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Seeds of hope

By ERIK SOLHEIM | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-03-21 08:06
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China is helping to put the world on a path to halt and reverse the loss of forests

If we compare our planet to a human body, forests are the lungs. They help keep our climate stable and provide 40 percent of the planet's oxygen. They regulate our water system, increase rainfall and enhance human health. Over 2 billion people rely on forests for shelter, water, food, medicine, jobs and fuel. Forests are home to more than half of all species found on land and a crucial ally in the fight against climate change.

I had an exciting visit to Bracell in Brazil last month. It is the largest and greenest pulp mill in the world. Built in a record-breaking two years, Bracell mill in Lençóis Paulista produces 3 million metric tons of pulp a year and creates about 6,000 jobs for Brazilian people, adding many more in supporting businesses including hotels, restaurants and shops, providing education and social programs to the local communities. The project is funded by Chinese banks and its pulp will primarily supply the Chinese market with paper and tissues.

I took a walk around the complex and discovered no smell or pollution. The operations are purely fueled by renewable energy, with the surplus feeding the grid. It follows the one-for-one principle of the Indonesian mother company RGE, conserving or restoring one hectare of virgin nature and animal-rich forest in Brazil for every hectare of production plantation.

I saw the future of industry: a triple-win formula for the people, the economy and the ecology. Bracell shows that we can develop fast, bring people out of poverty, while protecting forests and being kind to nature. It also shows that protecting forests demands global cooperation, across continents, from Brazil to China and Indonesia. Brazil is home to the world's most important forest, the rainforest of the Amazon. Newly elected President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is firmly dedicated to stopping deforestation. Bracell shows that Brazil can protect forests while growing the economy.

China, with its prominent role in a vast variety of supply chains and its massive Belt and Road investment projects, is in a unique position to help put the world on a path to halt and reverse the loss of forests.

China has a good story to tell about forests: Forests covered 8.6 percent of China's land area when the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. Fast-forward to the present, China's forest coverage rate has almost tripled. It is planting forests the size of Belgium annually in a five-year effort to regreen the country. Human activity in China and India dominates the greening of Planet Earth, a 2019 NASA study showed. Ambitious tree-planting programs in the two countries are making the world a greener place. When ancient civilizations wake up, they go full blast.

China is playing a major role on the international stage, too. In December 2022, Huang Runqiu, China's minister of ecology and environment, announced the historic Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which can halt and reverse biodiversity loss and put nature on a path to recovery, setting out goals and targets including ensuring forests are managed sustainably.

What happened in these past decades in China? Generation after generation, strenuous, smart efforts were put into the forestation process. The reforestation of Saihanba is one of the numerous stories that have made history.

Bordering the Mongolian desert, Saihanba was once a royal hunting ground for the imperial household, but years of tree felling brought an end to this royal paradise and it became a wasteland in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In the 1960s, China decided to turn the desert back into a green paradise. Hundreds of foresters were sent to this desolate place. They endured long cold winters, severe droughts and sandstorms. The toil lasted over 50 years, spanning three generations, but it ultimately paid off. In 2017, I visited Saihanba with Li Ganjie, then minister of environment. We saw a vast green land right in front of our eyes. Saihanba now stands as a great green wall against the southward advances of the Hunshandake desert.

Urban forests are taking shape in China's cities, too. Take a walk around Shenzhen, Chongqing, Kunming, or the eco-city of Xiong'an. Everywhere you go, you see city landscapes covered with trees. We don't need the theories of evolutional psychology or biophilia to understand that being close to nature makes us healthier and happier. We instinctively feel the enjoyment, because it's in our DNA. According to the Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki's research, urban forests perform multiple services to human society: they beautify the land, improve the air quality, reduce the noise level, regulate the temperature and protect the soil. They also decrease the risk of flooding, provide habitat for biodiversity and store carbon dioxide.

Trees have even played a role in forging Sino-US friendship. In 1972, a plant of the American redwood tree was sent from then US president Richard Nixon's home state of California to China as a presidential gift, along with four other saplings. The idea came from China's then premier Zhou Enlai, because he knew the redwood tree symbolized longevity. Premier Zhou decided to plant the saplings in Hangzhou, where he and Nixon later met at the West Lake and changed history. The trees have since then stood as a symbol of US-China friendship.

"Just as we hope that those saplings — those tiny saplings that we left in China — will grow one day into mighty redwoods, so we hope, too, that the seeds planted on this journey for peace will grow and prosper into a more enduring structure for peace and security in the Western Pacific", president Nixon remarked upon returning from China.

National parks, one of the best ideas the US has contributed to the world, are another example of what can be done to deepen the bilateral ties and contribute to nature. More than 140 years ago, the United States government designated Yellowstone as the nation's first national park. In 2015, the National Development and Reform Commission of China and National Park Service of the United States signed the Statement of Cooperation on National Park System Management, paving the way for the development of China's massive national park system. The rest is history. National parks thus serve as a testament of what bilateral cooperation can achieve to tackle climate change. China is now a world leader in the development of national parks.

As citizens around the world increasingly demand climate action, let's learn the lessons from international cooperation and of the need to bring the economy and ecology together. The world cannot afford the loss of more forests. Let's plant trees and green Mother Earth together.

The author is president of the Belt and Road Initiative Green Development Institute and former executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

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