China has a reputation of a poor record on protecting the environment. Reports of poisoned lakes, rivers, and air pervade non-state media. In Beijing, the encroaching desert brings sandstorms and higher temperatures. In Shanghai, it is uncommon to see the sky or sun unobstructed by thick, grey-brown smog. And recently, China overtook the United States as the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide.
In this sad context is it is a pleasant surprise to discover that China is leading the world down one of the most important pathways for environmental rehabilitation and carbon sustainability: reforestation. According to the World Resources Institute, "Since 1981, China has planted more than 40 billion trees, helping more than double forest cover from 8.6 percent in the 1950s to over 18 percent in 2005. According to the State Forestry Administration, China's forests now cover 175 million hectares-an area the size of Alaska."
In 2002, the Chinese government undertook a ten-year project of planting 170,000 square miles worth of trees — that's roughly the size of California. The largest state-driven reforestation project ever, it is thought of by the Chinese government as the last hope to stop expanding deserts, droughts, and flooding that have come with the wholesale logging that took place in the 1950s. More recently, the carbon offsetting potential of reforestation has come to greater attention; few measures undertaken worldwide can be said to have such a direct and concrete reduction of the levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.
Following the lead of China's government, other organizations have taken it upon themselves to join in the re-planting of China's forests. One such effort is the Million Tree Project, an endeavor of Shanghai's branch of Roots and Shoots, activist Jane Goodall's worldwide environmental and humanitarian organization.
Launched in 2004, the Million Tree Project aims to plant one million trees in the increasingly sandy and barren region of Inner Mongolia by 2014. The apricot trees that were once local to this area no longer can grow there; volunteers from Roots and Shoots must now plant other species for the time being, including pines, poplar/locust hybrids, and the yellow horn tree, whose fruit can be used for bio-fuel. Though it seems counterintuitive from an ecological perspective to plant nonnative trees, "our advisors from Oregon State University told us that at this point, it's best to just plant whatever species can grow and survive," said Zhenxi Zhong, the executive director of Shanghai Roots and Shoots.
So for the last several years, volunteers from Shanghai have been planting on a series of expeditions every year. On their last trip in April of 2010, 213 volunteers from Shanghai planted 200,000 trees on government land that had been allocated to them for this purpose. After planting, the land was divided into plots and distributed to local families, who maintain the trees in exchange for the profits from harvesting their fruit.
At its completion, this particular project will cover only 666 hectares of land in trees-a small sliver of the 170,000 square miles planned by the government. If current trends persist, by 2050, 26 percent of China's land area will be covered by forests-a substantial increase over the 2005 level of 18.2 percent. But the all-volunteer makeup of its planting expeditions bodes well in a very important way: it shows that more and more of China's people, including its newly wealthy urban populace, are taking the protection of the planet and its natural environment seriously. As China continues to grow and develop, such awareness will be absolutely crucial.
And to foster this kind of awareness and caring in China, a tree-planting project is the perfect place to start. "There is just a general affection for trees in China," says Zhong. "A lot of people know about sandstorms," and that they are an increasing problem. "For Chinese people, it's very easy to understand a desire for there to be more trees."
The carbon offsetting potential of such a project is not to be underestimated, either. According to Zhong, each tree they plant in Inner Mongolia "can absorb 250 kilograms of carbon dioxide over a fifteen year life span." Projects like that of Roots and Shoots, and the broader efforts of the Chinese government, have the potential to establish a relationship in the minds of Chinese citizens between the simple desirability of planting trees and the complicated solutions required to stop global climate change. For a nation with a rather short history of environmental awareness, this is important relationship to nurture.
Tree-planting as a profound and simple way to save the planet is beginning to be used by people outside China as well. Reforestation projects in China have begun to garner worldwide attention as a practical and symbolic way to help the environment. Outdoors apparel and footwear company Timberland, for example, has for several years now partnered with a Japanese NGO to plant trees in Inner Mongolia. As Timberland CEO Jeffrey Swartz described it in The Huffington Post, "We make boots for people who love the outdoors; destroying nature is bad for business." Additionally, wrote Swartz, planting trees "is a comprehensible, tangible, proof point to our commitment to environmental responsibility." If a price on carbon isn't your cup of tea, fine; but surely one can support the planting of trees?
At this point, few nations have seriously undertaken the larger, more complicated changes needed to move towards true sustainability. The recent failed effort at passing a climate bill through the United States Congress throws into sharp relief our own failures at moving toward true sustainability. Much of this is due to the fact that in our political culture, even the simplest changes in policy to protect the environment face vociferous opposition from the pro-business lobby. In that context, China should be applauded for at least doing those things that are simple to understand, symbolically powerful, and practically effective. Despite its legacy of environmental degradation, China's leadership in reforestation gives a shred of hope that when China needs to lead the world in sustainability-and as the world's largest nation by far, it will eventually have to-the planet may not be so bad off.