Credit: chensiyuan (CC 2.0)
Alright it's good news Monday, time to share something good that's going on in the world! or at least I think it's good. When it comes to China, there's always a chance that what looks pretty on the surface is often hiding something mildly nefarious. I've lived in China for close to eight years, and while I could certainly write about some of the more negative things here, doing so often leaves me looking frail and hateful, usually perched on a log in a stream under a bridge eating a raw fish and lamenting the loss of my precious.
So for today, let's focus on something a bit good - the Ant Forest initiative. Ant Financial is one of those companies that one might expect to find on the top few floors of a skyscraper with a giant stylized 'A' on top poking into ominous dark clouds as a silhouette can be seen standing in the top window, hands behind his back, cackling as a scheme falls into place. They are affiliated with the obscenely wealthy Alibaba - a company that exports parts from China to the rest of the world. But most importantly, they created my favourite app in the world - Alipay.
Alipay, along with competitor WeChat Pay, are leading mobile payments worldwide. Imagine ApplePay on 'roids. The app not only seamlessly allows mobile payments, linked directly to your bank account, it also facilitates numerous services, from paying for utilities and phone top-ups, to movie tickets, flight/train tickets and online shopping. Sure it's directly linked to the foreboding and dystopian social credit system, but let's just quietly sweep that away for a moment under this conveniently placed virtual rug.
But the real reason I'm banging on about this app, is because it also has the badass Ant Forest service. This environmentalist's wet dream links up your pedometer, and allows you to grow a virtual tree. The tree can be 'watered' with green activities such as walking, taking public transport, shared bicycles etc. The Alipay integration into everyday life allows it to track said green activities, and it even lets you water your tree a little when you make an online payment (saves printing a receipt i guess?) But best of all, you can steal energy from your friends! If those dumbasses go for a long walk but forget to feed their tree, you can straight up rob that energy for yourself. Here's a pic from me stealing from my oblivious girlfriend.
The real magic happens when your tree is fully grown, because for each virtual tree grown, the company will plant a real tree. You can even choose the kind of tree you want, certain trees cost more points, and there are a number of environmental projects to choose from, these projects can be viewed from constantly updated drone images (powered by solar in a project interesting enough to warrant its own article) showing your tree as it grows in real time from very far away. Users have also been taken to view the sites, as if to prove that they actually exist.
My tree's a grower not a shower
As of March 2018, over 300 million Alipay users were active in Ant Forest, and the project has been so well-received worldwide that it's even listed in Forbes' Change the World list.
Ant Financial recently announced that by the end of this year, they will have invested 500 million RMB (75 million USD) in planting over 500 million trees. And it's not just forest areas. Saxual trees, also known by their less sexy name - haloxylon ammodendron, are being planted in the Alxa League area of Inner Mongolia. These trees may look like shit, but they play an important role in combating desertification.
Credit: He-ba-mue (CC 2.0)
This initiative comes off the back of a far grander project in China spanning as far back as 1999 - before becoming green was cool. After decades of stripping the landscape down to dust, and razing farmlands to the ground in place of steelworks at the behest of Mao Zedong's rule, the sentiment across the country was leaning increasingly towards fixing past mistakes. In 1998, the last straw on the camel's back struck with force when a catastrotic flood of the Yangtze river took over 4,000 lives and over $35 billion of damage (but thankfully no camel deaths)
As many parts of the world are learning, a strong preventative measure against flooding is forestry, which can easily soak up and redirect water as well as prevent soil erosion as roots anchor down soil in its place.
In China, half the tree coverage along the Yangtze river has been removed and surrounding depositary lakes have been filled in. With efforts to pile up mounds, or levees, along the river to block floods, humans are actively reducing the river's discharge capacity, allowing floods to exacerbate. According to one study,large parts of the Yangtze can only handle a discharge of 60,000m3/s - enough for regular floods, but larger floods such as the ones in 1931 and 1954 reached over 100,000m3/s, and the 1998 flood reached 13 metres higher than the river levees. Probably best to file this under the same rug as before to be honest. This article is China positive Damnit!
The potential disasters were already known from around the early 90's, but the 1998 flood forced action to go into overdrive with the philosophy of 'giving the flood away' rather than 'keeping the flood away'. Reforestation was the best, and perhaps only way to accomplish this.
Grain for Green
This nationwide program was set up to reclaim the forests that had been insofar reduced to a mere 17% coverage of the country - global coverage is 30% and decreasing) Between 1999 and 2004 there was notable success. Tree coverage increased to 19% by 2000, and today that number has reached 22%.
Early mishaps and oversights caused a plethora of issues that likely did more harm than good. In mass-producing trees, the program only focused on flood mitigation but lacked the insight to see the damage done to biodiversity. In fact, having one tree dominate the entire landscape caused what was coined as 'Green deserts'. Birds and bees were almost entirely absent, and researchers found that the farmland the forests were replacing were actually more of a biodiversity haven. As recently as 2012, biodiversity had decreased by 3.1%.
It was noted areas planting 2-5 different tree species saw a slight increase in bird populations, but bees were getting fucked from reforestation regardless. As China is likely aware from their panda breeding program, animals are not wont to adapt to whatever environment humans hand to them, but instead have very specific needs when it comes to nesting, hunting, breeding and feeding.
This results in an increasing problem for already endangered species, with 738 out of 1,085 threatened plants and animals experiencing a decline in environmental quality in 2015.
In a rare case of a governmental body actually admitting they got something wrong, The State Forestry Administration said that these monocultures were a result of a lack of experience and foresight, and they have since began work on more mixed forests, so it will be some time before we see a reversal in results of biodiversity - but we have already seen some change.
In June this year, a significant return of wildlife, including threatened and critically endangered species was reported. 266 species including foxes, ocelots, golden pheasants, deer, boar and even leopards.
Results in other areas have been positive too. Soil erosion has seen its ranking decrease from 'extreme' to 'bad' or 'moderate' in some areas, and according to one meta-analysis, levels of soil organic carbon has increased as much as 48% - far greater than you would get with shrubbery or cropland.
Despite working on the largest reforestation the world has ever seen for a solid 20 years, China is hardly slowing down. in 2014, the CCP intiated its 'War on Pollution', and in January of this year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced new goals to cover an area the size of Ireland in 2018 alone. By 2035, they expect forests to cover 26% of China - much closer global levels. To do this, 60,000 soldiers have been recruited to help tackle this grand ambition.
Well that's all my positivity for this week used up. Join me on Friday when I'll be bitching about how terrible humans are and how forests are dumb anyway.
Screen shots from Alipay app, used under fair use regulations