Contrary to previous reports, China’s efforts at protecting its forests appear to have been successful.
The Asian nation’s forests are under growing global scrutiny because as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, it needs to reduce its emissions. Because forests absorb greenhouse gas emissions, and older forests absorb more emissions than newer forests, preserving, not merely replacing, forests is key.
A recent study looked at China’s efforts in reducing deforestation impacted by China’s two forest-protection policies, the National Forest Protection Program (NFPP) and National Level Nature Reserves (NNRs). Using satellite and mapping data, the research, published earlier this year in Conservation Biology, compares forest canopy levels inside and just outside of the protected areas. Researchers found that the deforestation rate in NFPP provinces has slowed dramatically.
“Nobody had been able to do this before, because nobody could get the borders of the parks; they’re not publicized,” said researcher Douglas Yu, author on the study, who splits his time between the University of East Anglia in the UK and the Institute of Zoology Chinese Academy of Sciences. “In every other country in the world, it’s something that you make a big deal out of. You publish maps everywhere and you say there are these wonderful parks. In China, anything that’s on a map is considered national sensitive information.”
It took months for Yu and his team to get the borders, but once secured they used MODIS satellite imaging data to track changes in forest cover. Designed to detect vegetation, MODIS is a long-running satellite data series, making it particularly well suited to track changes over the ten year span, 2000–2010, that the study analyzed. It’s relatively low resolution, or large pixel size, is also a plus when surveying a landscape this large—it reduces computing time.
Glimpsed from above, not much of China is green. Twenty-seven percent of China is desert compared to a global average of 17%; only 18% of China, is forested. The United States, which is roughly the same size as China, is 10% desert and 31% forested. The discrepancy between the two countries is due partly to differences in geography but also due to deforestation.
By 1950, three waves of revolution had left China with only 5–8% forest cover. In the intervening years, governments have committed to reforestation, but “development always trumped environmental improvement,” said University of Washington anthropologist Stevan Harrell. “A big series of floods in 1998 is when they finally realized that they had to do something big.”
That year, deforestation on the steep slopes above the upper Yangtze River lead to a series of devastating floods that lasted two and a half months. They killed 4,000 people and left tens of millions homeless. In fact, the NFPP and NNRs were originally developed not as mitigation against climate change, but against erosion.
China’s efforts at staunching deforestation have had some hiccups. By some estimates 85% of the plantings on China’s “Great Green Wall,” a giant belt of trees planned to stretch 2,800 miles across north and northwest China to halt the advancing Gobi desert, have died.
Increasingly, however, the focus is not on what’s happening inside of China, but outside.
“There’s very little unsustainable cutting going on in China,” Harrell said. “The problem is that they’re importing soft woods from Russia, and hardwoods from the tropics, from New Guinea, and Indonesia and tropical Africa.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Tom Bregman, project manager of the Global Canopy Programme, which produces The Forest 500, a global ranking of influential companies, investors, and governments based on how much they contribute to or work to prevent deforestation.
“China scores relatively poorly for their overall policy,” Bregman said, “due to a lack of strong procurement policy that protects intact forest landscapes and a lack of publicly-available laws or directives that seek to minimize the impact of their commodity imports on forests.”
“As they struggle to restore their own forests but continue to build their wood products industry for domestic and foreign consumption,” Harrell said, “they’re exporting their deforestation.”