Reporting the news can take its toll on the planet.

Civil Beat staffers drive to cover meetings and conduct interviews, fly to investigate stories and attend journalism conferences, and work out of a comfortable air-conditioned office.

That’s a lot of carbon dioxide we’re emitting into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. But we’re trying to do something about it beyond biking more, eating less meat, using public transit and switching to electric and hybrid vehicles.

Civil Beat competed in the Carbon Neutrality Challenge, planting 100 native trees at Palehua Camp on the westside of Oahu to offset some of our greenhouse gas emissions. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Last week, a group of us planted native trees on the west side of Oahu to soak up at least a chunk of those greenhouse gases. It doesn’t magically erase our carbon footprint, but it does help neutralize it.

University of Hawaii climate scientist Camilo Mora set up our day of digging in the dirt at Palehua Camp as part of his Carbon Neutrality Challenge. Teams compete to see how many trees they can plant in one outing there or at one of the other sites around Oahu, such as Hamakua Marsh in Kailua or Ala Mahamoe by Tripler Hospital.

Civil Beat set a new record by planting 100 trees, besting the previous leaders by a single sapling. It’s a record we hope falls soon, though.

“Offsetting our carbon emissions via restoring native ecosystems is such a responsibility today,” Mora said. “It is the very least we can do. And it is not only doable, it is very easy as we demonstrated last Friday.”

Well, easy-ish. Clearing the invasive weeds and getting a shovel through the hard clay was no joke. We woke up the next day sore, but satisfied.

We had some help too. Malama Learning Center’s Pauline Sato and three others — Hekili Lani, Makanani Anuhealii and Jahnna Kahele-Madali — lent their guidance and experienced hands. They also provided the plants, some of which took a year to grow just several inches. Others were endangered species.

“Of course, we need to reduce our carbon footprint, so to speak, but that is not enough,” said Sato, who began the center’s Ola Na Kini tree-planting initiative to help with native forest restoration, erosion control and cultural resource preservation.“Trees have the ability to absorb the carbon that we produce through our daily lives. It’s a natural solution to a human-made cause.”

We planted koa, wiliwili, alahee, lama and aalii. On average, each tree sequesters 1 ton of carbon over a five-year period. Some of those species will live for decades.

About half of of the carbon emitted gets absorbed by trees, reefs and other natural processes. The rest gets stuck in the atmosphere, creating a greenhouse effect that’s causing the planet to heat up.

To ward off the worst effects of climate change, the world’s top scientists say we must make massive shifts in our behavior to prevent the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2040.

On average, a person in Hawaii produces about 12 tons of carbon each year. The average American footprint is 16.5 tons of CO2 annually, Mora said, though some estimates put it closer to 20 tons. Hawaii’s footprint is lower largely because it’s hard for islanders to drive long distances and we don’t use as much energy to heat or cool our homes.

The world average, by the way, is 4 tons per person. People in India, for instance, average less than 2 tons per capita.

Carbon Footprint Calculators

We grew more in tune with our impact after Civil Beat’s January launch of a special project on climate change. The ongoing series involves getting out into communities to hear your stories about rising sea levels, more frequent storms, unprecedented flooding, droughts and wildfires.

For that, we have a new (technically used) van, dubbed the Wavemaker, to transport ourselves and gear wherever the story takes us. We drove 100 miles on one trip last month to talk to homeowners in Hauula and Pupukea about the lengths they’re taking to avoid losing their coastal properties to the ocean.

Initially, we wanted to offset the Wavemaker’s emissions for the year, which we’re conservatively estimating at about 3 tons of CO2 for the 2014 Nissan NV200 taxi van.

If all our trees survive, we’ll sequester about 1,000 tons of CO2 over the first five years. Invasive weeds and other pests, coupled with watering challenges, will make it hard for them all to make it.

We staked down a ground cover around each tree to keep the weeds back. And Mora has invented an “autonomous programmable plant watering device,” which got a patent last year, that automatically waters the trees from a 5-gallon bucket by detecting soil moisture. That should help them get established.

Mora has big ambitions for his Carbon Neutrality Challenge, like planting 1 million trees in a day, each year.

He acknowledged that “it may sound crazy,” but was quick to point out that the world record is 50 million trees, planted in one day in India.

“If we manage to get our community to come together and plant just one tree in one day, that is our million trees,” Mora said.

Or if only 10 percent of Hawaii’s population of about 1.4 million people each plant 10 trees one day, that’s over 1 million trees in a day.

Statewide, Hawaii’s emission sinks, as they’re called, absorbed 3.54 million tons of CO2 in 2015, according to the latest Department of Health report in January. All the carbon soaked up from better handling of yard trimmings and food scraps, planting more urban trees and restoring forests has helped keep Hawaii on track to meet its goal of bringing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.  

The state’s overall emissions were 21.28 million tons in 2015, slightly lower than 2010. Most of that comes from the energy sector, which has been ditching oil, coal and gas for renewable sources like solar, wind and geothermal. 

The health department expects the next Hawaii Greenhouse Gas Emissions Report later this year, which will include a new 2016 statewide greenhouse gas emissions inventory.

Mora is working to scale up his operation. In October, he did a pilot project where 220 volunteers planted 1,100 trees in two hours. For the next phase, he is shooting for 10,000 trees in two hours this fall, learning what the challenges are at that level so it can be scaled up to 100,000 trees.

The main constraint currently is money. Mora has managed to take the project to this point thanks to support from the Garden Club of Honolulu, private donors and his own family’s money.

Community partners have been crucial to the Carbon Neutrality Challenge’s success thus far.

In addition to Mora and Sato’s efforts, money, time and expertise has come from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, The Outdoor Circle, Koʻolau Mountains Watershed Partnership, The Garden Club of Honolulu, Barbara Julis, Lori Eldridge, JC Watson, Will Weaver, Rebecca Beralas, Evan Strause, The Lyon Arboretum and the Foster Botanical Garden among others.

The next stage will require more funds.

The lack of commercial propagation centers for native species has put constraints on expanding the project. And it’s also difficult to prepare that much land for planting without heavy machinery. Mora estimates they would need $500,000 to upgrade greenhouses and purchase machinery to be able to do 10,000 trees in a day.

But he is not deterred. And the motivation is great.

“We are impacting the capacity for us to enjoy living on this planet,” Mora said. “The longer we wait, the harder it’s going to be to fix it.”

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