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Lessons from China on increasing forest cover

China’s experience with respect to forests and forestry stands out in several areas, including its reversal of deforestation and forest degradation
Red and yellow coloured cable cars moving over forest land in Nanjing, China

Depletion of forest cover is a continuing and imminent threat. The rampant destruction of some of the world’s largest ecosystems has multiple impacts on the flora, fauna and societies dependent on it. It has also led to an increase in global warming, disruption in seasons and the frequent occurrence of natural catastrophes.

Forests are the provider of many vital products and play a key role in combating climate change, regulating water flows, conserving biodiversity and providing various amenity values. As deforestation and forest degradation continue across much of Asia-Pacific, a recent paper by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) shows how China has “witnessed a phenomenal transformation of the forest sector in the last three decades”.

Recovery of forest cover in China

China has taken active steps in increasing its forest cover. In the past three decades, China has successfully arrested the loss of forests and even managed to reverse the trend. Such ‘forest transition’ is also evident in other countries within the region such as India, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

However, efforts by China is worthy of mention. It has increased its forest cover from 157 million hectares in 1990 to 220 million hectares in 2020. Its reforestation efforts have been the highest among the 236 countries covered by FAO’s assessment.

Exhibit 1: Rate of forest cover increase in China

The increase in China’s forest cover arises from two elements –planted forest area and naturally regenerated forests. Between 1990 and 2020, planted forests increased by over 40 million hectares, while naturally regenerated forests increased by 22 million hectares.

China accounted for almost one-third of the increase in planted forests globally, and by nearly two-thirds within Asia. While the world and Asia saw naturally regenerated forests declining by 7.5% and 4.7% respectively, China saw it increase by 19.5% between 1990 and 2020. The country has also designated other land areas which have been transformed into wooded areas.

Large scale tree-planting initiatives have ensured the growth of palm trees and orchards in China. There is also greater emphasis on improving the forest ecosystem and its resilience to climate change impacts. They have achieved this by bringing in public awareness, building national parks and running various forest restoration programmes.

China has successfully managed to designate forests for ecological and commercial purpose separately and is one of the major producers of forest products. Higher incomes, technological advancements and the ease of access due to urbanisation has led to the reduction of roundwood production for fuel purpose and an increase in the production of industrial roundwood.

Exhibit 2: Trend in the production of wood in China

Demand for wood-based products such as wood-based panels, pulp for paper and paperboard has increased significantly. China produces almost half of the world’s wood-based panels, and more than one-fourth of the world’s paper and paperboard. What is vital to note is that China imports about 55% of its industrial roundwood to manufacture these products.

Factors contributing to this transition

Several factors have led to this transition. Large changes in society drove policies and market changes in favour of reviving the forest cover in China.

China’s income grew rapidly between 1990-2019. From a GDP of $360.86 billion, it grew to $14.34 trillion. Its per capita income grew from $318 to $10,262 in the same period, which is an astounding growth of more than 3,000%.

Exhibit 3: Growth of per capita GDP in China

The increase in incomes had positive impacts for the forest industry in China. Growth in the manufacturing and services sectors shifted the burden from agricultural land, making them easily convert to tree plantations. Additionally, with more incomes, people have the opportunity to import wood from other countries, reducing the pressures on forests within China. Rapid urbanisation led to increase in wood-based products. Meanwhile, spurt in urbanisation and higher incomes led to demands of urban green spaces and parks.

Some catastrophic events also led to this shift in thinking within China. The severe drought of 1997 and the ensuing devastating floods of 1998 marked the turning point for China. This led to some key policy changes in land ownership and management. The ban of logging in 1998; the nationwide tree-planting programme in 1984; and the decision to divide forests under two categories – ecological forests and commercial forests.

China implemented six key national forestry programmes that had a strong impact on its forest transition. It is reported that together these six programmes cost an estimated $143 billion and bring about 300 million hectares of land under forest cover.

Exhibit 4: Key national forestry programmes

Under China’s Grain-for-Green Programme launched in 1999, China was able to successfully transform 33.5 million hectares of croplands into tree or grass cover to reduce soil erosion and protect watersheds. There is also a spurt noticed in the number of students graduating from forestry educational institutions in China.

China has also invested immensely in R&D in science and technology. This has had direct and indirect impacts on the forest industry. China launched a three-stage forest development strategy in 2010, focussing on using digital technologies to monitor, revive and develop the forest areas.

According to Jong-Jin Kim, Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, FAO, “such a transition is an outcome of the convergence of several factors, including the emergence of China as an industrial economy, clear and consistent policies, tenure reforms, investment in key forestry programmes, and strengthening science and technology capabilities”.

New scenarios and their implications

Developments so far on increasing forest cover in China may face some challenges due to the onslaught of new scenarios. Demographic changes such as the decline in population growth, acceleration in urbanisation and increase in ageing population will result in both direct and indirect impacts on the forest sector. More directly, China may face shortage in forestry workers. Additionally, it may also face an increase in the demand for wood due to an increase in housing demands for the elderly.

The economic drawbacks due to COVID-19 and the inward-looking policies of some countries will impact the export and import of forest products and its trade. Due to increase in per capita incomes, China has already began shifting towards catering to domestic demands which will impact the wood-processing sector.

China is party to the Paris Agreement and under its nationally determined contribution, increasing forest cover is a significant component. But it will need to continue maintaining the health and vitality of forests that remain threatened due to fire and pests.

Lessons for other countries

Some key elements emerge from China’s transition which can be adopted by other countries. First, countries should develop a favourable macroeconomic environment where the focus should be on rapid industrialisation and higher growth of incomes. Second, robust policies and institutional frameworks need to be in place to ensure the success of sustainable forest management and its regeneration.

Third, a successful coherence of public and private players, investment in forestry science and technology, and human capital. Lastly, the development and implementation of long-term forestry programmes.

“The experience of China during the last three decades provides important lessons and is the outcome of a unique confluence of factors. Taking into account that each country’s situation is different, it is difficult to offer broad recommendations about what may be done to accomplish forest transitions and to make sustainable forest management workable. Yet the experience of China does give some indication of key elements that need to be in place in a country in order to accomplish forest transition,” the report concludes.

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