In the summer of 1998, gigantic floods swept across five of China’s longest rivers and their distributaries, claiming more than 3,000 lives in a catastrophe that racked up at least 11.5 billion yuan (US$1.8 billion) in economic losses. China’s worst floods in a century set off alarms in Beijing, alerting then premier Zhu Rongji to the devastating effects of erosion and denudation of hillsides along major rivers, all caused by the clearing of forests to make way for arable and industrial land to feed the nation’s development. On August 18 of that year, before the last flood debris was cleared, Zhu announced a sweeping “grain for green” programme, which banned logging in the basins of the flood-prone Yangtze and Yellow rivers. He ordered trees to be planted on hillsides, as well as on barren or fallow cropland. Almost two decades and billions of trees later, the result is literally visible from space, unlike the Great Wall . China’s tree-planting frenzy has helped to expand the planet’s total tree canopy by an estimated 25 per cent, according to a study of satellite imagery by researchers at Boston University and Peking University, published in Nature Sustainability in 2019. Now, as the globe struggles to avoid the most destructive climate-change scenarios , China’s success in increasing the nation’s tree cover is becoming an important tool that could help stave off a crisis far more severe than regional flooding. Protection of forests and ecosystems should be prioritised alongside the transition to renewable energy, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters on April 4, as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report on climate mitigation options. China is arguably leading the way, having nurtured the world’s largest planted forests, said Chan Tak-yuen, a founder of the China Green Carbon Foundation. “China learned a painful lesson from the 1998 floods. Therefore, sustainable forestry development is actively being promoted and the results are gradually being seen.” Chan’s organisation is the first non-profit public charity devoted to combating climate change by using plants for carbon sequestration. In addition, Chan is an adviser to the CFGC Amital Green Fund, established last year as a venture between Hong Kong’s Euto Capital Partners and the state-owned China Forestry Group Corporation (CFGC). It supports companies that invest in sustainable and high-yielding afforestation, as well as the development of carbon sinks and related technology. China has planted 78 billion trees since 1981, according to state media. As a result, a green wave has expanded across the map. Forest coverage reached 23 per cent in 2020, up from 12 per cent in the 1980s, according to the National Forestry and Grassland Administration. China wants to boost forest coverage to 24.1 per cent by 2025, and increase the forest stock to 19 billion cubic metres by 2025, up from 17.56 billion cubic metres in 2020. China is “a very significant restoration story,” Bronson Griscom, senior director of natural climate solutions at US-based non-profit Conservation International, told the Post . “But there is certainly a lot more to be done.” The flood-control initiatives are just part of the effort. Afforestation programmes also carry high priority for China in the northern and western regions, where they aim to stem the advancement of the Gobi – merely 1,000 kilometres from Beijing – and other minor deserts. Sandstorms blowing in from the Gobi, the world’s fifth-largest sandy desert, are an annual nuisance that smothers the Chinese capital almost every spring, turning Beijing into a Mars-like landscape during the worst occurrences. The Green Great Wall project , launched in 1978 and slated to continue until 2050, aims to plant some 88 million acres of protective forests in a belt nearly 3,000 miles long and as wide as 900 miles in places. The government has added a handful of other major afforestation projects in recent years. It all adds up to what is easily the biggest tree-planting project in human history. How much difference do these efforts make for climate-change goals? Globally, nature-based decarbonisation has the potential to deliver one third of the emission reductions needed to meet 2030 climate goals, according to World Resource Institute. “Agriculture, forestry and other land use [Afolu] can provide large emission reductions, and remove and store carbon dioxide at scale,” Inger Andersen, executive director of United Nations Environment Programme, told reporters during the launch of the IPCC report. Under increasing pressure from investors and the public to reduce their carbon footprints, corporations increasingly view afforestation projects as wise investments, because they qualify for carbon credits that offset carbon emissions. “The fact that [mitigation] does have fairly large potentials to both reduce emissions and enhance removals quickly got attention from the business community, which has been keen to increase investments and saw it as a potential avenue for [carbon] offsets,” said Stephanie Roe, one of lead authors of the IPCC report. As a result, mitigation actions could equate to emission reductions of between 8 billion and 14 billion tonnes per year between 2020 and 2050, according to the report. That would make a significant dent in global emissions, which hit 32 billion tonnes in 2020, according to BP estimates. The above assumes that carbon credits would be priced near US$100 per tonne. If the price falls to US$20 per tonne, only 30 to 50 per cent of the reduction would be reaped, according to the IPCC. Despite all its promise, mitigation has so far delivered only 650 million tonnes of reductions per year between 2010 and 2019 – equivalent to 1.4 per cent of global emissions. What’s more, only around US$700 million has been spent on Afolu mitigation globally so far – far short of the over US$400 billion per year needed to deliver on the global climate goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, according to the IPCC. “A gradual redirection of existing agriculture and forestry subsidies would greatly advance mitigation,” it said, adding that governments currently spend much more than US$400 billion a year on subsidies to the agriculture and forestry industries. Chinese president Xi Jinping stressed the importance of tackling environmental degradation and climate change. In September 2020 , he set national goals of peak carbon emissions before 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. Last August, Xi visited the historic Saihanba Mechanical Forest Farm in Hebei province. Established in 1962, the so-called ‘green lung of Beijing’ is estimated to absorb 747,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and release 545,000 tonnes of oxygen every day. During the trip, Xi reiterated the importance of developing a “green economy and ecologically friendly civilisation”. In the southwestern provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi, and Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces in the northeast, rapid afforestation has seen forest area increase annually by between 40,000 and 440,000 hectares – one-third to four times the size of Hong Kong – over the past decade. What are the various activitie that can generate carbon credits? (Jan-Aug, 2021) Volume Average price (million tonnes) (US$ / tonne) Forestry and land use 115 4.73 Renewable energy 80 1.1 Energy efficiency / Fuel switching 16.1 1.57 Agriculture 3.4 1.36 Waste disposal 2.7 3.93 Transportation 2.1 1 Household devices 1.8 5.75 Chemical processes / Manufacturing 1.1 3.22 Source: Source: Ecosystem Marketplace State financiers are backing such efforts. China Development Bank said last month it has issued some 114 billion yuan (US$17.7 billion) of loans over the past five years to support the planting and maintenance of about 4 million hectares of forests. By the time China achieves its carbon peak in 2030, these forests are expected to absorb 72 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, it said. However, this represents less than 1 per cent of China’s annual carbon-dioxide emissions, which totalled almost 10 billion tonnes in 2020, according to BP’s tally. Complicating the picture, Afolu activity is a big source of emissions as well as a source of potential offsets. The category also encompasses deforestation and substantial methane emissions from livestock and rice farming. Overall, Afolu contributed 22 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions in 2019. This puts it below only energy production (33 per cent) and industry (24 per cent), and above transport (15 per cent), according to the IPCC report. In addition, afforestation – especially on natural grasslands – can cause additional problems when not done right, said Roe, the IPCC report author, who also serves as global climate and energy lead specialist with global conservation organisation WWF. “Putting trees in ecosystems where they don’t belong originally has proven problematic in various types of projects,” she told the Post . “In some projects, that has affected the water table as the trees have taken too much water and had to be deforested.” Moreover, even as it increased its forested area, China also imported more timber, offsetting the environmental benefits. In addition to being the world’s largest timber importer and exporter of wood products, China is also one of the largest importers of illegal timber and deforestation-linked commodities, said the Environmental Investigation Agency of Washington DC, in a November report. Without strengthening mitigation measures, the world is headed for 3.2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100, which will have catastrophic impacts on humans and the Earth’s ecosystems, according to the IPCC. So far warming has already reached 1.1 degrees. “The science is clear, to keep the 1.5 degrees global warming limit of the Paris Agreement within reach, we need to cut global emissions by 45 per cent this decade,” The UN’s Guterres said. “Current climate pledges would mean a 14 per cent increase in emissions.” “But it does not have to be this way, [there are] viable and financially sound options in every sector that can keep the possibility of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees alive.” New trees are just one instrument in the mitigation toolbox. Looking at the total of 8 billion to 14 billion tonnes of annual carbon-capture the IPCC says mitigation measures are capable of providing, the bulk – between 4.2 billion and 7.4 billion tonnes per year – comes from the conservation, restoration and better management of forests, wetlands and grasslands. This is followed by more sustainable crop and livestock management, soil carbon storage and agroforestry (planting of trees in agricultural land), which can contribute 1.8 billion to 4.1 billion tonnes a year of reduction.