To create a carbon neutral Hawaii, this UH professor is working to plant 1M trees a year

Published: Mar. 31, 2021 at 4:48 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - In his outdoor laboratory, University of Hawaii at Manoa associate professor Camilo Mora smiles as he scoops up a handful of seeds he collected from native trees.

“This one here is the koa seeds. We have about 150,000 seeds of this guy. Look at this! To me, this is like gold,” he said.

The seeds will eventually go into the ground as part of Mora’s mission to plant one million trees a year in his battle against climate change.

“That is what drives me,” he said. “We can make Hawaii go into the history books as the first place in the world that managed to become carbon neutral.”

[Related coverage: To fight global warming, he’s planting trees. Lots of them.]

The idea came from his teenage daughter, Asryelle.

“He was talking to me about how bad climate change when I was about 7. I said, ‘Let’s plant trees.’ A couple days later he saw this article about how planting trees would be a good way to combat climate change. And here we are,” she said.

To meet his goal, Mora is figuring out how to increase a seedling’s survival rate when it goes into the ground and he’s getting closer.

“In our latest plantings, we don’t get trees dying. Two months after a tree is planted we rarely get a tree dying,” he said.

The trees are planted on private land. In December, 2,000 volunteers planted 10,000 trees in just two hours. He said this proves he can get to a million.

“People think this is hard. So it was to go to Mars, and now we’re hanging out on Mars. This can’t be any harder than that,” he said.

Mora is working out the kinks in a UH greenhouse where he can produce 20,000 seedlings a year. He wants to design and build portable nurseries that can grow seedlings closer to where they’ll be planted.

Asryelle works alongside him. She created the Carbon Neutrality Challenge. At public presentations she shares how planting trees offset the carbon footprint, and she recruits volunteers to help with mass plantings.

“We have been fortunate enough to talk with a lot of big schools, companies and other organizations. They have all been so caring to us,” she said.

Mora developed a plastic shield that’s in the prototype and testing phase. He said it will protect young trees from weeds and trap water. And he has decreased the cost of plantings.

“Now we a whole method that brings the cost down from about $4 per seedling to just 15 cents per seedling. Now we make that part super cheap,” he said.

Mora envisions the seedlings he plants becoming forests that trap carbon dioxide, and that vision is growing one seed at a time.

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