The Great Green Wall (also known as the Three North Shelterbelt project) is by far the world’s largest tree-planting project.
To date 66 billion trees have been planted since the project began in 1978. By the project’s end, planned for 2050, it
is intended to stretch 4,500km along the edges of China’s northern deserts, cover 405m hectares (42% of its territory) and increase the world’s forest cover by more than a tenth.
This green belt started in an attempt to stop the advance of the Gobi dessert – in particular the southern edge into China – as it is expanding at an alarming rate due to desertification (land becoming increasing arid). The Gobi Desert overtakes 3,600 km2 of grassland every year. This also means increase in dust storms, which sets back the country’s agriculture economy.
Scientific studies have proved that the total amount of carbon stored in all living biomass above the soil has increased globally by almost 4 billion tons since 2003, with China contributing in a notable way thanks to its Great Green Wall. This is good news as plants play a significant role in slowing down climate change, absorbing about a quarter of the carbon dioxide that people are putting into the air due to burning fossil fuels and other activities.
China ’s unprecedented industrial and economic growth has made it the world’s second-largest economy (after the USA). Of course this rapid and ambitious expansion along with the rise in population, does not come without a hefty price, as China is also the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases . China , however, has not been passive. It has embarked on the Great Green Wall program – a massive tree planting program that has helped off-set tropical deforestation and absorb some of the carbon-changing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere…
According to Yi Liu, the lead author of a recent study by Australia’s University of New South Wales Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science,“carbon storage in Chinese forests increased by about 0.8 billion tons (0.72 billion tonnes) between 2003 and 2012.”
But even so there are serious questions regarding the long-term sustainability of this kind of project. In contrast to attempts elsewhere to halt deforestation or replace recently felled trees, most of China’s planting is on long-barren land.
Much of it is also non-native pines and poplars. In other words planting trees where they do not grow naturally may do more harm than good; these trees will soak up large amounts of valuable groundwater and be prone to disease and pests. Some critics even question the mortality rate of trees planted there and whether these trees would negatively affect grass and shrubs, which in general are more resistant to drought and more effective at erosion control.
Clearly the ecological issues are very complex, and the long-term impact is still not clear for such a large-scale man made forestation project. More greenness certainly means more absorption of carbon dioxide, but the only sure way to diminish the impacts of global warming is to reduce the use of fossil fuels.