Teamtrees - The challenges of reforesting the world (part 1)

in steemstem •  22 days ago 

Like most movements of progress, be it social justice, climate activism, political freedom, and others we've been seeing in droves lately, there tends to be a lot of backlash. No society conforms to a Borg-like collectivity needed for a unanimous agreement on anything. That's natural and, to be honest, healthy.

There are always problems with things that superficially seem altruistic. Is the teamtrees initiative another initiative riddled with problems beneath the surface are we wasting our time and money on false promises that we're actually making a difference like the cultural phenomenon of using less plastic straws? I'm going to try and figure it out.

Planting trees seems, on the surface, a perfect way to offset climate change, with each tree on average accumulating a football stadium's worth of carbon in its lifetime.

If you've been watching YouTube at all the last 24 hours, you might have noticed the largest single collaboration in its history, with a combined subscriber reach of about 750 million users. The goal is to plant 20 million trees by the end of this year, by donating $20 million to teamtrees.org. This means for each $1 donated, one tree gets planted.

Now, that might seem expensive for a pathetic seed or sapling, but planting trees is not as simple as throwing some seeds on the ground and waiting 20 years, as you can understand from the fantastic video from Smarter Every Day. If it was, hell, give me $500 and I'll plant 20 million as soon as my seed delivery arrives. and 20 million trees is barely a fraction of what we would actually need to offset the damage we've already done and the continuation of emissions we are estimated to put out, explained here in the video by Minute Earth.

However, the movement alone is far more substantial than zero trees planted, and I would argue the social movement alone is powerful enough to potentially get some action on the government level if done right, as well as generally raising international awareness.

But like many movements, it can also be done wrong

This is where Teamtrees comes in; they KNOW how to get this done right...at least as far as I know.

As a resident in China, what better place to look than right here to truly apppreciate the challenges teamtrees is facing? China has, after all, planted BILLIONS of trees over 40 years to try and offset devastating desertification.

One project, the 'Three-North Shelter Forest Program' has reportedly planted 66 billion trees since 1978 in its specific goal to fight back against the expanse of the Gobi Desert - a vast swath of arid land that is expanding at an astonishing 3,600 km2 every freaking year.


Christophe cagé, CC BY-SA 3.0

I remember when living in South Korea, there would be what was called Yellow Dust Seasons, a period each year where a particularly large blast of sand gets blown over to the Koreas and Japan and more, coating the skies with now-polluted sand that had, in bulk of 2,000 square kilometres of topsoil, floated over the thousands of Chinese factories before landing in my face in Seoul. It was a truly surreal experience, with the skies and air giving off a powerful yellow hue, the public remaining indoors, it was not unlike that scene from Bladerunner 2049:

Clearly, fighting desertification - caused largely by anthropogenic climate change from overgrazing to deforestation - is a noble cause.

But it has been a rough ride so far.

Quality, not quantity

Once upon a time, I wrote about one of the major problems that occurred in one of these initiatives in China. The project was dumping singular species of trees by the millions in giant walls against the desert, trees that were not native to that area, not evolved to suit that climate or soil, not drought resistant, and very thirsty.

In 2009, China reported planting 53,000 hectares of trees - a quarter of which perished and winter storms wreaked further damage. Even so, the epic efforts have created the largest artificial forest in the history of the planet - around 500,000 square kilometers increasing the total forest coverage in China by 18%! Overall, China has planted more trees than the rest of the world combined.

Great, right? Well... it's complicated. By simply focussing on the most economically viable species and methodology, you have yourself a system in place in which at least a quarter of your effort is wasted, and the other three quarters are in many ways causing more harm than good. As I said, these trees are thirsty, and when we're talking about billions, that's a LOT of water requirement.

This means that, Ironically, planting these trees is making things even worse. That's because the areas China has been planting were never actual forested areas, at least not in thousands of years according to Jiang Gaoming, a Chinese ecologist:

>Planting trees in arid and semi-arid land violates [ecological] principles

The climate and soil was never designed for trees, so why would they flourish now? In the case of the trees that ARE growing, well, they are being described as 'dwarf trees', unable to grow to their full extent and thus unable to protect the soil they were set out to help to begin with.

However, they are instead doing active damage in other ways. By planting the same trees, you naturally lose basically all biodiversity, leaving what is essentially a desert of trees, devoid of any birdsongs, insect chirps or anything else. More on that in part 2.

With a vast monoculture of dwarf trees consuming the drought-ridden landscape, problems only exacerbate (the blockquote function is messed up so I'll just do regular quotes):

'in Minqin, an area in north-western China, studies showed that groundwater levels have dropped by 12–19 metres since the advent of the project...Tens of thousands of people have left the area, and Minqin is expected to be swallowed by desert in the next decade.' Epoch Times

The above quote was published ten years ago, so I was curious to see if this prediction was accurate about this previously swamp-like zone. Google Maps doesn't have any historical satellite images to compare with, but here's a shot from 2016:



'Swallowed by desert' seems to be somewhat accurate, from what I can see. Hardly a green revolution. You can also find some eye-opening pictures from The Guardian from 2009 here

So like I said, the journey has been rough. However, there is more success than meets the eye in the front lines of the Gobi. By learning from these mistakes, there has been a marked improvement; according to climate2020.org.uk, by 2016, Minqin had actually restored 153,240 hectares of forest, an increase of about 6% since 2009! Lakes and rivers have also been restored and stabilized, and the two sides of the Gobi scissoring down on Minqin (see above) have been held at bay.

So how did they do it? What have we all learned from this bombastically gargantuan project over the decades? How do we address the problem of biodiversity, dead soil, money, anthropological climate change and more? Can we take these lessons and apply them internationally, and will this make a difference at all? Can the teamtree initiative live up to its promise against these challenges and make that $1 price tag per tree worth every penny?

Find out in part 2!

Sources:

Climate2020 | Epoch Times | Three North Shelter Forest Initiative Wiki | Nature | Assessing the Three-North Shelter Forest Program in China by a novel framework for characterizing vegetation changes | Gobi Desert Wiki | The Economist | Desert vegetation-habitat complexes mapping using Gaofen-1 WFV (wide
field of view) time series images in Minqin County, China
|

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That's a great video. Shared on Twitter. Didn't hang around for the cooking, though. I planted a tree this summer, quite a small sapling. We'll see....

Will you see, though?

The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.

I use an app to plant trees, which is gonna be a main topic in the follow up post to this today/tomorrow =)

I love my little tree. By the time it throws shade, I will certainly be long gone. Looking forward to your post, and to planting more trees, possibly with the help of your app.

Unfortunately, it's not international yet as far as I know =(

But maybe one-day similar projects will thrive in the west!

Good work

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