Afforestation and reforestation projects in the karst regions of southwest China aim to combat desertification and improve the ecological environment. However, it remains unclear at what scale conservation efforts have impacted on carbon stocks and if vegetation regrowth occurs at a large spatial scale as intended. Here we use satellite time series data and show a widespread increase in leaf area index (a proxy for green vegetation cover), and aboveground biomass carbon, which contrasted negative trends found in the absence of anthropogenic influence as simulated by an ecosystem model. In spite of drought conditions, aboveground biomass carbon increased by 9% (+0.05 Pg C y−1), mainly in areas of high conservation effort. We conclude that large scale conservation projects can contribute to a greening Earth with positive effects on carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change. At the regional scale, such ecological engineering projects may reduce risks of desertification by increasing the vegetation cover and reducing the ecosystem sensitivity to climate perturbations.

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The study was funded by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (no. 2016YFC0502400) and National Natural Science Foundation of China (no. 41471445, 41371418) and Science and Technology Service Network Initiative of Chinese Academy of Sciences (no. KFJ-STS-ZDTP-036). M.B. received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020Research and Innovation programme under Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 656564. R.F. acknowledges funding from the Danish Council for Independent Research (DFF) grant iD: DFF–6111-00258.

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Author notes

  1. Xiaowei Tong and Martin Brandt contributed equally to this work.


  1. Key Laboratory for Agro-ecological Processes in Subtropical Region, Institute of Subtropical Agriculture, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Changsha, China

    • Xiaowei Tong
    • , Yuemin Yue
    • , Kelin Wang
    •  & Hongsong Chen
  2. Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Martin Brandt
    • , Stephanie Horion
    • , Feng Tian
    • , Guy Schurgers
    •  & Rasmus Fensholt
  3. Huanjiang Observation and Research Station for Karst Ecosystem, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Huanjiang, China

    • Yuemin Yue
    • , Kelin Wang
    •  & Hongsong Chen
  4. Division of Forest, Nature and Landscape, KU Leuven, Heverlee, Belgium

    • Wanda De Keersmaecker
  5. Department of Microbiology and Plant Biology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, USA

    • Xiangming Xiao
    • , Yiqi Luo
    •  & Zheng Shi
  6. Ministry of Education Key Laboratory of Biodiversity and Ecological Engineering, Institute of Biodiversity Science, Shanghai, 200433, China

    • Xiangming Xiao
  7. Center for Ecosystem Science and Society (Ecoss), Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ, 86011, USA

    • Yiqi Luo
  8. Department of Earth System Science, Tsinghua University, Beijing, 10084, China

    • Yiqi Luo
  9. Department of Earth and Environment, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA

    • Chi Chen
    •  & Ranga Myneni


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X.T., M.B., R.F., S.H., Y.Y., W.K. and K.W. designed the study. X.T., S.H. (BFAST), W.K. and G.S. (LPJ) conducted the analyses with support from F.T., Y.Y., M.B. and R.F. MODIS and LAI data were prepared by R.M. and C.C.; M.B. and X.T. drafted the manuscript, which was edited by R.F., S.H., W.K., Y.Y., G.S., F.T., Z.S., X.X., C.C., H.C. and Y.L.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Yuemin Yue or Kelin Wang.

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