A February study using data provided by the NASA MODIS satellite found that the planet is greener than expected, and that the rise is attributed to an increase in vegetated areas in China and India, together responsible for one-third of the new green coverage.
The findings, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, discovered that there were some 5.5 million square kilometers of extra green land annually, compared to the early 2000s, a 5 percent increase. The majority of this extra greening is due to active human-led land management.
One must assume that this is good news, judging by the headlines, especially as temperature records are being broken on an annual basis. In October last year, climate scientists sent out an urgent warning that the world only has at most a dozen years to try to limit the rise in temperature to 1.5 C higher than pre-industrial levels.
The world is already 1 C warmer, and if urgent action is not taken beyond the targets that have so far been agreed to by nations, the rise could be as high as 3 C by the end of the century. It will require both lowering emissions and mitigation programs, such as tree planting and behavioral changes, to limit the temperature rise.
The study found that of the extra greening in China, forests and croplands contributed 42 percent and 32 percent, but in India, 82 percent of the extra greening came from croplands, and forests only contributed 4 percent.
It should perhaps be of no surprise that the world’s two most populous nations, China and India, have sought to increase the area under cultivation. The study notes that food production has increased by 35 percent in both countries since 2000 – both have increased their arable land through increased use of irrigation and fertilizers. However, China is also actively tree planting in order to halt land degradation and desertification and as a means to tackle air pollution and climate change.
But researchers are at pains to point out that the greening is far from enough to mitigate the damage from continued destruction of tropical forests in the Global South, and more areas under cultivation, while good for the people it feeds, isn’t necessarily good for the planet.
Increased use of groundwater resources for irrigation may lead to more drought in the future. Manufacturing fertilizers produces emissions. Certain crops, such as rice, also produce greenhouse gases. Many people know that cattle produce methane – a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more harmful than CO2, but few know that rice (a major staple in India and China) is a major source of methane – rice cultivation produces around 1.5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the 2013-2014 World Resources Report.
If trees or other foliage is cut down to make way for cropland, it may release carbon into the atmosphere.
But the planting of new trees is a success story. In 2000, the first year I lived in Beijing, there was a terrible sandstorm which engulfed the capital. It was a wake-up call – scientists were dispatched to the deserts to the north and west, where they found that human activity, including overgrazing and other agricultural activities, was causing rapid desertification. Something needed to be done.
But since 1978, China had been trying to tackle the problem with its Three-North Shelterbelt Forest Program – dubbed the Great Green Wall. The green wall is designed to stretch across the northern arid regions of the country – 66 billion trees have been planted, the National Geographic reported in 2017. The project is not due to end until 2050. However, scientists have expressed caution – in some cases, trees planted are not taken care of and die, and in others, the trees use more water, thus increasing the risk of desertification. But in other areas, the greening project is providing jobs for farmers and herders who can no longer work the land and has stabilized the local environment which in turn opens up areas for other sustainable means of earning a living. Many of these areas have become home to renewable energy plants.
Artificial forests in China now cover an area the size of France, according to China’s State forestry authorities. Other regions are trying to emulate this success. In the Sahel region of northern Africa, another Great Green Wall is sprouting up. On the southern edge of the Sahara, this new green wall will stretch for 8,000 kilometers across many nations, from Senegal in the west, to Djibouti in the east.
In India, while most of the greening observed in the report comes from agriculture, there are also ambitious afforestation plans. In July 2017, 1.5 million Indian volunteers smashed record by planting 66 million trees in only 12 hours. The nation has pledged to reforest 12 percent of its landmass as part of its commitments to the Paris Climate Deal. Not to be outdone, neighboring Pakistan, where forest cover has dropped to only 3 percent, has vowed to plant 150 million trees this spring, part of a five-year program called the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami launched by Prime Minister Imran Khan. Other nations, such as Australia, are mulling schemes that include using drones to scatter seeds to boost reforestation.
But trees alone will not solve the problems of climate change, although they can have strong local impacts. Planting more trees in some countries will not help the global situation if forests are being cut down in tropical areas for hardwood or palm oil plantations. But as the report notes, this increase in greening has resulted from human management, and while not all is intended to mitigate climate change or restore deforested land, this management can be extended and targeted more precisely.
If nations want to compete to see who can plant the most trees in a day or a month, in the end, it will surely only be of benefit to both local and global communities.