China’s latest very public campaign to ‘green’ China is all very well and good on paper and getting lots of great international media coverage but is it actually doing more harm than good, asks Tom Pattinson
Driving through Beijing’s northern suburbs last week I saw the government’s latest green policy in action. Trucks, their flatbeds piled high with motionless trees, were winding up wide roads searching out suitable dumping grounds. These young saps were being unloaded on the roadside, their roots bundled in rope and their trunks covered in gauze to keep away the dust and sand from the encroaching desert.
Behind them their destiny could be seen; trees of all colours, shapes and sizes were being planted to create brand new fields of woodland. Each sapling was planted equidistant to those around it, a scene stretching off as far as the eye could see in a manner reminiscent of a military graveyard. Of course, the soldiers working in these fields were not planting headstones but were instead planting hundreds of thousands of saplings that will go on to clean the air and reduce pollution, in neat organised rows, all as part of a new ‘Green Great Wall.’
China has announced ambitious plans to plant 32,400 square miles of trees by the end of the year and has garnered positive headlines admiring its reassignment of 60,000 soldiers to plant them. With plans to increase the country’s forest cover from 21 percent of total landmass to 23 percent by 2020 these ambitions are certainly to be admired.
However, looking out across these tree fields in the arid Beijing desert reminded me of the story of how, during China’s Great Famine of 1959-1961, healthy crops were planted along Chairman Mao’s railway route to give him the impression that the country’s harvest was bountiful when, in truth, it was disastrous.
Rushed campaigns that look like they are making an environmental Great Leap Forward might well end up causing more harm than good
Will China’s great greening actually bring long term benefits or is it a way of getting positive headlines and giving the impression that something is being done to tackle China’s pollution problem?
One education company I spoke to said it was encouraged to take part in the greening, and that the children it worked with had spent last spring planting hundreds of trees in Beijing’s suburbs. Fast forward a year and, so I was told, all those trees that had been planted had died.
“With the Great Green Wall, people are planting lots of trees in big ceremonies to stem desertification, but then later no one takes care of them, and they die,” Jennifer L. Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson Center, said in a recent edition of National Geographic.
For the programme, many healthy trees are taken from their natural habitat in other parts of China and moved to the semi-arid areas around Beijing, where pollution is worse but the environmental conditions make it hard for trees to survive. These manmade forests also suck up valuable water, lowering the already perilously low water table and forcing land to be irrigated. The planting of trees on land that is naturally home to shrubs and grassland actually adds to the desertification.
Negative effects can also be seen in the findings of a recent study which said that the manmade forests around Beijing can actually lead to an increase in pollution by as much as 15 percent as the trees slow down the winds that would otherwise blow away the pollution in the Beijing basin.
The premise is an excellent one, trees do remove ozone, nitric oxides, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and filter out PM2.5 pollutants. However, rushed campaigns that look like they are making an environmental Great Leap Forward might well end up causing more harm than good. We only have to look at recent history to learn that mass campaigns don’t necessarily produce the intended results.
The views represented in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the China-Britain Business Council.