At China's Wolong National Nature Reserve, the forests in the foreground have regrown since 2000, thanks to a national forest conservation program. Deforested areas are visible in the background. (Photo: Andrés Vina/Michigan State University)

A new study suggests ‘pay to conserve’ programs can help reverse the deforestation crisis—to a point...

The first real eye-in-the-sky look at China’s forests has revealed something surprising: They’re a lot bigger than they used to be.

According to satellite data analyzed by researchers at Michigan State University, tree cover increased significantly on about 1.6 percent of China’s territory—that’s nearly 61,000 square miles—between 2000 and 2010.

Meanwhile, tree cover dropped on only 0.38 percent of China’s land—14,400 square miles—during that same period.

“Amid China’s devastating environmental problems, such as air pollution and water pollution, forest recovery is the major exceptional success,” said study coauthor Jianguo “Jack” Liu, an environmental and sustainability scientist at MSU.

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The study was published Friday in the journal Science Advances.

The researchers attributed the forest gain to China’s Natural Forest Conservation Program, which has banned logging in many of the country’s forests and set up systems to prosecute illegal logging. The NFCP also compensates businesses and households for monitoring forest health and conserving trees rather than cutting them down.

China instituted the NFCP in 1998 as a response to unsustainable logging in the 1980s. That massive deforestation caused mountain soil to erode and collect in rivers, which worsened floods throughout the last decades of the 20th century.

According to the paper, China invested about $14 billion in the NFCP during its first 10 years.

Other programs that aided reforestation during this period included the Grain-to-Green program, which paid farmers to convert hillside cropland back into forests. The authors wrote that these were important but probably had less effect, as they usually covered territories too small to be observed from space.

Liu acknowledged that the researchers don’t yet have data for what’s been happening since 2010 but added that they “believe that the trends and relationships observed in our study should continue, given that the NFCP was renewed for an additional 10-year cycle.”

The composition of the regrown forests and their value to native wildlife aren’t yet clear, Liu said, because satellite images do not reveal whether the new forests are a result of natural recovery or plantation-style replanting.

Liu said the increased tree cover is probably owing to a combination of those factors.

What Liu and his colleagues found, however, is that the additional forest could play a role in mitigating the effects of climate change by storing more carbon in the trees and ground. How large a role remains to be determined, but given the amount of territory, it could be significant.

“I think to some degree programs like NFCP can be useful to other countries. Brazil is trying to use similar methods in some of its reforestation,” said Liu. Its success “is partly due to China’s central control and command, and it’s partly due to the incentives. That part could be very useful to other countries.”

But there is a dark side. The researchers noted that while China has reduced logging within its borders, it has also become a major importer of lumber and wood products from other countries, such as Indonesia, Russia, and Vietnam.

China is also driving deforestation beyond its borders as a grower of palm oil in Africa.

“Therefore,” the authors wrote in the paper, “at least some of the carbon sequestration in China’s forested areas may have come at the cost of carbon emissions elsewhere.”

Julian Newman of the Environmental Investigation Agency, which has tracked the illegal timber supply chain in Asia, called China’s sourcing from other countries “a massive displacement of deforestation.”

“A significant proportion of China’s wood imports are derived from illegal logging,” Newman said. China has increased its wood imports from Laos 24-fold since 2008, he said, despite that the country has a log export ban.

A 2015 report by the EIA revealed that Chinese demand is also driving a surge of illegal logging in Myanmar.

China’s demand for lumber, which reportedly decreased in 2015 owing to the country’s economic slowdown, feeds both domestic construction and the manufacturing of high-end products such as furniture.

Many of those products, according to the EIA, are destined for sale in the U.S. and other Western countries.

Researchers from Michigan State University worked with GPS coordinates in Wolong National Nature Reserve, part of their effort to track changes in China's forest cover since 2000. (Photo: Andrés Vina/Michigan State University)

Liu said the researchers’ findings show important progress in China but reveal a need for a better understanding of the impacts of lumber imports.

“We would like to see the degree to which the NFCP implementation has contributed to deforestation elsewhere to assess the overall effects of NFCP, not just on China, but on the world as a whole,” he said. “This will provide a more holistic understanding of the effects of conservation policies across national boundaries.”

Mar 18, 2016
John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.

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