Climate and Energy

China and Brazil in forest restoration partnership

Forests an efficient means of capturing carbon but need national recognition, experts say

Forest restoration can be a vital tool in minimising global warming and its impacts in forthcoming decades and China and Brazil are working in partnership to develop the necessary expertise. Since the 1980s, China has been implementing the largest forest restoration program in the world in terms of land area. Meanwhile, Brazil has concentrated on projects which focus on areas of highly concentrated biodiversity, experts told Diálogo Chino.

“China and Brazil are at the forefront of research. Together they bring large scale know-how, and other countries can benefit from this,” said Aurélio Padovezi, manager of the water and forest program at the World Resources Institute (WRI).

According to Miguel Calmon of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), forest restoration is “one of the most efficient solutions for capturing carbon” and is “essential for helping cool the earth’s temperature”.

Calmon says the Paris climate change conference (COP21) helped to reveal how China and Brazil can help limit the warming of the planet as countries with vast areas of degraded land, the flipside of which is massive potential for forest recovery.

The world is going through a “great moment” of restoration which can be both an instrument to tackle climate vulnerability as well as preserving biodiversity, promoting water security, ensuring food supply and alleviating poverty, Calmon says.

But not all environmentalists are so optimistic. WRI’s Chip Barber says the Paris agreement only alludes to reforestation and forest regeneration using unspecific terms such as “increased forest carbon stocks” and this characterises the lack of attention to detail on forests in UN negotiations that has persisted since the 2010 Cancún summit.

“What matters most right now is that countries and communities value forest landscape restoration and include it in their national commitments,” Barber says, adding that the “broad” references to forests in the Paris text give countries too much room to manoeuvre.

Brazil-China cooperation

The IUCN, WRI and Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) began a China-Brazil exchange programme in 2014 in which a group of 15 Brazilian experts (with representatives of the government, the private sector, academia and NGOs) travelled to China to learn from the country’s four decades of experience in national restoration planning.

China has invested more than US$ 105 billion in restoring degraded areas since the 1980s, after China had begun to feel the effects of prolonged, intensive agriculture that caused soil erosion. Mass deforestation exacerbated the problem and the country experienced the world’s biggest loss of productive land.

According to China’s ministry of water resources, every year since the 1990s China has lost five billion tons of productive soil. The Yellow River, or Huang Ho, alone – the second longest in China and sixth largest in the world – already amassed 50 times more sediments than the Nile in Egypt, the longest on the planet, while big sand storms blasted northern cities.

In response to these environmental challenges, the country launched large-scale forest protection projects. It is estimated that woodland currently covers roughly 20% of China, a large part of which is due to the restored 76 million hectares through national programmes.

One of the largest projects was in the Loess Plateau, a mountainous, semi-arid region in the north of the country which has around 50 million inhabitants. Centuries of agriculture have not only generated one of the highest rates of soil erosion in the world, but also poverty, as the population has been struck by falling food production and contaminated water sources.

The Chinese government has managed to restore four million hectares of the Loess Plateau, preventing the erosion of an estimated 100 million tons of sediment. It has also minimized the risk of flooding and of sediment and sand storms, says Calmon.

“The big restoration programs in the world have always occurred because of crises,” says Calmon. “China had a socio-environmental crisis and saw the forests as a way of solving it,” he adds.

However, the quality of restoration has not been in keeping with the scale of these huge projects. “Some of the programs have failed to deliver as expected. Despite managing to achieve restoration in scale, China has been unsuccessful in terms of quality,” he explained.

This is where cooperation with Brazil can inform the Chinese experience. Whereas Brazil still needs to incorporate the pragmatism and action of the State-implemented public policies, the Chinese could make good use of the Brazilian expertise to improve forest restoration with increased biodiversity and environmental services.

“The exchange of knowledge is fundamental. We need to know more about economic feasibility. It was made clear in COP21 that there is massive room for development and technology in forest restoration,” Calmon points out.

After the first exchange of Brazilian experts, in September last year it was the turn of eight Chinese experts to disembark in Brazil. The delegation included representatives of the Beijing Forestry University and coordinators of the State Forestry Administration. Over the course of eight days they traveled around the states of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo.

“China and Brazil are facing similar problems: degradation, loss of biodiversity, water security and climatic vulnerability. There is a lot we can learn from each other,” Calmon says.

At COP21, China was expected to announce its commitments for the Bonn Challenge, a global initiative to restore 150 million hectares by 2020, but didn’t. To date signatories have committed to restoring 86 million hectares – 57% of the target – an area capable of capturing 4.77 gigatons of CO2 requiring mobilisation of around US$ 16 billion.