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Forty years of tree-planting in China: successes and failures

06 September, 2019
Feng Hao, chinadialogue

Northern China, desert, trees, lake

Northern China, desert, trees, lake
Mixed landscape in Inner Mongolia, China | © Jun Gao/Unsplash

In the Inner Mongolian county of Horinger, Northwestern China, afforestation efforts have transformed a barren, dusty landscape into a pine forest. Planting trees has diminished the sandstorms, boosted biodiversity and improved the environment generally. As the climate emergency worsens, the potential for planted trees to draw carbon out of the atmosphere is being re-examined. What can the world learn from the Chinese experience with afforestation?

China’s afforestation efforts

In Mongolian, the word Horinger means “20 houses” and dates back to the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912). This was a flourishing city during the Northern Wei period (386-534) but over the next thousand years overexploitation of the land and changes in the climate saw the economy fail and people move away – until only the 20 households of its name remained, eking out an existence in the desert sands.

Winds from Siberia and the continental monsoon both sweep past Horinger, which lies upwind of Beijing. They used to whip dust all the way to Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei; spring dust storms ravaged northern China every year from the mid 20th century to the early 21st. Then in 2010, a project started in Horinger to plant Mongolian Scots pine, Manchurian red pine, Korshinsk pea shrub, apricot tree and seaberry. In total, 3.3 million trees now cover more than 2,500 hectares of degraded land. The results were felt locally. “We used to have more than ten days of sandstorms every year. Now it’s just three or four,” says Yang Shuantao. The Horinger forest is expected to fix 220,000 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere over a 30-year period. This makes afforestation a key tool in addressing global warming as negative emissions technologies that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere are required to limit warming to 1.5C above the pre-industrial level.

Tree-planting schemes designed to reduce sandstorms began in China in 1978. Official figures show that China’s forested areas have since increased from 12% to 22% (115 million hectares to 208 million hectares). NASA data shows China and India are global leaders in greening over the past 20 years, accounting for one-third of total extra foliage between 2000 and 2017. However, these figures take “forest” to include areas of immature trees or that are temporarily treeless after being harvested. Gains of vegetation that most people would call “forest” are far less.

China’s ‘Great Green Wall’ northern shelterbelt program

Speaking anonymously to chinadialogue, a forestry expert explained that in the last four decades China has developed systems for calculating and monitoring forestry carbon stores. The technology is now mature enough to measure and predict carbon storage within various forest ecosystems. This expertise means that: “Our ready-made approach could be applied elsewhere in the world,” said the expert.

China is already promoting its expertise in countries signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). At the Second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing earlier this year, the prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, called for Chinese participation in a drive to plant ten billion trees in the next five years. “There should be a joint project, an ambitious project, of planting trees so that we can mitigate the effects of climate on our coming generations.” Precedent suggests that such cooperation would mean sharing knowledge and funds. Khan said he hopes the new project will build on the success of the Billion Tree Tsunami project which he claimed has seen five billion trees planted in the last five years in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone. His government estimated that scheme will enlarge the forested area of Pakistan by 1%.

The China Green Foundation aims to create three belts of poplar trees by 2030,  stretching from northwest China to central and west Asian nations including Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Iran and Turkey. Private companies such as Alibaba are also playing a part in tree-planting projects. Ant Forest rewards users on the Alipay platform by allowing them to grow a virtual tree on their mobile phones when they make low-carbon choices, such as cycling instead of driving. With enough points, the tree can actually take root in the desert; Alipay has promised to invest 200 million yuan (US$28 million) into desertification control along the BRI.

On the UN’s invitation, China will lead talks on nature-based solutions (NBS) at the September climate change summit in New York, where it will organise the proposals from various parties. NBS can be used to conserve, sustainably manage and restore land and marine ecosystems, and promote sustainable agriculture and food systems. According to Ella Wang of WWF China, the country is pushing for NBS to be featured in nationally determined contributions, adaptation plans and overall development strategies. It is also advocating for more funding to put NBS on the agenda at international talks. China may put its afforestation model forward as one NBS approach.

Forty years of tree-planting

Afforestation is generally regarded as one of the most practical nature-based solutions, but some debate still surrounds it. Zhu Chunquan, China representative for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, explains that an NBS approach would prefer natural renewal and restoration over the planting of artificial forests. A new study of the Bonn Challenge – to restore 350 million hectares of forests by 2030 – found that natural forests in the tropics and subtropics hold 40 times more carbon than plantation forests. If that area, which is about the size of India, were to become natural forest then by 2100 it would have removed 42 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere whereas commercial monocultures would only remove one billion.

Interestingly, more than half of the carbon sink effect of the world’s forests is in areas where the trees are relatively young – under 140 years old – because young trees absorb more carbon as they grow. But this does not mean that plantation forests are the answer, as much of the wood harvested from them becomes paper, cardboard and wood chip that soon degrades and releases its trapped carbon back into the atmosphere. Regenerating degraded forests may be a more sustainable option.

While planted forests need careful management, natural forests are self-replenishing. While afforestation projects have proven popular in China, they have also caused problems. Experts say that blindly applying China’s afforestation experience abroad as an NBS measure may backfire. For example, in some water-stressed areas, afforestation has put further pressure on water resources. In areas ill-suited to growing trees, money and resources have been wasted on annual planting efforts that have not produced a single surviving tree. Monocultural “shelterbelt” forests which, like the biodiverse one at Horinger, are meant to protect soil and provide shelter from the wind, can threaten local plant species pulled up to make room for them and are vulnerable to pests.

In some places, expanses of original forest have been felled to be replaced by denser, commercial tree plantations. This may boost forest-coverage statistics, but the ecological functions of the original forest are lost and desertification does not decrease. There have also been questions over faked coverage figures and low tree-survival rates in China’s Three-North Shelterbelt Program, which has been lauded as a “Green Great Wall”. But Huang Wenbin, forest projects head for WWF China, says that “we can’t ignore the historical context” surrounding those afforestation efforts. He says there was limited understanding of how to manage forest ecosystems in the 1970s, and resources, technology and policy tools were lacking. Based on the scientific knowledge of the time, dense and tall monocultural forests seemed the best choice to stop sandstorms, he added.

“Afforestation is itself one form of ecological restoration, but the key issues are what kind of forest, where, how dense, and so on,” says another forestry expert who wishes to remain anonymous. He explains that they carried out a lot of research prior to the Horinger project to identify important ecological zones and restoration targets, deciding which locations were suitable for planting trees, shrubs or grass. According to Huang Wenbin, a mixed ecosystem of trees, shrubs and grass provides better ecological functions. However, transforming a forest where all the trees are the same age is a challenging process requiring selective felling, replacement, planting and natural renewal. Huang points out that China’s forest assessments have focused on coverage, overlooking other important measures such as species diversity. Zheng Yan, of the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences, has systematically reviewed recent studies of government-led ecological restoration projects. She is yet to publish her findings, but found that less than a third mentioned protection of biodiversity or species conservation.

International applications?

Experts say that when applying its expertise internationally, China should learn from its mistakes. Ren Wenwei of WWF China says that local tree species suitable for the climate should be chosen, with the biomass of the tree and the larger ecosystem also considered. Afforestation is no easy fix. Planted forests need long-term investment and management. Moreover, saplings don’t immediately absorb huge quantities of carbon dioxide. You only see results 20 or 30 years later, when they become small but quick-growing trees.

Questions have been raised about China’s greening experiments in BRI nations. In Peshawar, Pakistan, locals have questioned the felling of ancient trees to make way for the Chinese-led construction of a bus rapid transit system, only for the local government to later announce big investments in tree-planting. When asked about China’s plans to create a green Belt and Road, Russian environmentalist Eugene Simonov expressed concern: arid ecosystems such as deserts and grasslands cannot support trees, and sustainable use of water resources should be prioritised there.

Back in Baiyantu village, Inner Mongolia, 65-year-old Li Laqing doesn’t care how much carbon the nearby forest will sequester. He’s not interested in discussions about afforestation and climate change either. But he does have an opinion on the forest: “The environment’s much better now. Birds we had stopped seeing are coming back, and occasionally we see foxes and badgers.” The villagers take good care of their forest. On Tomb-Sweeping Day this year, while some were burning offerings to their ancestors on the hillside, a team of villagers set out to ensure no forest fires started. “There’s no doubt that the forest has improved the environment, and I hope those trees grow big and strong,” says Li.

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
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Forests

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Global Issues
Asia

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Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Cities

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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