Two millennia ago, a major Chinese river underwent a profound environmental transformation. For thousands of years, the clear waters of the river system that nurtured the earliest seeds of Chinese civilization punctuated vast expanses of northern China. But the translucence of the water soon disappeared. By the fall of the western Han dynasty, China’s once crystalline river had become muddied with silt, and the waterway’s modern-day name emerged: the Yellow River.

The transformation of the Yellow River was the product of a rapidly expanding empire’s deforestation campaign that replaced rich forests with fragile desert. Exposed sediments uncovered in this process saturated the currents, giving the river its characteristic discoloration.

Two thousand years later, the siltation of the Yellow River remains one of the most prominent examples of environmental degradation in Chinese history.  The alarming encroachment of desert topography has characterized China’s ecological landscape ever since. This encroachment mirrors a global pattern of desertification and deforestation with significant environmental consequences. Today, over 30 million acres of land are lost every year to desertification across the globe, an area over eight times the size of Connecticut. More than 1.5 billion people directly rely on land vulnerable to degradation, and as the climate crisis intensifies, the impacts of this transition to desert land will become more pronounced. Any comprehensive climate defense strategy must feature a plan to combat desertification. And interestingly, China has emerged as a global leader in rehabilitating the planet’s dwindling forest supply.

In 1978, the Chinese government authorized the creation of the “Great Green Wall,” otherwise known as the Three-North Shelterbelt Forest Program. The initiative outlined a plan to reforest China’s expanding desert frontier over half a century, representing a sweeping attempt to reverse the nation’s spiraling trajectory toward unrelenting environmental disarray.

To date, the initiative has resulted in the planting of over 66 billion trees. Some experts consider the project to be a great success, a shining example of forest reclamation. But the program remains mired in controversy, spurring debates about the extent to which the benefits of afforestation projects outweigh the ecological costs. Are all afforestation projects environmentally beneficial? And to what extent should governments prioritize the planting of trees over other climate policy goals?

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Understanding the context and implications of China’s “Great Green Wall” requires a step back into China’s recent past. The latter half of the 20th century witnessed profound changes to the sociopolitical configuration of Chinese society, changes that encompassed nearly every element of China’s political structure. In the wake of the Chinese Revolution, the rise of the Communist Party of China (CPC) portended a period of intense industrialization and collectivization, both of which contributed to a sea of short-term environmental crises.

Deforestation soared under the Communist reign of Mao Zedong. A series of industrial reforms known as the “Great Cuttings” sought to enhance China’s lumber production to fuel a rapidly socializing economy, but the reforms translated into the loss of nearly a quarter of forest land cover across the country between 1966-1976. The decentralized iron-smelting operations of the Great Leap Forward ravaged forests, and the expansion of deserts during this period worsened the impacts of the famines and food insecurity already so acute during the CCP’s reign.

As China recoiled from the devastation wrought by Mao’s policies, a series of economic reforms in 1978 enhanced economic freedom and catalyzed modernization following the failures of agricultural nationalization. Under the rule of Deng Xiaoping, China reversed course not only on economic and political issues but also on environmental policy. 

The establishment of the Three-North Shelterbelt Forest Program was the most visible manifestation of this newfound ambition to address the intensifying climate crisis. Between 2000 and 2010, China managed to increase its forest cover by 11,500 square miles, an area roughly the size of Massachusetts. Over the next three decades until the year 2050, afforestation efforts are projected to increase forest cover from five percent of the country to fifteen percent.

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Desertification is a pervasive problem in China. “The main problem [China faces] is an oversized population living in the drylands that surpasses the ecological carrying and restoring capacity of this area,” said Feng Wang, an associate professor at the Institute of Desertification Studies at the Chinese Academy of Forestry. Feng studies plant behavior and ecohydrology, and his research focuses on creating vegetation models to estimate forest carbon storage. His passion for his work becomes clear as he delves into the relationship between deforestation and desertification impacts. Desertification often results in fierce sandstorms that destroy crops and compromise infrastructure, leaving citizens living on the margins of desert land vulnerable to unpredictable crop failure and instability.

In theory, a project like the Great Green Wall should reduce this instability. If an initiative succeeds at restoring forest cover and sequestering carbon through the strategic planting of trees, it should quell the threat of desertification. 

But afforestation is not as simple as planting as many trees as possible. And unfortunately, the Great Green Wall’s lack of sophistication could render the entire project fruitless.

Much of the terrain encompassed by the Great Green Wall consists of natural grassland where forests do not naturally grow. Planting trees where they do not belong can often exacerbate existing challenges of aridity. “They’re [the Chinese government] going beyond the shelterbelt idea. They’re trying to think they can go into grassland and somehow contain the desert by growing trees in places where trees don’t grow,” explained Robert Mendelsohn, the Edwin Weyerhaeuser Davis Professor of Forest Policy at the Yale School of the Environment, in an interview with The Politic. Reinforcing this point, Mendelsohn gestured to two maps he had sent in earlier email correspondence: a brightly colored map of China’s topographic variation and an illustration of the expansion of the Great Green Wall into desert. The visual aid highlights the juxtaposition: the new forest is directly overlaid on the topographic regions labeled as desert. Rather than strategically reforest regions amenable to regrowth, the Great Green Wall attempts to force the generation of forests in environments inhospitable to their survival.

Other aspects of the afforestation project have also been called into question. The conservation of already precious water resources in arid regions is a prime concern. Some forest scientists believe the trade-off between the amount of water required to maintain the forests and their environmental payoff is not worth the price. “The question is whether the groundwater in these grassland areas could be put to better use than to grow a row of trees,” continued Mendelsohn. “It’s just not obvious that this is a smart thing to do.”

Another eminent concern is the biodiversity of tree species used to fortify the desert boundary. The Great Green Wall practices the agricultural technique of monoculture planting, or the usage of one species of tree to reforest a degraded territory. A lack of biodiversity can leave an entire forest vulnerable to a single disease, pest, or weather event. Moreover, the monocultural species selected are often not native to the ecological region, introducing a sensitivity to local conditions that might not exist if native species were selected.

Jianchu Xu, a scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre and a professor at the Kunming Institute of Botany, outlined the problems associated with monoculture. This approach to planting provides “little diversity,” according to Xu, leaving “almost no habitat for the country’s many threatened forest species.” Monoculture results in less leaf litter and organic debris than native forests, reducing the range of flora and fauna supported by trees. Xu acknowledges that afforestation projects can offer windbreaks and carbon storage, but these benefits “come at a high cost to other ecological functions.” 

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How can afforestation projects optimize environmental conservation? The artificial creation of non-natural forests is unlikely to constitute part of the solution. 

According to Mendelsohn, attempting to plant trees in regions of natural grassland is a “waste of resources.” A smaller-scale project currently underway in Southwest China, overseen jointly by  Conservation International and China’s Center for Nature and Society, has attempted to fuse a more diverse medley of plant species ranging from coniferous and broadleaf forests to grasslands and bamboo groves. Through the planting of native species, the project has restored more than 12,000 acres of forest. Other governments in the early stages of reforestation projects might look to this example for a more holistic approach to reforesting a landscape. It seems that the keys to success are to use native species, strategically select environments more receptive to forest ecology, and prioritize water resources in arid regions.

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The Chinese government’s failure to make the Great Green Wall truly sustainable presents a puzzle. Why doesn’t the CCP seem interested in taking this project more seriously? Is Chinese tree-planting a genuine attempt at ecological sustainability or just a way to camouflage more pervasive environmental devastation? 

The answer may lie in a closer examination of China’s shifting role on the global stage. In 2013, China adopted the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an infrastructure development strategy outlining a plan to invest in over seventy countries and international organizations. Since the inception of the BRI, China has taken on an active role in economic projects across the globe, often inadequately addressing the environmental fallout of its involvement. In Peshawar, Pakistan, China has invested in the construction of a bus rapid transit system aimed to reduce pollution and resource waste. But in a particularly glaring demonstration of China’s environmental hypocrisy, the project required local agencies to cut down thousands of ancient trees and new saplings. Interestingly, the projected end date for the Belt and Road initiative coincides with the optimistic completion of the Great Green Wall –– approximately 2050. The question emerges: has the Great Green Wall always been an illusion?

China is the fastest-growing economy in the world. Annual GDP growth has averaged almost ten percent a year since 1978, the year Deng Xiaoping paved the way for China’s modernization and work on the Great Green Wall began. Today, the repercussions of this economic development manifest in China’s frontrunner status on the global leaderboard of greenhouse gas emissions. 

China has made grand promises to scale back on carbon emissions. At COP26, the U.N.’s climate change conference held in Scotland this November, Chinese leader Xi Jinping urged the world to “accelerate the green transformation.” But the Great Green Wall illustrates that China is a land of climate contradictions. Glimmering promises obscure an undercurrent of continued climate apathy hidden beneath the surface. The rapid growth of ecologically-barren forests conceals the remains of trees felled in Pakistan two thousand miles to the west.

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The failures and limited successes of China’s Great Green Wall illustrate the importance of nuanced forest planning for climate recovery. While the dramatic scope of China’s afforestation initiative might be compelling, targeted projects that account for the natural environment of the region are far more desirable. Forcing a desert or grassland climate to become a woodland ecosystem ultimately does the planet more harm than good.

It is not too late to restore the forest damage wrought by centuries of land misuse. However, the solution will have to rectify the shortcomings of the existing framework of forest policy. It is not too late to restore the forest damage wrought by centuries of land misuse, but the solution will have to rectify the shortcomings of the existing framework of forest policy. As China’s economy exponentially grows, the winding silt-ridden Yellow River continues to be a  reminder of the fragile relationship between human inhabitants and their surroundings.

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