FORESTRY

Background

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.

Roughly 22% of China’s territory is covered with forests, according to both the Chinese government and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).[1]

Figure 17-1: China’s Forest Cover

China’s forest cover has expanded in recent decades, according to a number of sources.

  • NDRC reports that more than 7 million hectares of forests were planted in each of 2016, 2017 and 2018—and that China led the world in forest growth in 2017.[3]
  • NDRC reports that roughly 15 million hectares of forests were planted between 2011 and 2015.[4]
  • China’s State Forestry Administration reports that China’s forest cover grew from roughly 13% in 1981 to more than 20% in 2010.[5]
  • A 2016 study by scientists at Michigan State University found that between 2000 and 2010, 1.6% of China’s territory experienced significant increase in forest cover and 0.38% experienced significant forest loss.[6]
  • A 2011 study by scientists at Peking University found that forest cover in China increased an average of roughly 0.5% annually between 1980 and 2010.[7]

At least one source finds forest loss in China in recent years. Global Forest Watch, an online platform that provides data for monitoring forests, reports that China lost 439,000 hectares of natural forest in 2018. Global Forest Watch also reports that China lost 9.42 million hectares of tree cover (a 5.8% decrease) from 2001 to 2018.[8]

The different estimates may in part be due to different definitions. 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.[9]

Forest stock density may be increasing in China as well. The 2011 study Peking University study cited above found that forest stock density in China increased an average of 0.44% annually between 1980 and 2010.[10]

Policies

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.”[11]

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 multidecade 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.[12]

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 implies a significant increase in forest cover—about two to four times the land area of the United Kingdom. In July 2019, Premier Li Keqiang announced that China had met this goal (11 years ahead of schedule).[13]

To help achieve its forest goals, the Chinese government pledged 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.”[14]

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.[15]

Official documents setting forth China’s forest policies include:

  1. National Afforestation and Greening Plan (2016–2020)[16]
  2. National Forest Management Plan (2016–2050)[17]
  3. Action Plan for Climate Change in Forestry in the 13th Five-Year Plan[18]
  4. Action Plan for Forestry to Adapt to Climate Change (2016–2020)[19]

The State Forestry and Grassland Administration (SFGA) within the Ministry of Natural Resources has principal responsibility for forest management in China. The SFGA was established in 2018 as part of a government-wide institutional reforms, assuming the functions and responsibilities of the former State Forestry Administration at that time.[20]

The SFGA runs a “carbon forests” program. Under the program (which was launched in 2010), some forests are planted and managed for carbon sequestration. Special procedures and methodologies are required to be sure these forests meet carbon sequestration objectives. These forests may generate credits available for emissions trading. As of the end of 2016, 3.5 million hectares of forests (approximately 2% of China’s forested areas) were in the program.[21]

Several provinces, including Sichuan, Guangdong and Guizhou, have launched pilot carbon sink trading for poverty alleviation programs. Under these programs, poor households can receive compensation for planting and cultivating trees in part for the carbon storage value.[22]

Figure 17-2: China’s Forestry Development Plan

Sequestration Estimates

China’s forest programs sequester significant amounts of carbon.

  • A 2015 study estimated that China’s forests had absorbed more than 22 Gt of carbon since 1973. (This is equal to roughly seven years of China’s CO2 emissions.)[24]
  • A 2016 study estimated that carbon storage in China’s forests would reach almost 28 Gt by 2033. (This is equal to roughly nine years of China’s CO2 emissions.)[25]
  • A 2018 study that sampled thousands of plots across China found that each year China’s forests sequester carbon equivalent to roughly 5% of the country’s CO2 emissions.[26]

The Chinese government has provided official estimates of the carbon sequestered in land use change and forestry activities combined.

  • In its Second Biennial Update Report submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2018, the Chinese government estimated that 1,150 Gt of CO2 (roughly 11% of China’s annual CO2 emissions) were sequestered by land use change and forestry activities in 2014.[27]
  • In its First Biennial Update Report submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2016, the Chinese government estimated that 576 Gt of CO2 (roughly 6% of China’s annual CO2 emissions) were sequestered by land use change and forestry activities in 2012.[28]

Deforestation Abroad

Significantly, some of China’s forest policies, consumption patterns and foreign policies 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 demand is large and growing. The combination of forest conservation and growing timber demand within China has meant more logging and deforestation in countries that sell timber to China, including Russia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar.[29]
  • Chinese food imports (for soy and other products) are large and growing, contributing to deforestation in other countries as well.[30]
  • Some Belt and Road projects have been through forested areas, with adverse impacts on those areas.[31]

From a global perspective, these trends may substantially offset the climate benefits of China’s domestic forest conservation policies.

References

[1] See NDRC, China's Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change (October 2016) at p.20, (21.66% forest cover in 2015); Food and Agriculture Organization, Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015 at p.17 (22% forest cover in 2015).  See also Global Forest Watch—China country summary, World Resources Institute (16% forest cover in 2010) (accessed July 17, 2019). Different estimates may be due to different definitions of forest and other terms.

[2]  Lei Shi et al., “The Changes in China’s Forests: An Analysis Using the Forest Identity,” PLOS ONE (June 9, 2011).

[3] NDRC, China's Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change (October 2016) at p.20; NDRC, China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change (October 2017) at p.15; NDRC, China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change (November 2018) at p.16. See also National Bureau of Statistics, Statistical Bulletin on National Economic and Social Development in 2018 (February 28, 2019) at Part XII; National Bureau of Statistics, Statistical Bulletin on National Economic and Social Development in 2017 (February 28, 2018) at Part XII.

[4] NDRC, China's Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change (October 2016) at p.20;

[5] 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), 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).

[6] 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).

[7]  Lei Shi et al., “The Changes in China’s Forests: An Analysis Using the Forest Identity,” PLOS ONE (June 9, 2011).

[8] Global Forest Watch—China country summary, World Resources Institute (accessed July 17, 2019).

[9] 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).

[10] Lei Shi et al., “The Changes in China’s Forests: An Analysis Using the Forest Identity,” PLOS ONE (June 9, 2011).

[11] 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).

[12] 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).

[13] People’s Republic of China, Enhanced Action on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (June 2015) at p.5; Taryn Fransen, Ranping Song, Fred Stolle and Geoffrey Henderson, “A Closer Look at China’s New Climate Plan (INDC),” WRI (July 2, 2015); “Li Keqiang presided over the National Leading Group Meeting on Climate Change, Energy Conservation and Emissions Reduction,” Chinese Government Network (July 11, 2019).

[14] People’s Republic of China, Enhanced Action on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (June 2015) at p.10.

[15] 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; “China to Create New Forests Covering Area Size of Ireland: China Daily,” Reuters (January 4, 2018).

[16] State Forestry Administration, National Afforestation and Greening Plan (2016–2020).

[17] State Forestry Administration, National Forest Management Plan (2016–2050).

[18] State Forestry Administration, Action Plan for Climate Change in Forestry in the 13th Five-Year Plan.

[19] State Forestry Administration, Action Plan for Forestry to Adapt to Climate Change (2016–2020).

[20] “State Forestry and Grassland Administration established” (April 11, 2018), National Forestry and Grassland Administration.

[21] Wei Zhou, Peichen Gong and Lan Gao, “A Review of Carbon Forest Development in China,” Semantic Scholar (2017)

[22] “Carbon sink trading sheds new light on China's poverty relief,” XinhuaNet (July 10, 2018)

[23] State Forestry Administration, China Forestry Development 13th Five-Year Plan (May 2015) at p.23.

[24] Lu Ni-ni, Wang Xin-jie, Ling Wei, Xu Xue-lei and 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). China’s 2018 CO2 emissions = roughly 11 Gt. See Chapter 1-Emissions at note 2.  22 Gt C = 81 Gt CO2,. On C v. CO2, see Joe Romm, “The Biggest Source of Mistakes: C. v. CO2,” Think Progress (March 25, 2008).

[25] Zhang Xufang. Yang Hongqiang and Zhang Xiaobiao, “Development level and trend in Chinese forestry carbon pools from 1989 to 2033,” Resources Science (February 2016). 28 Gt C = 103 Gt CO2.

[26] Jingyun Fang et al., “Climate change, human impacts, and carbon sequestration in China,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, April 17, 2018 (163.4 TgC/year of carbon sequestration for the past decade). 1 Tg = 1 Mt; 1 Mt C = 3.67 Mt CO2; 163.4 TgC = 598 Mt CO2.

[27] People’s Republic of China, Second Biennial Update Report on Climate Change (December 2018) at p.16.

[28] People’s Republic of China, First Biennial Update Report on Climate Change (December 2016) at p.22.

[29] Bo Li, “2 Ways for China to Play a Bigger Role in Protecting Global Forests,” World Resources Institute (April 17, 2018); Xiufang Sun, Kerstin Canby and Lijun Liu. China’s Logging Ban in Natural Forests, Forest Trends (March 2018); Steven Lee Myers, “China’s Voracious Appetite for Timber Stokes Fury in Russia and Beyond,” New York Times (April 9, 2019).

[30] Pietro Bertazzi and Sabrina Zhang, “Soy: China’s deforestation dilemma,” Carbon Disclosure Project (March 21, 2019).

[31]  Elizabeth Losos, Alexander Pfaff and Lydia Olander, “The deforestation risks of China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” Brookings (January 28, 2019).

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