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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

The Great Green Wall of China

Dust storms in the Gobi Desert (as seen from space) highlight the need for China’s Great Green Wall. Credit: NASA

Dust storms in the Gobi Desert (as seen from space) highlight the need for China’s Great Green Wall. Credit: NASA

By Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer

Unlike the Great Wall of China, a 5,000-mile fortification dating back to the 7th century BC that separates northern China from the Mongolian steppe, the Great Green Wall of Chinaotherwise known as the Three-North Shelter Forest Programis the biggest tree planting project on the planet. Its goal is to create a 2,800-mile long green belt to hold back the quickly expanding Gobi Desert and sequester millions of tons of carbon dioxide in the process. If all goes according to plan, the completion of the Green Wall by 2050 will increase forest cover across China from five to 15% overall.

The Chinese government first conceived of the Green Wall project in the late 1970s to combat desertification along the countrys vast northwest rim. Soon thereafter, Chinas top legislative body passed a resolution requiring every citizen over the age of 11 to plant at least three poplar, eucalyptus, larch and other saplings every year to reinforce official reforestation efforts.

But despite progressaccording to the United Nationsmost recent Global Forest Resources Assessment, China increased its overall forest cover by 11,500 square miles (an area the size of Massachusetts) between 2000 and 2010, with citizens alone planting upwards of 60 billion treesthe situation is only getting worse. Analysts think China loses just as many square miles of grasslands and farms to desertification every year, so reforestation has proven to be an uphill battle. The encroaching Gobi has swallowed up entire villages and small cities and continues to cause air pollution problems in Beijing and elsewhere while racking up some $50 billion a year in economic losses. And tens of millions of environmental refugees are looking for new homes in other parts of China and beyond in what makes Americas Dust Bowl of the 1930s look trivial in comparison.

The desertification of north and western China is arguably the most under-reported environmental crisis facing China today and is little understood outside the circles of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and groups of scientists who are desperately fighting against it,reports Sean Gallagher, an activist with Greenpeace. While climate change is certainly a big factor, Gallagher adds that overgrazing, water mismanagement, outdated agricultural methods and the swelling of human populations are also contributing to this wholesale conversion of the regions once arable and habitable landscapes into sand dunes. In China, approximately 20% of land is now classified as desert or arid, and desertification is adversely affecting the lives of over 400 million people in China alone.

More recently, the Green Wall project has taken on additional importance for its potential as a carbon sinkto store greenhouse gases that would otherwise find their way into the atmosphere and exacerbate global warming. But critics point out that its hard to quantify just how much carbon the Green Wall can store, and that plantations of fast-growing non-native trees going in as part of the project dont store as much carbon as more diverse, naturally occurring native forests.

Regardless, the Chinese government is already talking up the Great Green Wall as key weapon in its arsenal to fight global warming and as proof to the rest of the world that China is taking strong steps to mitigate carbon emissions. With completion of the Great Green Wall still 35 years out, only time will tell how effective it will be as a solution for some of Chinas (and the worlds) most vexing environmental problems.

Contact: UN Global Forest Resources Assessment, www.fao.org/docrep/013/i1757e/i1757e.pdf.

EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. www.earthtalk.org. earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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