Afforestation is the planting of tree cover where no trees were before — effectively, growing a forest from scratch. The term sometimes also includes the more familiar reforestation, which involves restocking of areas that have been deforested, typically due to natural disasters or overharvesting.
A variety of countries, organizations and individuals around the world are heavily invested in afforestation. Part of the reason for this is because of the major roles trees play in carbon capture.
Researchers have estimated that if we can plant 0.9 hectares of forest, it would capture two-thirds of human-emitted carbon. Major tree-planting initiates, if successful, could significantly slow down climate change.
This where the biggest afforestation projects are happening in 2020 — plus some of the challenges facing these kinds of projects.
In 1978, China approved an ambitious plan to plant a wall of trees in the north of the country — the Three-North Shelter Forest Program. Since then, the program — sometimes referred to as the country’s “Green Great Wall” — has led to the planting of 2,800 miles of trees. It provides an invaluable carbon sink and helps slow the spread of desert into arable grassland and urban centers.
China also has other tree-planting initiatives, like one that encourages farmers to convert arable land to forest. These programs are part of the reason why China has the highest afforestation rate of any country in the world. According to data from Carbon Brief, the nation planted a little less than 79 million hectares of forest between 1990 and 2015.
There are some challenges to China’s approach, however. Many of the trees planted aren’t native to the desert and have put additional strain on water-insecure regions. In response, local authorities have shifted much of the tree-planting efforts to focus on native vegetation, like shrubs and herbs, which need less water.
Toward the south of Sudan, in the country’s White Nile state, there’s a tree nursery capable of producing 200,000 saplings every year. It’s a joint effort of Sudan’s national forestry body and the UN Refugee Agency. Workers at the nursery have already planted more than 1 million Acacia trees across 2,500 hectares of land.
In addition to restoring the local environment, the tree cover also provides valuable firewood for refugees — sparing them arduous treks to remote forest areas.
The nursery is part of a growing social forestry movement in Sudan, in which community-led programs plant trees to meet local needs — like the demand for wood fuel.
There are also a handful of afforestation projects that reach beyond borders, bringing together multiple nations to plant trees and expand forest cover.
One of the biggest is the Bonn Challenge. Under the program, which was launched in 2011, 56 different countries will work to plant more than 350 million hectares of forest by 2030.
The Challenge has already provided some major victories for the environment. Rwanda pledged to bring 2 million hectares of land under forestation by 2020 — a benchmark the country not only met, but exceeded by June.
Now, the Rwandan government has set even more ambitious goals for afforestation in the country — like a 10-year tree planting program that will focus on biodiversity and environmental stewardship.
How New Forest Cover Is Helping the World
Afforestation projects like these help to restore forest cover, provide resources for communities, prevent desertification and potentially slow down climate change. As temperatures rise and the need for carbon capture of all kinds becomes more important, these initiatives might accelerate.
There are significant challenges to afforestation projects — like strained water stores and potential disruption of nonforest ecosystems. However, successes like those in Rwanda, Sudan and China show how they can benefit communities while providing natural carbon storage.
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