Global question: What can an independent power producer do to offset 15 million tons of carbon dioxide that its new coal-burning plant in Uncasville, Conn., will release into the atmosphere? One answer: Plant 52 million trees in Guatemala.

The trees-for-power-plant connection is both "an imaginative experiment in the quest for solutions to the greenhouse effect" and "a viable solution to the serious deforestation problems of a developing country," says James Gustave Speth, president of the World Resources Institute, which helped forge the link.Trees absorb carbon dioxide, the primary contributor to the greenhouse effect, the warming of Earth's atmosphere. The trees to be planted by 40,000 farmers in Guatemala over a 10-year period are expected to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions during the power plant's 40-year life.

The Connecticut power company, a subsidiary of Applied Energy Services of Arlington, Va., will contribute $2 million to the plantings through a grant to CARE, the international relief and development organization, which oversees the world's largest non-governmental reforestation program.

CARE, whose reforestation program reaches 34 countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, has planted more than 70 million trees in the past decade.

Although trees alone cannot cool global warming, Speth says there should be an international effort toward a net gain of trees on Earth by halting tropical deforestation and promoting reforestation. Major sources of carbon dioxide are the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests.

Since World War II, deforestation has reached alarming rates in the tropics. Every hour 3,000 acres of tropical forests are destroyed, primarily for agriculture. In a year, that amounts to 27 million acres, about the size of Pennsylvania.

A 1980 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization study comparing global reforestation to deforestation found that for every hectare (about 2.5 acres) of trees planted, 10 hectares have been lost.

"Logic tells you that the 10-to-1 ratio has gotten worse in this decade," forester Peter T. Hazlewood of the World Resources Institute told National Geographic.

Only in the temperate regions of the world is the situation now stable, primarily because of the proliferation of tree plantations. In the United States, Canada, Scandinavia and the Soviet Union, for example, the standing forest biomass is increasing by 1 percent a year, says John Michael Kramer, senior forestry adviser of Energy-Development International and former director of CARE's reforestation program.

In Europe, however, forests are still losing ground because of air pollutants and other environmental stresses.

No developing tropical country has reversed the deforestation trend, with the possible exception of Haiti.