Rumors of one of the world's great environmental success stories have been confirmed. China has turned around centuries of deforestation to expand the area covered by forests, lending hope that others can do the same thing.
Clearing of forests has been an almost universal accompaniment of industrialization, often wiping out whatever survived agriculture and shipbuilding. Given the speed with which China's economy has grown over the last four decades, and the enormous pollution problems that have only recently begun to be addressed, few people outside China might expect its forests to be doing well.
However, NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) paints a much more positive picture. An analysis of MODIS images published in Science Advances reveals that 1.6 percent of China's land surface became more heavily forested between 2000 and 2010, while 0.38 percent has gone the other way. These may sound small, but the area experiencing growth covers 160,000 square kilometers (61,000 square miles).
"Our results are very positive for China," said first author Dr. Andres Viña of Michigan State University in a statement. "If you look at China in isolation, its program is working effectively and contributing to carbon sequestration in accordance to its agenda for climate change mitigation. But on the other hand, China is not in a vacuum."
The problem, Viña acknowledged, is that many mainly tropical countries are felling their forests, partly for exports to China. "We are all part of the problem one way or another," Viña said. "We all buy products from China, and China has not changed their imports and exports of wood at all. What has changed is where timber is coming from."
A full account of how China's forest growth compares with the areas felled in other countries to replace local production remains to be done. Nevertheless, the finding is evidence that deforestation is not inevitable, an important message for a host of countries seeking to emulate China's economic story.
These slopes may have been too steep, and too prized to ever be logged, but the forests are starting to extend around them. Aphotostory/Shutterstock
The return of China's forests is not some happy accident. Conservation and restoration of its forests has been a policy of the Chinese government for almost two decades, after deforestation was recognized as a major cause of devastating 1998 floods. However, in a world where environmental goals often greatly exceed outcomes it isn't safe to assume that these ambitions would bring success. Moreover, as the paper notes, government statistics from China, which have already reported a forest recovery, are not always considered reliable.
The government's target is for an additional 40 million hectares (99 million acres) of forest by 2020.
The finding accompanies signs of recovery in Filipino forests. Moreover, they coincide with increasing evidence that the world may have turned a corner in the consumption of forest products. Paper consumption peaked in 2013, and will probably never be that high again. Global wood production is still rising, but there are predictions this could soon follow a similar path.