Gansu Province, China

As China's development expands, tree plantations in the right places and managed in the right way can bring ecological and social benefits.

In May, President Xi Jinping welcomed world leaders to China for a summit on the One Belt, One Road initiative. Inspired by the fabled Silk Roads, One Belt, One Road aims to create new networks linking China with the rest of the world by land and sea, by air and online. In what is perhaps the most ambitious development programme ever seen, China will invest hundreds of billions of dollars into new infrastructure along these ancient trading routes – from roads and railways stretching from South East Asia to Europe, to ports linking the South China Sea with East Africa and the Middle East, to new energy infrastructure across Central Asia.

In the week before the summit, my own organization, the China Green Carbon Foundation (CGCF), also welcomed a group of international and Chinese visitors as part of a study tour for New Generation Plantations (NGP), a learning platform to share experiences about better plantation management and influence others to follow good examples.

One of the aims of the study tour was to look at how the NGP concept can contribute to President Xi’s vision of a green and sustainable One Belt, One Road. Along with investment in new infrastructure, we must also invest in the underlying “ecological infrastructure” – the forests, wetlands, grasslands, soils and other natural assets along the route.

The One Belt, One  Road initiative will pass through fragile environments, including many arid and semi-arid areas suffering from degradation and desertification, threats that are intensified by climate change. We need to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change, restore natural landscapes, and support local people in these regions to build sustainable, resilient livelihoods.

The Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt Programme – informally known as the Great Green Wall – in Gansu is the biggest afforestation project the world has ever seen. 

In China, we are demonstrating that tree plantations, located in the right places and managed in the right way, have an important role to play. The NGP concept promotes tree plantations that maintain and enhance ecosystem integrity and areas of high conservation value – for example by conserving and restoring natural areas that provide important ecosystem services. It also highlights the importance of stakeholder involvement and ensuring that local people benefit from the economic development that plantations can support.

The study tour explored how the State Forestry Administration (SFA), CGCF and Chinese entrepreneurs are putting these principles into practice in Gansu province. Located in northern China, in a strategic position on the ancient and modern Silk Roads, Gansu suffers from hot, dry summers, cold winters and the threat of desertification and dust storms, as well as rural poverty.

For the last four decades, the government of China has been planting trees in Gansu and other northern provinces to combat the spread of the Gobi Desert. The Three Norths Forest Shelterbelt Programme – informally known as the Great Green Wall – is the biggest afforestation project the world has ever seen. By 2050, the shelterbelt will be 4,500 km long and cover an area of 350,000 square km.

These trees act as a windbreaker against dust storms and help to stabilize soils. Their roots bind the soil together, while falling leaves and twigs add organic matter, helping to retain moisture and nutrients. They also help to combat climate change by capturing carbon. In Gansu, desertification has been reversed and vegetation cover is increasing.

More recently, attention has turned to growing trees that can also provide products as well as an economic return for farmers. These include local species such as yellowhorn and oil peony. Both these trees produce oily seeds which can be used in cooking, as a biofuel, or in the cosmetics industry. Their leaves and flowers can also be used in traditional and modern medicine. SFA aims to support the planting of more than 900,000 hectares of yellowhorn trees across the north of China by 2020.

All in all, there is great potential for plantations established according to NGP principles to bring major ecological, social and economic benefits along the new Silk Roads. The developments seen in Gansu can be replicated elsewhere in China, and in other countries. But for this to happen at scale it will be necessary to mobilize the necessary funding.

The CGCF provides one example of how this can be done. We are a non-profit organization affiliated with the SFA, and we raise funds from businesses, citizens and organizations that want to voluntarily offset their carbon emissions, and channel them into forestry projects that generate carbon credits. Donations by the end of 2016 had reached around US$100 million, enabling us to support forestry projects covering around 80,000 hectares.

International climate finance offers the opportunity to replicate successful models on a much larger scale. So too do funding opportunities around the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include a target to "combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world".

In addition, we are discussing setting up a public welfare "Green Belt special fund" under CGCF, encouraging donations from business and the public to support ecological construction in the One Belt, One Road area. We will also work through NGP to explore possible mechanisms such as "Green Belt Road Bonds" that can encourage investors to support green development.

One Belt, One Road is a visionary plan that will reshape the world over the coming decades. Let us work together to ensure it brings a more sustainable, resilient and prosperous future for all.