Afforestation

A rare majestic tree in China

Standing majestically, like a well-known tourist destination, an ancient tree stands (see image above) in Red Earth Township, in China’s Yunnan Province. In fact, it is so rare that the government threatens strict penalties for cutting it down.1 It is also part of an extraordinary Chinese success story related to afforestation that other countries are now trying to emulate.

Over 25 years, from 1990 to 2015, China has created new forest land covering over 79 million hectares.2 That is over three times the size of the UK. The government came up with a simple idea: it started paying farmers and poor rural families money to plant trees and create more forests.3 For the government, having more trees makes environmental, social and economic sense. Now, others want to learn from China and increase their forest cover.

What is afforestation?

Afforestation is the process of creating new forests on land previously used for something else. Afforestation is different to reforestation, where trees are replanted on previously deforested land. Deforestation is the widely condemned practise of destroying tree populations.

It’s not just the Chinese government that has enthusiastically embraced afforestation. By 2015, the United States had created new forest land of over 26 million hectares, Russia had planted new trees covering 20 million hectares, and Canada wasn’t far behind. In Africa, Sudan has seen the largest increase in afforestation and land cover with six million hectares.4

How is afforestation helpful in maintaining an ecological balance?

Scientists say that human activity is the leading cause of destabilising climate change.5 Forests can play a critical role in reversing that trend. But, they do more than absorb carbon from the air; they improve the soil, stop flooding and create rural jobs.6 They act as natural shields against diseases too.

In 2019, the UN Environment Programme said the world had much to learn from China on large-scale landscape restoration. In the Jiangxi Province in the south of the country, a “remarkable change” had taken place over the last 30 years. Farmers are paid to create new forests around agricultural land. The UN found: “Within a few years, this mosaic of sustainable land use was yielding higher incomes. Biodiversity and environmental quality, as well as the microclimate, improved.”7

In other words, forests help farmers too. Sudan is pioneering a new field called ‘social forestry’, in which tree planting is designed to meet rural people’s needs. The Sudan Forest Policy of 1986 encouraged people to get involved in building new forests.8

What are the advantages of afforestation and reforestation?

By creating new forests, we remove even more carbon from the air, improve the local climate and reduce global warming. When the planet is rapidly warming due to human activities and reducing forest area, we need to invest in every tool we have to reduce the amount of carbon in the air. Moreover, afforestation improves rural areas, creates jobs and protects the region from being degraded.9 Scientists have called for far more investment into cleaner energy, transportation and heating. We also need to find more sustainable ways to manage agriculture, our land and the environment.10

Forests also create jobs. In the UK alone, the industry is worth £2 billion every year to the UK economy. Planting trees creates jobs through managing forests, in addition to enjoying them for recreational reasons. In the UK, forests support over 80,000 jobs, often in rural areas with fewer opportunities. 11

But, it’s worth noting that growing forests can take a long time to bear fruit. It can also be costly, difficult to manage and take up lots of land. Over the last 30 years, China has invested over $100 billion in afforestation and planted more than 35 billion trees.12 Poorer countries have found it more challenging to sustain that kind of investment.

Example of UK land use

Creating a new forest on top of an existing ecosystem can also be harmful. In the 1980s, the UK government encouraged landowners in Scotland to drain peat bogs to plant trees.13 But, eventually, conservationists convinced the government that this would be disastrous. Peat Bogs are ecologically diverse and store almost twice as much carbon as forests. Replacing them with forests would destroy a vital landscape and release more carbon into the air. It is now investing back into restoring its historic bogs.14

Is afforestation helpful against climate change?

Nevertheless, creating new forests is a powerful tool against climate change, in addition to protecting the health of our planet. An even better strategy is to protect existing trees, as explained above.

China’s investment into afforestation also illustrates two narratives rarely heard in western media: its people aren’t blasé about the environment and they take the challenge seriously. More importantly, positive change is possible where there is the will.

 

Sources

  1. CIFOR (2014). Protected ancient tree. [online] Flickr. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cifor/37544203866/in/album-72157649759329704/ [Accessed 27 Jan. 2021].
  2. Dunne, D. (2018). Mapped: Where ‘afforestation’ is taking place around the world | Carbon Brief. [online] Carbon Brief. Available at: https://www.carbonbrief.org/mapped-where-afforestation-is-taking-place-around-the-world.
  3. CIFOR Forests News. (2017). “Grain for green”: How China is swapping farmland for forest. [online] Available at: https://forestsnews.cifor.org/52964/grain-for-green-how-china-is-swapping-farmland-for-forest [Accessed 27 Jan. 2021].
  4. Dunne, D. (2018). Mapped: Where ‘afforestation’ is taking place around the world | Carbon Brief. [online] Carbon Brief. Available at: https://www.carbonbrief.org/mapped-where-afforestation-is-taking-place-around-the-world.
  5. Hausfather, Z. (2017). Analysis: Why Scientists Think 100% of Global Warming Is Due to Humans | Carbon Brief. [online] Carbon Brief. Available at: https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-why-scientists-think-100-of-global-warming-is-due-to-humans.
  6. IUCN. (2018). Forests and climate change. [online] Available at: https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/forests-and-climate-change.
  7. UN Environment. (2019). Lessons from China on large-scale landscape restoration. [online] Available at: https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/lessons-china-large-scale-landscape-restoration [Accessed 18 Jan. 2021].
  8. Magid, T.D.A.F.A.L.L.A.A. (n.d.). A review of Sudan’s National Forestry Policy and Strategy: for developing IGAD Regional Forestry Policy and Strategy. Sudan’s National Forestry Policy and Strategy. [online] Available at: https://www.academia.edu/43196101/ [Accessed 20 Jan. 2021].
  9. Sciencing. (2018). Advantages and Disadvantages of Afforestation. [online] Available at: https://sciencing.com/advantages-disadvantages-afforestation-8524481.html.
  10. Farmers Weekly. (2012). What is sustainable agriculture? [online] Available at: https://www.fwi.co.uk/news/environment/what-is-sustainable-agriculture [Accessed 27 Jan. 2021].
  11. The Future is Forestry TACKLING CLIMATE CHANGE WITH TREES A CONFOR MANIFESTO. (n.d.). [online] Available at: https://www.confor.org.uk/media/247586/confor-election-manifesto-2019-for-web.pdf
  12. Dunne, D. (2018). Mapped: Where ‘afforestation’ is taking place around the world | Carbon Brief. [online] Carbon Brief. Available at: https://www.carbonbrief.org/mapped-where-afforestation-is-taking-place-around-the-world.
  13. Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com (2019). Scotland restores its peatlands to keep carbon in the ground | DW | 31.10.2019. [online] DW.COM. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/scotland-restores-its-peatlands-to-keep-carbon-in-the-ground/a-50915166 [Accessed 25 Jan. 2020].
  14. NatureScot. (n.d.). Restoring Scotland’s Peatlands. [online] Available at: https://www.nature.scot/professional-advice/land-and-sea-management/carbon-management/restoring-scotlands-peatlands.