China’s tree-planting drive could falter

Friday 15 Nov 2019

China has planted billions of trees over the past four decades as part of its fight against expanding deserts, mostly in its north. Each year, the country sows’ seedlings over an area nearly the size of Ireland. It is even sharing its desert-control methods with others as part of its massive Belt and Road trade initiative.

The trees have held back China′s deserts. But some scientists worry that the planting could worsen water scarcity. Many of the trees are not native to the regions where they have been planted, and they use a lot of water — despite being placed in areas that are experiencing less rainfall due to global warming.

“The idea is nice, but it’s kind of foolish to plant trees in a desert,” says Troy Sternberg, a geographer at the University of Oxford, UK. Chinese scientists say there are good reasons to plant vegetation in barren areas but that the programme needs to take into account local conditions. They say local and national governments are already planting more shrubs, herbs and other forms of native vegetation that need less water.

The Gobi Desert and similarly arid regions in China are expanding as processes such as overgrazing deplete vegetation on their borders, allowing wind and gravity to erode soil. China’s largest tree-planting drive, the Three-North Shelter Forest Program, also called the Great Green Wall, is designed to halt that encroachment. The government says that it has planted more than 66 billion trees across 13 provinces in the country’s north since the programme began in 1978.

Around the year 2000, deserts across the country were expanding by 10,400 square kilometres a year, says the government. But in 2017, the State Forestry Administration reported that China’s deserts were shrinking by more than 2,400 square kilometres a year.

A 2018 study analysing satellite data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found there has been an increase in forest cover consistent with government statistics, but suggested that changes in logging policy were more important factors than afforestation — planting forests where none had grown before.

In 1999, the Chinese government began planting millions of trees in its Grain for Green Program, intended to repair damaged farmland in key agricultural in the northern Loess Plateau, which is roughly the size of France. “I was there two years ago, and it is indeed amazing that once bare landscapes are now almost fully covered by plants,” says Philippe Ciais, a climate researcher at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in Gif-sur-Yvette near Paris.

And the afforestation drive is continuing apace: in 2018, the State Forestry Administration announced a target of 30% forest coverage by 2050. At the moment, the coverage is around 22%.

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