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article imageChina’s Great Green Wall combats pollution, global tree loss

By Paul Wallis     Apr 28, 2015 in Environment
Beijing - China is managing its pollution problem with planting massive numbers of new trees. The Great Wall of Trees includes real, measurable achievements in terms of carbon uptake.
China’s carbon storage is measured to have increased by 0.8 billion tonnes in the period 2003-2012. The new forest also relates to grim figures for forest decline in North America due to fires and pests, and shrinking tropical forests in Indonesia and Brazil. Meanwhile, global above ground carbon storage has actually increased by 4 billion tons globally as former farmland in Russia reafforests and Australian forests benefit from the added CO2 availability. South American savannahs and some parts of Africa are also experiencing increased growth.
The Chinese plantings are on a truly huge scale. Among the trees planted are gingkoes, some of the world’s oldest plants, which were around during the Carboniferous Period, one of the greenest times in Earth’s history.
The replanting program originally started in 1978, long before China’s boom, and was part of an anti-desertification program. Since that time, over 100,000 square miles of forest have been planted. The tree planting program will continue to 2050, by which time it will form a large belt from Xinjiang to Heilongjiang province in the northeast.
Interestingly, China is also reclaiming cropland in its reafforestation program. This may seem counter intuitive in terms of food supply needs. In fact, cropland is also an environmental issue in many areas, creating “phony” environmental conditions, particularly for major monocultures like rice and wheat, which can fragment natural environments severely.
Some reservations have been expressed regarding the program, notably in regard to the amount of groundwater new forests may take up. This is a debatable point, because China’s vast, multi-decade boom has also done considerable damage to its groundwater supplies in several parts of the country. The counter argument is that the very large numbers of trees produce so much more oxygen as a byproduct of transpiration, helping to reinforce the water cycle.
Another issue which has been raised regarding the Chinese reafforestation program is simple but important, about “growing trees where they wouldn’t grow naturally.” Trees are core integers in the environmental equation, providing habitat and effectively dictating the ecology in the area. The objection is that the new forests take over environments. An alternative view is that the forest/plains/reafforestation cycle is quite normal in many regions. Fire prone areas, for example, may reafforest with pyrogenes, trees which are adapted to fire like Australian eucalypts and Northern Hemisphere pines. In some areas, the change in forest patterns actually includes a pretty reliable cycle of different types of trees taking over the same area, replacing each other.
Perhaps the most serious criticism of the reafforestation program is that China's tree cover continues to shrink, and some of the new plantings are rubber and fruit trees, water gluttons planted in monocultures. This criticism has some weight in land management terms, but China is committed to local production of staples and industrial products as a matter of current economic policy of less reliance on imports. It's unclear whether compensatory plantings are being considered to balance these crops.
China’s reafforestation demonstrates some very important principles:
1. It’s physically possible to reafforest on a gigantic scale over a long period of time
2. Metrics support the practical value of these very large projects
3. Rebuilding environments and reclaiming waste lands is viable on a very large scale.
More about China reafforestation, Chinese environmental management, Xinjiang, Heilongjiang, Chinese groundwater management
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