Forests cover large parts of southern China, from Fujian Province in the east to Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces in the west. Forests also cover much of China’s far northeast. There are fewer forests in the densely populated region between Shanghai and Beijing and almost none in the far western provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet.
China’s forest cover is increasing. There are different estimates of how much, depending in part on the definition of “forest” and other key terms. China’s State Forestry Administration reports that China’s forest cover grew from less than 13% in 1981 to more than 20% in 2010.2 A 2011 study found that forest cover in China increased an average of roughly 0.5% annually between 1980 and 2010.3 A 2017 study found that,
“If ‘forest’ is defined according to the FAO criteria (including immature and unstocked areas), China’s forest cover gains between 2000 and 2010 were larger than the combined area of Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. If forest is defined according to China’s own criteria..., China has gained an area smaller than size of Germany; and if forest is defined according to what non-specialists would view as forest (contiguous blocs of tall (higher than 5 m) and closed (minimum 50%) crown cover), the detectable gains are smaller than the size of The Netherlands.”4
NDRC reports that forests covered 21.66% of China’s territory in 2016.5 According to the National Bureau of Statistics, more than seven million hectares of afforestation were completed in 2017.6
The density of China’s forest stock is also increasing. The 2011 study cited above found that forest stock density increased an average of 0.44% annually between 1980 and 2010.7
China’s Natural Forest Conservation Program is the largest forest conservation program in
the world. It includes massive tree-planting programs, an expansion of forest reserves and a ban on logging in primary forests. The Chinese government spends heavily on these forest programs—more than either the United States or Europe and more than three times the global average per hectare. A study released in 2016 found that “the implementation of the National Forest Conservation Program exhibited a significant relationship with forest gain in China during the first decade of the 21st century.”8
Historically, the goals of China’s forest conservation programs included preventing floods and desertification. The current National Forest Conservation Program was launched in the wake of the catastrophic Yangtze River floods of 1998. The Three-North Shelterbelt Program, launched in the late 1970s, is a multi-decade program to plant a 4,500-kilometer wall of trees through the Gobi Desert to reduce sandstorms. Recently the goals of China’s forest conservation programs have expanded to include helping fight local air pollution and global warming as well.9
China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution gives high prominence to a forest goal. One of the four principal goals identified in the INDC is “to increase the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels by 2030.”
This goal builds on Premier Wen Jiabao’s 2009 pledge, made just before the Copenhagen climate conference, to increase China’s forest stock volume 1.3 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels by 2020. The 2030 goal implies a significant increase in forest cover—about two to four times the land area of the United Kingdom.10
To help achieve its forest goals, the Chinese government pledges in its INDC
“To vigorously enhance afforestation, promoting voluntary tree planting by all citizens, continuing the implementation of key ecological programs, including protecting natural forests, restoring forest and grassland from farmland, conducting sandification control for areas in vicinity of Beijing and Tianjin, planting shelter belt, controlling rocky desertification, conserving water and soil, strengthening forest tending and management and increasing the forest carbon sink; [and]
“To strengthen forest disaster prevention and forest resource protection and to reduce deforestation-related emissions.”11
These pledges are reflected in the text of China’s Work Plan for Controlling Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the 13th Five-Year Plan, issued by the State Council in October 2016. During the 13th Five-Year Plan, the Chinese government aims to increase forest cover from 21.66% to 23% of the country’s total land area. Afforestation programs are under way throughout much of China, including the Lower, Middle and Upper Reaches of the Yangtze River; the Pearl River Basin; the Taihang Mountains; and the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region.12
NDRC reports that 11.6 million hectares of forests were planted in 2016 and the first half of 2017 and that more than RMB 47.8 billion from the central budget was allocated to forest conservation projects during this period.13
China’s forest programs have the potential to sequester significant amounts of carbon. A 2015 study estimated that since 1973, China’s forests had absorbed more than 22 Gt of carbon.
A 2016 study estimated that carbon storage in China’s forests would reach almost 28 Gt by 2033. This is equal to roughly 10 years of Chinese CO2 emissions.15
Significantly, some of China’s forest policies and consumption patterns may exacerbate deforestation in other countries, offsetting the climate benefits of the carbon sequestered in China’s forests. Although the Chinese government has expanded forest reserves and banned logging in China’s primary forests, China’s timber imports are large and growing. The combination of forest conservation within China and growing Chinese timber imports means greater timber production in other countries, including Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Russia. From a global perspective, this may substantially reduce the climate benefits of China’s policies that limit domestic logging.16
1. Lei Shi, Shuqing Zhao, Zhiyao Tang and Jingyun Fang, “The Changes in China’s Forests: An Analysis Using the Forest Identity,” PLOS ONE 6, no. 6 (June 9, 2011): e20778, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0020778.
2. Antje Ahrends, Peter M. Hollingsworth, Philip Beckschäfer, Huafang Chen, Robert J. Zomer, Lubiao Zhang, Mingcheng Wang and Jianchu Xu, “China’s fight to halt tree cover loss,” The Royal Society Publishing (October 7, 2017), http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/royprsb/284/1854/20162559.full.pdf, citing State Forestry Administration China, 2011 China National Progress Report to the UNFF Secretariat on the implementation of NLBI and other relevant resolutions, Beijing, China: State Forestry Administration China (January 2011), http://www.un.org/esa/forests/pdf/national_reports/unff9/China.pdf.
3. Shi et al., “Changes in China’s Forests” (June 9, 2011).
4. Ahrends et al., “China’s fight to halt tree cover loss” (October 7, 2017).
5. NDRC, China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change (November 2016) at p.20, http://qhs.ndrc.gov.cn/zcfg/201611/W020161108342237594465.pdf
6. National Bureau of Statistics, “Statistical Bulletin 2017” (February 28, 2018) at section XII, http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/zxfb/201802/t20180228_1585631.html
7. Shi et al., “Changes in China’s Forests” (June 9, 2011).
8. Ahrends et al., “China’s fight to halt” (October 7, 2017); Andrés Viña, William J. McConnell, Hongbo Yang, Zhenci Xu and Jianguo Liu, “Effects of conservation policy on China’s forest recovery, ” Science Advances (March 2016), http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/2/3/e1500965.full.
9. Ahrends et al., “China’s fight to halt” (October 7, 2017); Miao-miao Li, An-tian Liu, Chunjing Zou, Wen-duo Xu, Hideyuki Shimizu and Kai-yun Wang, “An overview of the ‘Three-North’ Shelterbelt project in China,” Forestry Studies in China (February 2012); Viña et al., “Effects of conservation policy” (March 2016).
10. People’s Republic of China, Enhanced Action on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (June 2015) at p.5,http://www4.unfccc.int/ndcregistry/PublishedDocuments/China%20First/China%27s%20First%20NDC%20Submission.pdf; Taryn Fransen, Ranping Song, Fred Stolle and Geoffrey Henderson, “A Closer Look at China’s New Climate Plan (INDC),” WRI (July 2, 2015), https://www.wri.org/blog/2015/07/closer-look-chinas-new-climate-plan-indc.
11. People’s Republic of China, Enhanced Action on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (June 2015) at p.10.
12. State Council, Work Plan for Controlling Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the 13th Five-Year Plan at 3(D); PRC, First Biennial Update Report (2016) at chapter 5, https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/chnbur1.pdf; “China to Create New Forests Covering Area Size of Ireland: China Daily,” Reuters (January 4, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-environment-forest/china-to-create-new-forests-covering-area-size-of-ireland-china-daily-idUSKBN1EU02L.
13. NDRC, China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change (2017) at p.14–15, http://www.cma.gov.cn/en2014/news/News/201711/P020171122611767066567.pdf
14. State Forestry Administration, China Forestry Development 13th Five-Year Plan (May 2015) at p.23, http://www.forestry.gov.cn/uploadfile/main/2016-5/file/2016-5-19-4e0699f79b4b4a2ab03843684dd32c76.pdf.
15. LU Ni-ni, WANG Xin-jie, LING Wei, XU Xue-lei, ZHANG Yan, “Estimation of forest carbon storage in China based on data of National Inventory of Forest Resources,” Journal of Central South University of Forestry & Technology (November 2015), http://en.cnki.com.cn/Article_en/CJFDTOTAL-ZNLB201511021.htm; ZHANG Xufang. YANG Hongqiang, ZHANG Xiaobiao, “Development level and trend in Chinese forestry carbon pools from 1989 to 2033,” Resources Science (February 2016), http://en.cnki.com.cn/Article_en/CJFDTOTAL-ZRZY201602011.htm. In 2016, Chinese CO2 emissions were roughly 10.5 Gt, which is equal to roughly 2.9 Gt carbon. See http://www.forestry.gov.cn/uploadfile/main/2016-5/file/2016-5-19-4e0699f79b4b4a2ab03843684dd32c76.pdf.
16. Viña et al., “Effects of conservation policy” (March 2016).