With economic development at the center of its national strategy, China has developed consequential problems of environmental degradation, especially to its forest ecosystems. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, continuous growth of the population and of the economy has resulted in the large-scale destruction of the nation’s primary-growth forests. National statistics, however, demonstrate an increase of forest coverage from 8.6% in 1949 to 21.63% in 2013 (State Forestry Administration of China, 8th National Inventory 2009-2013), against a global average of 31% according to FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment of 2010. Even today, China has the highest rate of afforestation compared to any country or region in the world, although the quality of its forest cover is debated (Smil 1993).
Still, China’s forested area per capita of 0.13 ha remains far below the world average of 0.62 ha (FAO 2006). Timber stock comparisons highlight similar gaps, as the standing stock volume amounts to less than 10 million cubic meters per capita, whereas the world average stands at approximately 66 million cubic meters per capita (Démurger et al. 2009). This is due, in part, to the vast arid region in China’s northwest, and in part to the country’s population size (Song and Zhang 2010).
The struggle to balance economy with forest ecology is not China’s quandary alone, but part of a global pattern favoring forest conversion to conservation, with financial incentives or food security determining policy priority. An estimated 48% of global deforestation has been ascribed to subsistence farming, while commercial agriculture is responsible the loss of 32% of forest cover (UNFCCC 2007). With an approximate population of 1.34 billion and growing (Sixth Modern Census of China 2010), food security inevitably maintains primacy over environmental protection in China. Especially as the country has faced the most devastating famine in the twentieth century only a decade after its founding. However, placing forest policy subservient to agrarian policy has proved to be detrimental in the past, even to ensuring sustained food production.
From a security perspective, deforestation impacts not only food security, but also human security, economic development and climate change (Smil 2004). Although the debate linking forests with flooding is highly contentious, it was the 1998 flooding of the Yangtze River that prompted China to revise its forest policy, and augment its forest protection program. Facing over $30 Billion USD in losses, China accepted that erroneous environmental policies had contributed to the severity of the flooding by allowing for indiscriminate deforestation (FAO 2005). The economic cost of the disaster exceeded the country’s annual spending on environmental protection (Smil 2004). And yet, to continue in the same course would mean incurring an annual cost estimated between $20 and $90 billion (Wang et al. 2004). Following the floods, Chinese forestry policy experienced a major shift to account for the ecological value of forest cover.
The value of forest resources is not limited to timber harvested alone, as acknowledged by former Chinese Minister of Environment Qu Geping in 1973, but also includes the vital eco-services provided by forests. Forests contribute to human security by ensuring water retention for flood control, and water purification for safe drinking water. Soil loss is also decelerated by forests, slowing erosion, while global climates are regulated through carbon sequestration (Song and Zhang 2010). Scientist Robert Watson, an advocate of global warming, estimates that forests sequester 46.3% of terrestrial carbon stock (Watson et al. 2000), making them central in the effort to control climate change. According to the former chair of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the global carbon cycle is impacted foremost by deforestation.
Carbon sequestration through reforestation and afforestation is disproportionate to the rate of carbon emissions and the carbon sink loss due to deforestation. Deforestation, according to the IPCC, accounts for 20% of overall greenhouse gas emissions (Barker et al. 2007). A staunch believer in the potential of anthropogenic intervention in climate change, Watson claims that “significant reductions in net greenhouse gas emissions” are possible with technology and “policy measures in the…agricultural and forestry sectors”.
Whether taking cue from the Confucian concept mastery, gain and social order (Shapiro 2004) or following Marx and Engels’s utilitarian perspective of nature (Marks 2011), China contains the largest area of artificial forest in the world (Yang et al. 2010): a massive undertaking which began as early as the 1950’s. Forestry policy in China, therefore, has implications for the global carbon cycle (Song and Zhang 2010). In 2007, the Chinese government claimed that 3.06 billion tons of carbon dioxide were sequestered by afforestation activity between 1980 and 2005 (Yang et al. 2010). During the same time period, 1.62 billion tons were sequestered through forest management, and carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by .43 billion tons due to a decrease in deforestation (Yang et al. 2010).
The global implications of these figures cannot be ignored.