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Industrialised China has faced pollution problems for several years. A wide variety of documentaries on the country’s pollution can be easily found online, and pretty much everyone has seen the shocking images of Beijing or other cities covered in smog. Nevertheless, things seem to be changing. How does China tackle pollution?

About air pollution

In 2009, the US started measuring certain pollutants at their Embassy in Beijing, confirming the threatening results. Information was put online and quickly expanded. Now, you can just go on google and find within seconds a real-time air quality index of the country.

The sources of pollution in Beijing are many and varied: expanding provision of energy at the lowest possible cost, increases in transportation infrastructure and agricultural emissions. All of them in a country that has experienced great growth and industrialisation. Because of their critical situation, the government has seen the need take action to improve the quality of its air. Until now, initiatives seem to be working.

China expects to increase its landmass forest coverage to 23% by 2020 to fight pollution and “make the cities greener”. To achieve this objective, in February 2018, the country reassigned over 60,000 soldiers to plant trees. The reassigned should have covered an area of 84,000 km2 (roughly the size of Ireland) by the end 2018. The majority of them are working in the Hebei Province, heavily polluted and often blamed for producing the smog that covers Beijing and Northern China.

China’s total forested area is now around 208 million hectares, with 33.8 million hectares having been added in the past 5 years. Together with the implementation of cleaner technologies (now greater than ever before), predictions of future outlook are optimistic.

 

About soil pollution

Unfortunately, China faces another important environmental problem – desertification. According to Greenpeace, only 2% of China’s original forests are intact. After decades of overgrazing and exploiting the land in the country, over 25% of the territory is now covered in sand. With the 5th largest desert in the world (Gobi Desert, 1.300.000 km2) expanding at an alarming rate, the country has therefore had to define some measures.

 

China has been the world’s first country to integrate a law dedicated to combating desertification (“Law of Prevention and Control of Desertification”). This law hosts projects aimed at rehabilitating land of all kinds, from the Three-North Shelterbelt “Green Wall” Programme to local tree planting initiatives.

The Three-North Shelter Forest Program, also known as the Great Green Wall, is a series of human-planted windbreaking forest strips in northern China, designed to hold back the expansion of the Gobi Desert. It is planned to be completed around 2050, and will be 4,500 kilometres long. The programme is by far the world’s largest tree-planting project, but it has faced some criticism.

Several researchers have argued that the plan is destined for failure because of China’s aggressive rush to plant trees. Also, another point of criticism argues that it isn’t clear how sustainable the trees in the Green Wall can be, in terms of the mortality rate of the planted trees and how these affect grass, shrubs or land. In fact, Beijing Forestry University estimates that that only 15% of trees that were planted on China’s drylands since 1949 are still surviving, with most of them dying from age.

However, there is still hope. Recently, researchers developed a clay made of a substance found naturally in plant cell walls. When this is added to sand, it is able to retain water, nutrients and air, therefore allowing the trees to grow in the desert. With this discovery, and choosing the right type of trees able for these climate, the country hopes to reforest 50% of degraded desert land. In fact, the forest coverage rate has increased from14.82% in 1998 to 21.5% this year. Researchers have stated: “the costs of artificial materials and machines for transforming sand into soil is lower compared with the benefit of having a controlled environmental agriculture and reclamation”

In any case, major policy interventions and management approaches are needed to prevent and reverse desertification. Such interventions should be implemented at both local and global scales, with the active engagement of stakeholders and local communities, and undoubtedly, improved information generation and technology advancements will help to recover the lands.

On 2010, Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations on the occasion of the stated:

“When we protect and restore drylands, we advance on many fronts at once: we strengthen food security, we address climate change, we help the poor gain control over their destiny, and we accelerate progress towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.”

Investing in cleaner technologies and reforestation plans has a cost, but so does the healthcare and reduced productivity that pollution induces. Cleaner investments should be viewed as part of the engine of economic development, rather than the brake. Although measurement data is sometimes not that clear, it is reasonable to assume that China is now past its “peak pollution”. Things are getting better.