By: Eryn Woernly
When someone tells you to picture the perfect American home, what comes to mind? For the average Joe, it is images of square, perfectly green lawns surrounded by a white picket fence. But what Joe doesn’t realize is how ugly the impacts of these beautiful lawns are on the planet’s climate.
Joe has a very specific lawncare routine that he follows every day in order to keep his yard pristine. To start, he turns on the sprinklers at dawn to water the grass. He watches the mist settle onto the sheet of green as he drinks his morning coffee. Once he has his cup of joe, Joe goes out and sprays weedkiller on any plant that is not turfgrass. He would never allow any other type of plant to taint his perfectly curated lawn. Then Joe goes off to work for the day and comes home for dinner with his family. They sit at the dining room table, which overlooks the backyard. As they eat, they admire the open green space, with no trees or bushes to block their view. Then, before Joe goes to bed, he turns on the sprinkles once again and watches the water rain down as he drifts off to sleep.
While Joe’s lawn care routine seems harmless, it has a lasting effect on the climate of the entire planet. To start, frequently watering the yard in order to keep it green wastes a significant amount of water. The amount that Joe uses himself does not seem excessive, but when combined with all of his neighbors’ water usage and everyone else in the country, this number adds up quickly. In fact, the EPA found that in 2013, Americans used 9 billion gallons of water each day solely on residential landscape irrigation. This amount accounts for a third of the total daily residential water usage (Schindler 408). This has a significant impact on the planet; more energy is needed to process the extra water, greenhouse gas emissions are increased, and overall climate change is worsened.
Not only does Joe’s routine waste large amounts of water, but it also does not allow for the presence of biodiversity. He kills any plant, no matter if it is beneficial or native to his home environment. This backyard monoculture harms the local plants and wildlife, taking up space that the native species require to survive. In cities and suburbs, backyards are some of the only green spaces available nearby, meaning they represent a large portion of the natural ecosystem in the area. However, wildlife will completely avoid these areas because they lack any ecologically supportive habitats with plants and food, creating an off-balance, unnatural ecosystem (Schindler 411). With recent trends towards greater urban development, these animals are losing habitat at a rapid rate, confining them to parcels of land that are far too small for their needs. Thus, by simply using weed killer to create this uniformly perfect lawn, Joe is creating a dead zone in his local environment.
Joe and his family also marvel over the open green space and its lack of trees. But little do they know that this setup is causing even more carbon emissions to build up in the atmosphere. This is because lawns play an essential role in helping to take carbon out of the Earth’s atmosphere. These green areas act as a carbon sinks, pulling excess carbon dioxide from the air and helping to counterbalance the CO2 released from human activity, such as mowing the lawn. The plants that lawn owners chose to have in their backyards can have a big impact on how much of this carbon dioxide is pulled from the atmosphere. In Joe’s case, his lawn was void of any beneficial plants or bushes that could assist with absorbing carbon. In another case, it was found that even with a great amount of management, these turfgrass lawns could not sequester enough carbon to balance out the emissions associated with necessary fertilization and irrigation. Even then, these lawns did not match the sequestration power of undisturbed, native grasslands (Townsend-Small and Czimczik). Because turfgrass does not pull as much carbon out of the atmosphere as other native plants, “perfect” lawns contribute significantly to climate change.
There are lots of improvements that Joe can easily make to his lawn care routine. To combat the watering issue, he could simply water his lawn less or not at all. However, without giving his lawn the extra water it needs to survive, it will likely turn brown and ugly; this has been a powerful motivator against stopping lawn watering. One way to work around this issue is to plant native grasses that are adapted to the climate of your location, or to use plants that generally do not require water.
Another simple action Joe could take is mowing his lawn less and letting other plants grow in. One study found that by mowing less frequently, plant diversity was able to jump from 15 percent to 62 percent (Chollet, et al.). Not only will mowing less decrease emissions, but it will additionally increase the opportunity for plants to grow up over the turf grass, providing proper habitat for smaller animals and birds. Gradually, this plant diversity will grow and create a more complex ecosystem, and so the wildlife species will return. Additionally, choosing native plants that provide food and habitat for animals can help to dramatically restore the biodiversity of an area. When the ecosystem is back in balance, the natural world is less susceptible to the effects of climate change, helping to mitigate the negative impacts of our individual actions.
Lastly, to help with the carbon issue, Joe could also plant species that are known for their high sequestration properties. Certain trees and shrubs can take more carbon from the atmosphere than others, having a higher effect on mitigating climate change. Thus, by simply choosing the right plant species, one can lessen their impact on climate change.
If Joe and all his neighbors and everyone they knew started implementing these actions into their routines, they could make a large impact on the planet, helping to mitigate their negative effects on the climate.
- Schindler, Sarah. “Banning Lawns.” SSRN, The George Washington Law Review, 2014, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2279544.
- Simon Chollet, Charlotte Brabant, Samson Tessier, Vincent Jung. “From urban lawns to urban meadows: Reduction of mowing frequency increases plant taxonomic, functional and phylogenetic diversity.” Landscape and Urban Planning, Volume 180, 2018, Pages 121-124, ISSN 0169-2046, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2018.08.009.
- Townsend‐Small, A., and Czimczik, C. I. (2010). “Carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions in urban turf, Geophys. Res. Lett.” 37, L02707, doi:10.1029/2009GL041675.