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China's deceptive forest rebirth

Coniferous and broadleaf deciduous forest stands in the Min Mountains, Sichuan Province, China Coniferous and broadleaf deciduous forest stands in the Min Mountains, Sichuan Province, China Andrés Viña
18 Jun
While new research shows China’s forests are in recovery, are neighbouring countries suffering as a result?

Balancing economic development and environmental conservation is a delicate act for every country, and as the world’s most populous nation, China’s challenge has been harder than most, even before several decades of double-digit growth saw it embark on one of the fastest industrialisations in history. Inevitably, the environment suffered, with air and water pollution escalating, and the country’s forests being rapidly harvested.

In the summer of 1998, record rainfall along the Yangtze River caused immense flooding, leaving thousands dead and an estimated 15 million people homeless. With a recognition that the floods were at least partially caused by deforestation-stimulated soil erosion, the Chinese government decided to enact a number of conservation initiatives – including the Natural Forest Conservation Program (NFCP), one of the largest such programs in the world. The NFCP banned logging in many of China’s natural forests and created monitoring networks to help prevent illegal logging.

Although official government figures have always claimed the NFCP to be a success, a team from Michigan State University has finally added some independent scientific rigour to the findings. It reports that between 2000 and 2010, forest cover ‘significantly increased’ across 1.6 per cent of China’s land area (157,315km2), primarily in central regions such as Sichuan and Gansu which suffered severe deforestation in the 1990s. Additionally, 0.38 per cent (37,268km2) of the country saw a ‘significant loss’.

The gains in carbon sequestration due to the increase in forest cover in China may be lost due to the increase in deforestation elsewhere

‘Because of government estimates regarding the dynamics of forest cover in China, and our own results at local and regional scales, we expected to see an increase in forest cover at the national scale,’ explains Andrés Viña, Assistant Professor at the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University. ‘However, we were surprised to find that the implementation of forest conservation policy had such a significant relationship with the observed forest cover gains.’

Viña and his team also studied the impact which these national policies had on forest cover in neighbouring countries, given that China had to increase timber imports in order to fulfil demand. During the studied decade, approximately £12.5million worth of timber was imported from Madagascar, £43million from Myanmar, £480million from Vietnam, £606million from Indonesia, and £611million from Russia. The report concludes: ‘China’s conservation policy may be exacerbating forest degradation (through both legal and illegal logging) in other regions such as Southeast Asia, Africa, and Northern Eurasia.’

Unfortunately, this means that China’s forest restoration is unlikely to be creating the positive net uptake of carbon dioxide globally which many people had hoped for. ‘The gains in carbon sequestration due to the increase in forest cover in China may be lost due to the increase in deforestation elsewhere,’ explains Viña. ‘But at the present time we do not know the net effect when both of these dynamics are considered together. This will be addressed in future studies.’

This was published in the June 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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