Forests are important in their functions of storing carbon dioxide as well as providing habitats to animal species. Poorly managed forests and deforestation therefore pose a huge threat to climate change and biodiversity. China is home to about 211 million hectares (Mha) of tree cover, making it the fifth country with the most trees in the world. Chinese deforestation and measures to combat it consequently can have a global impact. 

Deforestation refers to the act of permanently removing a wide area of trees, usually for the purpose of making space for agriculture and urban development, as well as sourcing raw materials like wood and minerals. When we mention deforestation, Amazon often comes to our minds amid deforestation rates in the world’s largest rainforest has been at its all-time high. Yet, deforestation does not only occur in Brazil; each country is more or less facing the problem of deforestation in its own unique manner, including China. What we need to do is to have a close examination of each case and then learn from the mistakes or successes of each.

The Current State of Chinese Deforestation

By the end of 2020, total forest cover in China has increased from 8.6% in 1949 to 23.04% thanks to reforestation programmes in the 50s and the 70s which aimed to plant about 28 Mha and 27 Mha of trees respectively to help reverse damages from soil erosion provoked during the Chinese Civil War. Yet, this seemingly impressive figure is undermined by increasing deforestation activities within the last 20 years.

According to Global Forest Watch, the total area of primary forest in China has declined by 4.4% from 2002 to 2020. Primary forests are forests that have never been disturbed by human activities such as land clearing and logging and are often noted for their importance in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – a critical role to help combat climate change. However, the importance of primary forests goes far beyond their roles as carbon sinks.

Studies have proven that a man-made plantation can perfectly offset a primary forest of the same size in terms of absorbing carbon dioxide. Yet, in terms of the conservation of biodiversity, primary forests are much more significant than secondary forests and man-made plantations as many species could only be found in primary forests. One example being about 60% of plants and 40% of bird species in the Brazilian Amazon can only be found  in primary forests, whereas secondary forests are mostly occupied by common species found worldwide. 

In looking at the loss of total tree cover in the past two decades, the Chinese deforestation situation is even direr. Between 2002 and 2020, China lost 10.1 Mha of tree cover, equivalent to a 6.2% decrease in tree cover. Although one part of the loss of tree cover is due to wildfires, shifting agriculture, and forestry, which provoked only temporary deforestation, a larger part of the loss of tree cover is driven by urbanisation and commodity-driven logging, resulting in permanent deforestation. Additionally, only about 30% of the trees planted during the tree-planting campaign in the 1970s survived. The decrease in tree cover results in a loss of absorbing power of 4.35 gigatonne (Gt) of carbon dioxide emissions during the period.

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Solutions to Chinese Deforestation

As the fifth country with the most hectares of trees in the world, the percentage decrease of tree cover in China has been relatively low in recent years when compared with Russia, Brazil, Canada, and the United States, four countries that hold more trees than China. Although it is still a long way to completely stop the downward trend both in the size of primary forests and in the number of trees, China has in fact made substantial efforts in tackling this particular issue in its economic policies.

Despite being one of the largest exporters of goods in the world, China has taken a different approach to its agricultural products such as timber, soy, and palm oil. In the late 2010s, China implemented a nationwide restriction on felling natural forests, resulting in a dependence on agricultural product imports, especially materials needed for manufacturing processes. Currently, exports of more than half of all timber coming from all over the world are destined to China.

However, some environmentalists argue that China, as the largest importer of wood-based products in the world, continues to harm natural forests, albeit outside the borders, passing the environmental costs on to other exporters. Critics are pushing for China to take its responsibilities on the global scale. Indeed, in the early 2010s, China did not have strict regulations on wood-based product imports and was not required to show certifications to prove that wood had been sourced from sustainable forests, and importers in China were attracted by the low price of wood from illegal sources. This reckless importing practices resulted in China being responsible for about 60% of the volume of illegal imports of wood.

Nevertheless, China has started to take its global responsibilities as a leading world economy more seriously in recent years, given its rapid economic growth either in terms of real GDP or GDP per capita. In 2019, China revised its forestry law with a ban on purchasing timber from known illegal sources – a phenomenal step made by the Chinese government. The next step for the state is to ensure that the law will be well carried out by the local governments and strict scrutiny of stakeholders and importing companies.

Moreover, in April 2021, the United States and China made a joint statement addressing the climate crisis, and once affirmed its importance during the COP26 in Glasgow. In the statement, the two superpowers agreed to the necessity to eliminate global illegal deforestation through effectively enforcing their respective laws on banning illegal imports. China has been fairly successful in combating deforestation at the national level and has shown genuine efforts to expand its ambition on the global scale. But it will be a challenge if China can maintain this same level of effort not only on deforestation but also on other environmental issues, including eliminating its dependence on coal and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.