A Tale of Two Forests: China and the Great Green Wall

Date: 18 Dec 2022

Author: Indescribled


Tags: Asia-Pacific, Economics

Forests provide a massive bulwark against climate change; their continued existence and growth, alongside other efforts, are necessary to combat total climate catastrophe. While many countries only make the climate situation worse, China has advanced by leaps and bounds in reforestation and climate protection in recent decades. The world must look at China as a leader for clean energy and reforestation methods. One of many ways China is fighting climate change and choosing the planet over profits is their Great Green Wall—a project that fights climate change through forest expansion with the specific intent of stopping expansion of the Gobi desert.

The Gobi Desert, Christophe Cagé

Expansion of the Gobi desert poses many problems for China—the primary issues being dust storms hitting Beijing and the desertification of grasslands used for farming and grazing. Growth of the Gobi is partially man-made, but also propelled by the climate, as highlighted by National Geographic:

“Deforestation, overgrazing, and overuse of water by people are some of the leading factors responsible for desertification. In China, the problem has been occurring along four types: 'aeolian desertification,' which is caused by wind erosion after vegetation is destroyed; 'water and soil loss,' due to water erosion that is mainly distributed in the Loess plateau; 'salinization' due to poor water management; and 'rock desertification,' distributed in the Karst region of southwestern China."

Primarily, growth of the desert seems to be an unintended and unexpected consequence of China’s rise and industrialization over the past decades, a consequence that they are aware of and trying to fix. On December 12th, 2022, Beijing experienced a dust storm that led to dangerous levels of air pollution. These dust storms happen a few times a year, one of the worst ones in recent history being March 15, 2021. Skies turned orange, visibility was terrible, air quality was low, and millions of citizens struggled through the dusty and dangerous conditions. The frequency of sandstorms like these has decreased from 26 annually in the 1950s to about 3 since 2010, and will continue to stay low as the Great Green Wall continues to be built. 

Buildings in the central business district of Beijing during a sandstorm on March 15, 2021. Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images 
Project area of the Great Green Wall. The Economist 

China’s solution to continued expansion of the Gobi is to use expansion of their own—a massive afforestation project known as the Great Green Wall. The project, officially referred to as the Three-North Shelterbelt Program (TNSP), began in 1978 and is planned to reach completion in 2050, containing well over 100 billion trees. In 2019, China submitted a report to the United Nations with numerous notable points about the project:

First, the TNSP is working. As noted in regard to sandstorms, the amount of such storms per year has already decreased tremendously since the start of the project in 1978.

Second, it is more than just a tree planting project. The TNSP creates jobs and careers for people—whether that be forestry, fruit, farming, or other industries that have been created and benefited, the Chinese people are working toward a better future.

Third, the monumental project is potentially 15-20 years ahead of schedule.

President Xi Jinping attending a tree-planting activity in Daxing District, Beijing, March 30, 2022. Xinhua 

Finally, perhaps even most astounding of all, is the fact that the Great Green Wall is a seventy-three year project overall. A project that spans generations, one that seeks a better world for the Chinese people, with little to no sandstorms, and a green country.

What does the United States have planned for the next 73 years? What developments, programs, and undertakings in the United States today were engineered, planned, and set in motion in 1949? What is the United States planning to begin in 2023 for completion by 2096?

The consistency, planning, and dedication to launch and maintain such a long-reaching plan is astounding and inspiring, and it all starts at a local level. March 12th is National Tree-Planting Day and has been celebrated since 1979—the year after the Great Green Wall project began. China’s National People's Congress stipulated that every able-bodied citizen above 11 should plant three to five trees each year.

Trend in Annual Average Leaf area. NASA

The Great Green Wall is not just a good idea: there are large and measurable results seen in its success. No country has contributed more to the growth of forests than China in the past 20 years. Since 2000, China has contributed to 25% of global green leaf area growth. The TNSP and National-Tree Planting Day are both important factors that contribute to the achievement. As illustrated in the map above, China has contributed more to leaf area growth than any other country on earth, with India coming in second. The TNSP was not perfect when it was initially launched, and it is still not perfect. When the project was in its infancy, only 37% of planted saplings survived; however, in China’s previously mentioned UN report, they note that they were aware of the situation and made many changes to raise the rate by 23%, to 60%. The funding, learning, and technological advances continued and by the 1990s, the preservation rate was over 85%. President Xi Jinping has specifically spoken about the issue of quality:

We will protect and manage our ecosystems involving mountains, rivers, forests, farmland, lakes, grasslands and deserts with a holistic approach, carry out greening programs systematically, and increase both quantity and quality of forest and grassland resources.

The call is not just for the quantity of trees—planting 1 million trees means nothing if they all die. The call is for both quantity and quality—planting billions of trees where the vast majority live and flourish.

Given the amount of time required to grow trees, it does take some time to see the full impact—sometimes many years, even decades to see large qualitative changes. Planting one tree is a quantitative, measurable change, but how many does it take to achieve a qualitative change? There is no magic number for enough, because again quantity and quality must be considered. Many tree planting projects have failed in other countries and overall have served little to no purpose besides astroturfing the reputations of the same people and institutions most responsible for our impending ecological Armageddon. Learning from those failures is mandatory, as China has done, and improving the process instead of continuing the same, failed steps from before. It looks good on paper to declare that you are planting 1 billion trees, an initiative American ex-President Donald Trump pushed, but what good is it if those trees die within five years? What good are feel-good initiatives, often used as a moral pedestal from which to cast aspersions and brow-beat the global south, when the real material conditions are not only not improving, but continuing to decline? Here we see the clearest difference between Chinese ecological revitalization, and hollow American eco-fetishism.

The largest socialist power in the world today is also the global leader in clean energy, afforestation, and combating climate destruction. Countries and Communists across the globe should learn from the policies and actions of the People’s Republic as the climate crisis continues to worsen at the hands of the imperialist powers. Only socialism fully chooses the planet and people over profits. The climate struggle is also a class struggle—the rich continue to destroy the planet in pursuit of higher and higher profits while using their immense wealth to avoid as much of the repercussions as possible. 

In order to save the planet, we must destroy Capitalism.