bamboo Than Trees

    There are over 1,000 species of bamboo found in Asia and South America. Some species have also been found in Australia, Africa, and the southern United States. These are usually divided into two categories – clumping and running. Clumping bamboo grows in one spot and slowly expands while running bamboo grows shoots several feet out from the main root system.

    In 2017 it was estimated there were just over 60,000 species of trees in the world. Trees grow on every continent except Antarctica, but more than half of tree species grow only in a single country. Sadly, many tree species are endangered due to pests, deforestation, and climate change.

    Bamboo Provides More Food for Animals, but Trees Provide More Shelter

    Natural bamboo forests are home to many birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. The groves are a source of food and provide protection from predators and the environment.

    The giant panda is often the face of the bamboo industry because bamboo makes up most of their diet. Their natural habitat is in the mountain ranges of China, also home to the largest bamboo forest in the world.

    Red pandas are one of the animals that link trees and bamboo. Unlike their distant cousin, the giant panda, red pandas spend most of their time hanging out in trees. Their diet is, however, mostly leaves and bamboo shoots along with fruit, roots, and insects.

    Bamboo rats, bamboo bats, mountain bongos, African elephants, mountain gorillas, and several species of monkeys also depend on bamboo for food and shelter.

    Trees are mainly shelters for animals. In fact, 80% of land animals live in forests, especially tropical rainforests. Rainforests have a warm and wet climate that supports a wide variety of animals and over 2,500 species of trees. While the trees provide safe shelter, they aren’t a significant source of food. In all climates, some small mammals eat the fruits, nuts, leaves, and inner bark of trees, but most of their diet comes from other plants, animals, or insects.

    What Can Bamboo Be Used For?

    Bamboo is one of the most sustainable materials on the planet and is also one of the most versatile. Bamboo can be made into some of the softest sheets or strongest lumber. It can replace plastic, cotton, steel, and other materials that harm the environment.

    Construction and Furniture

    The poles are often used in construction because bamboo has a higher tensile strength than steel, which means it has a higher resistance to breaking or splitting under stress. Bamboo can also be cut into planks for furniture and flooring. Because bamboo grows so quickly, up to seven times more quickly than trees, it’s a more eco-friendly alternative for wooden structures.

    Household Items

    Bamboo poles can also be chopped into fibers and molded into almost any form to replace plastics. Kitchen utensils, toothbrushes, and even keyboards are all items made more sustainable with bamboo. Switching to bamboo can save some of the 400 million tons of plastic we throw away every year.

    Fashion and Textiles

    You might be familiar with bamboo sheets which are some of the softest sheets on the market. Bamboo bedding and apparel have become more popular because it’s soft and breathable. The stalks are mashed into bamboo fibers and soaked into enzymes before being spun into yarn. Bamboo fibers are naturally round and filled with micro-gaps, allowing air to circulate and the fabric to wick moisture away from the skin.

    There's some debate on if bamboo textiles are truly eco-friendly due to the chemical processing and amount of water used in production. To keep things sustainable, ethical companies use a closed-loop system to reuse chemicals and water. This keeps contaminants out of the environment. Between the lack of chemicals needed to grow bamboo and the closed-loop system, bamboo is a more eco-friendly option than traditional cotton.

    Why Bamboo Is More Sustainable Than Trees

    Bamboo is a sustainable alternative to tree wood because it supports the environment through its entire lifecycle.

    Bamboo Grows More Quickly and in Poor Soil Conditions

    Both bamboo and trees are renewable resources, but bamboo is the fastest-growing plant in the world. While a tree may take 30-50 years to mature, a bamboo plant reaches full maturity in as little as seven years. Once the bamboo is harvested the plant will regenerate itself, unlike a tree that needs to be replanted.

    Bamboo can also thrive in poor conditions where trees would struggle to grow and be harvested. Farmers often plant it on hillsides to prevent erosion and prevent other crops, forests, and villages. The quick growth rate and strong root system mean it will survive for decades or more even without fertilizers or regular watering.

    Bamboo Produces More Oxygen and Absorbs More Carbon

    One of the biggest benefits of bamboo is that it absorbs more carbon dioxide than trees and is able to hold much of it in its root system. It also produces 35% more oxygen which can help offset our unbalanced carbon cycle and slow or prevent climate change.

    Although bamboo is faster growing and can help neutralize carbon, trees are still vital to the health of our planet. Bamboo is not better than trees but supports them by offsetting more carbon, which helps the trees and the animals that depend on them to survive.

    Bamboo Is Easier to Plant and Harvest

    Planting forests for commercial use typically requires deforestation that destroys animal habitats. Once the forests grow to maturity, heavy machinery is needed to take the trees down and transport the logs to factories for processing. This increases greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change.

    Bamboo planting and harvesting are much less labor-intensive and can often be done by hand. Once the bamboo is planted it regenerates itself and the stalks can be cut with a machete or hand-held chainsaw. Simple machines mean less pollution in the air and allow for single stalks to be cut instead of clearcutting entire bamboo forests at once.

    Why Trees Are Irreplaceable

    It may seem like bamboo is better than trees and could be our answer to climate change, but replacing entire forests with fields of bamboo would just be trading one problem for an even bigger one.

    Forests Balance the Ecosystem

    Forests are an integral part of the world’s ecosystem and cannot be replaced by bamboo. They promote rainfall, protect us from winds, maintain temperatures, and help balance the carbon cycle. Forests are also home to 80% of amphibians, 75% of birds, and 68% of the world’s mammals. Without trees, our climate and biodiversity would change to the point in which the Earth could not sustain us.

    Forests Provide Education and Employment

    Forests are also a huge part of the world economy. Besides providing raw materials, they provide millions of jobs in conservation and forest science. It's likely scientists would rather study a healthy, active forest than try to guess how useful it used to be.

    Forests Support Human Lives

    Many people depend on forests for their basic needs as well. According to the United Nations, 90% of those living in extreme poverty depend on forests for food, firewood, and their livelihood. They wouldn’t be able to simply trade in these forests for a grove of bamboo.

    Balancing the Need for Forests With the Benefits of Bamboo

    By now you should know that bamboo cannot be used to replace trees. Every living thing depends on trees for survival. Even marine animals benefit from forests thousands of miles away. Diverse forests absorb carbon from the atmosphere which reduces ocean acidification. A change in seawater chemistry from too much carbon dioxide makes it difficult for some organisms to form their shells. It also impacts the food supply for microscopic organisms all the way to whales. So how do we balance the amazing benefits of bamboo with our need to preserve trees and forests?

    Bamboo Should Be Used as a Replacement Resource

    Using bamboo for things like toilet paper and straws will save countless trees and keep millions of pounds of plastic out of our landfills. Choosing bamboo alternatives will slow the rate of deforestation. Instead of chopping down trees to create a one-time use product, we can harvest bamboo five times in its lifespan and compost our items when we’re done with them.

    Bamboo Should Never Replace Forests

    To ensure bamboo doesn’t disrupt the environment, forests should never be cleared to plant more bamboo. Industry leaders may become greedy at the thought of cheap, easy-to-harvest material that can be marketed as eco-friendly. But nothing is eco-friendly if you are harming one species in favor of another.

    Fortunately, bamboo can be planted on hillsides and on degraded farmland so there’s no need to clear-cut forests to plant more bamboo. It’s a great crop for rural farmers who don’t have access to large plots of land to grow other crops.

    Bamboo Should Be Kept in Native Environments

    Like most things in life, there can be too much of a good thing. Bamboo can be invasive and if planted without care it can spread and choke out native plants and trees. This can cause a loss of biodiversity and damage delicate ecosystems. It’s best to keep bamboo where it grows naturally instead of introducing it to a new region.

    We Need Trees and Bamboo for a Balanced Ecosystem

    When looking at how to slow and prevent climate change, both trees and bamboo are vital to our planet. Bamboo can help balance the carbon cycle more quickly, but the Earth’s forests are relied on by millions of species every day. Depending on one over the other

    If you want to live more sustainably and support our world’s forests, consider swapping out items you use daily for bamboo alternatives. Not only will you cut toxic chemicals and plastics, but you’ll be protecting millions of trees and helping to balance our carbon cycle.

    Not sure where to start? Check out our tips on introducing bamboo into your lifestyle.