Almost a quarter of China’s land mass is covered by forests, according to official statistics. The Chinese government has ambitious forest conservation programs and highlights growth in forest stock volume as a prominent climate change goal.1
Most new forest growth in China is in monoculture plantations. The impact of China’s timber and food imports on tropical forests abroad may substantially or completely offset the climate change benefits of China’s domestic forestry programs.2
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 23% of China’s territory is covered with forests, according to the Chinese government and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).3
China’s forest cover has expanded in recent decades, according to Chinese government sources.
- China’s State Council Information Office reports that 36.3 million hectares of forests were planted from 2016 to 2020.4
- NDRC reports that roughly 15 million hectares of forests were planted between 2011 and 2015.5
- China’s State Forestry Administration reports that China’s forest cover grew from roughly 13% in 1981 to more than 20% in 2010.6
Figure 23-1: China’s Forests (2019)
Several academic studies provide similar estimates for the years prior to 2010.
- A 2016 study by scientists at Michigan State University found that between 2000 and 2010, 1.6% of China’s territory experienced a significant increase in forest cover and 0.38% experienced significant forest loss.8
- 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 2010.9
However, at least one source finds that tree cover has declined in China in the past several decades. Global Forest Watch, an online platform that provides forest data, reports that:
- From 2001 to 2020, China lost 10.9 million hectares of tree cover—a 6.7% decrease—resulting in roughly 4.7 Gt of CO2 emissions (slightly less than half of China’s CO2 emissions last year).
- From 2013 to 2021, China lost 3.7 million hectares of natural forest—a 2.7% decrease—resulting in roughly 1.5 Gt of CO2 emissions.
- From 2002 to 2021, China lost 77,300 hectares of humid primary forest—a 4.5% decrease.10
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.”11
Data quality may also be a problem. Some studies have found systemic over-reporting of tree cover in China, in part because tree cover goals are included in the performance criteria for many local and provincial officials.12
Monoculture plantations dominate new forest growth in China. One study found that, although tree cover grew 32% in southwest China between 2000 and 2015, all that growth was due to the conversion of croplands to tree plantations. During the same period, native forests in southwest China declined by 6.6%. Monoculture tree plantations provide significantly less carbon storage and biodiversity value than natural forests.13
China’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) gives high prominence to a forest goal. One of the six principal goals in China’s October 2021 NDC is “to increase the forest stock volume by around 6 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels” by 2030. This builds on the forest goal in China’s 2015 NDC—to increase the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels by 2030. (The 2015 NDC forest goal was achieved in 2019, 11 years ahead of schedule.)14
During the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021–2025), the Chinese government aims to increase forest cover to 24.1% of the country’s total land area. This builds on the forest cover goal in the 13th Five-Year Plan—to increase forest cover from 21.66% to 23%. The 13th Five-Year Plan forest goal was met in 2020.15
The 14th Five-Year Plan sets goals for the protection and restoration of important ecological zones. Six of these goals relate to forestry.16 (See table below.)
Figure 23-2: 14th Five Year Plan Forest Goals
Figure 23-3: 14th Five-Year Plan: Major Projects for Protection and Restoration of Important Ecosystems
The Chinese government has extensive domestic forest conservation programs. The largest, known as the Natural Forest Conservation Program, includes large-scale tree-planting, an expansion of forest reserves and a ban on logging in primary forests. From 1998 to 2018, the central government spent more than RMB 475 billion (roughly $72 billion) on the program.19
Historically, the goal of China’s forest conservation programs included preventing floods and fighting desertification. 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. The National Forest Conservation Program was launched in the wake of the catastrophic Yangtze River floods of 1998. In recent years, the goals of China’s forest conservation programs have expanded to include fighting local air pollution and climate change as well.20
In December 2019, the National People’s Congress revised China’s Forest Law for the first time in 10 years. The amendments banned buying, transporting or processing illegal timber and require processing companies to establish a data record of raw materials and products. Environmental advocates praised the amendments, while saying the impacts would depend on how actively the new provisions are enforced. The amendments also strictly control the logging of natural forests and limit annual harvest volumes.21
Official documents setting forth China’s forest policies include:
- National Afforestation and Greening Plan (2016–2020)22
- National Forest Management Plan (2016–2050)23
- Action Plan for Climate Change in Forestry in the 13th Five-Year Plan24
- Action Plan for Forestry to Adapt to Climate Change (2016–2020)25
- 14th Five-Year Plan for Protection and Development of Forestry and Grassland (2021–2025)26
The National Forestry and Grassland Administration (NFGA) within the Ministry of Natural Resources has principal responsibility for forest management in China. The NFGA was established in 2018 as part of government-wide institutional reforms, assuming the functions and responsibilities of the former State Forestry Administration at that time.27
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.28
China’s forest programs sequester significant amounts of carbon.
- A 2020 study estimated that, between 2020 and 2050, forest vegetation in China will absorb roughly 22% of Chinese CO2 emissions from fossil fuels during the same period.29
- 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.30
- 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.)31
- 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.)32
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 1150 Gt of CO2 (roughly 11% of China’s annual CO2 emissions) were sequestered by land use change and forestry activities in 2014.33
- 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 2012.34
A 2020 study examined different methods for estimating forest carbon storage in China, finding that better survey data are needed.35
China is the world’s largest timber importer. In 2019, 56% of logs and sawn wood bought in China were imported.36
China’s footprint on tropical forests is especially large.
- In 2018, roughly two-thirds of the world’s tropical forest logs were exported to China.37
- China is also the world’s largest importer of soy and beef, and the world’s second-largest importer of palm oil. Growing global demand for each of these products causes significant tropical deforestation.38
In addition, some Belt and Road Initiative projects are through forested areas, which has led to deforestation.39
From a global perspective, these trends may substantially or completely offset the climate change benefits of China’s domestic forest conservation policies. China’s impacts on tropical forests around the world are especially important with respect to climate change. Tropical deforestation can lead to significant warming, due to both the release of carbon dioxide from vegetation and biophysical effects such as changing the albedo of the Earth’s surface.40
In September 2020, the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED), “a high-level international advisory body with the approval of the Government of China,”41 released a report finding that:
“The Chinese government could strengthen measures to reduce the import of soft commodities that are illegally harvested or produced in their country of origin. This could build upon a provision regarding the legality of timber in the latest revision of the Forest Law.”42
In 2021, the Chinese government signaled attention to deforestation abroad in several international fora.
- At the Second EU–China High-Level Environment and Climate Dialogue in September 2021, China and the EU agreed “to engage collaboratively in support of reducing global deforestation through enhancing cooperation in conservation and sustainable management of forests, making supply chains more sustainable, and combating illegal logging and associated trade.”43
- At the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in November 2021 (COP26), China signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use together with 140 other countries. The Declaration includes a commitment to “halt and reverse forest loss” by 2030.44
- Also at COP26, China and the United States issued the Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s, pledging to “engage collaboratively in support of eliminating global illegal deforestation through effectively enforcing their respective laws on banning illegal imports.”45