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BEIJING — Outside the window of a train traveling from Beijing to Yanqing are rows and rows and rows of trees.
This succession of perfectly arranged seedlings and saplings extends over hectares. Some look like little more than three twigs tied together on the ground – and are at serious risk of falling victim to a gust of wind. But at the base of each tree is a system of ropes and wood that keeps them upright.
Much of this obviously recent tree planting is linked to the 2022 Winter Olympics. Authorities in Beijing and Zhangjiakou (locations of the Games venues) said before the Games that they had planted more than 80,000 hectares (approximately 198,000 acres) of forest and green space combined.
China is also in the midst of a “greening” effort that has been going on for years. Trees are planted in and around Beijing to reduce the sweltering sandstorms of the Gobi Desert.
Together, the Chinese government and Olympic officials describe the tree planting as a victory for the environment and a victory that offsets climate change and carbon emissions from these Games.
The reality is quite different, say researchers and environmental experts.
Coal and artificial snow raise environmental concerns
On the one hand, China is particularly dependent on coal-fired power, which has clear links to increased greenhouse gas emissions. This month, the central government pledged to operate coal-fired power plants at full capacity. Officials even called on coal producers to ensure a steady supply of coal – or face “further investigation and accountability measures”.
The Winter Olympics use almost entirely artificial snow which requires large amounts of water and the use of chemicals, the impact of which on health and the environment is still largely unknown.
The International Olympic Committee says it prioritizes sustainability with its Summer and Winter Games. In practice, this has not been the case, according to the researchers.
The sustainability of the Olympics has “significantly declined over time”, according to an analysis of 16 editions of the Summer and Winter Games.
“Salt Lake City 2002 was the most enduring Olympic Games of this period, while Sochi 2014 and Rio de Janeiro 2016 were the least enduring,” according to the report. It was released ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Trees from a nature reserve have been transplanted to make way for the Games
Olympic host cities are required to show that they are carbon neutral. Beijing organizers highlighted tree planting and other efforts to achieve that goal.
But to build the National Alpine Skiing Center in Yanqing, the Chinese government tore up the former centerpiece of the Songshan National Nature Reserve, a park founded to protect its dense forests, according to CNN.
This construction required the felling of nearly 20,000 trees in a few years.
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The Beijing Organizing Committee is committed to transplanting these trees and topsoil north of the city. He claimed that more than 90% of those trees survived the move.
Conservation expert says animal habitats could also suffer
By replanting trees, the biodiversity unique to the Beijing region could suffer, according to Terry Townshend, an adviser to conservation work at the Paulson Institute.
“If it’s not well planned, for example if non-native or unique species are used of the same age and planted in straight lines, it is likely to be bad for biodiversity,” he told NPR.
This is especially the case if the trees are planted in grassland, scrub or wetlands.
The leopard cat and the great bustard – two animals unique to the Beijing area – could lose their habitat through indiscriminate tree planting, according to Townshend.
“Beijing is an important stopover and wintering site for many migratory birds,” he said. “Bustards are the equivalent of Boeing 747s – they’re heavy, slow and need a big runway.”
If their sought-after open areas are planted with trees, the great bustard may need to find another place to land.
“Beijing could lose these remarkable species,” Townshend said.
NPR’s Emily Feng contributed to this report.