China Enlists 60,000 Soldiers to Plant Trees in War Against Air Pollution

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Sometimes it takes a village ... and an army: Thousands of soldiers with China's People's Liberation Army have been pulled from service and enlisted in tree-planting activities outside of Beijing. . (Photo: China Photos/Getty Images)

China is under attack on its own soil. And just as most countries with a large armed force would do, the country is deploying troops — over 60,000 members of the People’s Liberation Army — with no delay.

The invading force is insidious and can’t be dealt with using traditional military tactics — the raw manpower is needed but none of the standard maneuvers of warfare apply. And this is why China is arming its soldiers with two of the most effective weapons possible: shovels and saplings.

By planting a massive number of trees, China seeks to further suppress air pollution, a formidable adversary responsible for one-third of all deaths in China in 2016. The Chinese government is so serious about battling smog that a large regiment of soldiers along with a number of the country’s armed paramilitary police force have been pulled from their posts patrolling the northern border and reassigned to Hebei province on tree-planting duty, reports the Independent. By the end of this year, it's expected that the troops will have planted an air pollution-absorbing swath of forested land — an arboreal sponge, essentially — roughly the size of Ireland at 32,400 square miles.

And China doesn’t plan on relenting. By 2020, the government aims to increase the total amount of forest coverage to 23 percent of the Chinese landmass. Currently, forests cover roughly 21 percent of the country — about 208 million hectares (roughly 514 million acres). Per state officials, about 33.8 million hectares (84 million acres) of new forest has been planted over the last five years.

This won’t completely eradicate air pollution in Chinese cities. Not even close. But when combined with other air quality-improving efforts such as banning vehicles with combustion engines, replacing coal with natural gas and leading the world in the production of solar energy, thousands of new square miles of air pollution-mitigating forests do make a small dent. And in a country as polluted and as populous as China is, every dent, no matter how small, is an improvement.

Shovels at a Chinese tree-planting ceremony
Shovels at the ready: China aims to increase the amount of tree coverage from 21 to 23 percent of the country's total landmass. (Photo: China Photos/Getty Images)

Hebei: On the front line

By 2035, officials hope for a 5 percent increase in China's forest coverage. This means that not too far down the line, over a quarter of all China will be forested. In addition to their size, the most important aspect of the current military tree-planting campaign is the strategic location in Hebei province near the Chinese capital of Beijing. Densely populated and highly polluted, particularly in winter when smog levels soar, Hebei encircles most of Beijing.

Per the Independent, the sprawling region is believed to be "a major culprit for producing the notorious smog" known to wrap China’s second most populous city with a stifling, grey embrace. However, the Chinese government has been making significant inroads in Beijing, neighboring Tianjin and the smaller cities of Hebei thanks largely to anti-coal measures. Greenpeace Asia reports that smog levels fell by an encouraging 54 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017.

Officials in Hebei have pledged to boost the total forest coverage within the province to 35 percent by the end of 2020, which is largely why a majority of shovel-wielding troops have been deployed to this largely mountainous region. Additional tree forest coverage-boosting efforts will also commence in the relatively sparsely populated northwestern province of Qinghai and further afield.

It’s worth noting that to achieve its goals, the government isn’t just deploying troops. Civilians are also more than welcome to join the effort. "Companies, organisations and talent that specialise in greening work are all welcome to join in the country's massive greening campaign," Zhang Jianlong, head of China's State Forestry Administration, tells the China Daily. "Cooperation between government and social capital will be put on the priority list."

Tree planting in Beijing, China
Chinese soldiers have been tasked with planting trees before, including before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. (Photo: China Photos/Getty Images)

Beyond the call of duty

In addition to this particular military-led greening effort in Hebei and further afield, construction commenced this past summer on a so-called "forest city" that will generate much-needed new housing for roughly 30,000 new residents while also sucking pollution from the air. Clad in upwards of a million plants and over 40,000 trees, this first-of-its-kind development in Liuzhou was conceived by Stefano Boeri, an Italian architect and urban planner with an inimitable knack for festooning buildings with all matter of lush plant life.

As John Vidal recently outlined in a hopeful opinion piece published in the Guardian, China is in good company.

Latin American countries have vowed to restore 20 million hectares (49.4 million acres) of forest while African countries are aiming to plant more than 100 million hectares (247 million acres.) India and England are also both on notable tree-planting tears. Last year, residents of India planted a record-breaking 66 million new trees in under 12 hours all within a single state. In England, there are plans to plant 50 million new trees as part of a proposed 120-mile-long ribbon of forested land that would stretch from coast to coast in the northern part of the country alongside the heavily trafficked M62 motorway. (England is surprisingly lightly forested — just 10 percent of the country is covered by woodland although the government aims to bump the number up to 12 percent at a minimum.)

As Vidal writes, "For 200 years forested countries barely knew what to do with their trees. They were treated as expendable and a waste of space. But in a great cultural shift, they have changed from being dark and fearsome places to semi-sacred and untouchable."

However, Vidal notes that despite a cultural shift that has yielded truly remarkable/necessary tree-planting and reforestation efforts like the ones mentioned above, global tree cover loss is on the rise reaching a record-breaking 51 percent in 2016 when 29.7 million hectares (73.4 million) acres of forested land were lost, an area roughly the size of New Zealand. While the usual human-caused suspects — logging and clearing for agriculture — still play a major role in global tree loss, disease, drought and fires exacerbated by a warming planet are a larger threat than ever.