Forest management is governed by policy priority: giving precedence to the carbon function of forests means favoring fast-growing trees species. A focus on the biodiversity function means that a wide range of tree species are encouraged, along with ecological conservation (Humphreys 1996). In 1992, both issues were tabled at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED): the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The latter has since become the key international treaty to reduce global warming and cope with the consequences of climate change. It was formulated following the First Assessment Report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which highlighted the importance of addressing the outcomes of climate change through international cooperation.
During the negotiations over the binding clauses of the UNFCC, developed countries favored conservation and sustainable management, accepting that the ecological services of forests may exceed the recorded market value of timber. The Group of 77 developing nations (G77), supported by China, opposed a convention that limited sovereign states from controlling their forest resources (Humphreys 1996). Compensation for opportunity cost foregone was another major point of contention for the G77. While no agreement was reached in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the negotiations produced a non-legally binding statement of principles on forests which affirms that states have sovereignty over their natural resources (UN 1992).
China is a key player in international climate change negotiations. It is on of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide, as well as one of the leading nations in reforestation programs (Chen et al. 2006). Current and future trends of land use in China are therefore highly important to the global carbon budget. In the mid 2000’s, international policy focus started to shift away from the negotiation of soft international law to more practice oriented measure to reduce deforestation (Humphreys 2013). The Fourth IPCC Assessment Report found that there remained more carbon in the worlds’ forests than in the atmosphere. Over half of the world’s terrestrial organic soil and vegetation carbon is resident in forests (Ju et al. 2007). Moreover, the IPCC estimated that 17% of greenhouse gases were caused by deforestation and forest degradation (IPCC 2007).
Deforestation and the excavation and burning of fossil fuels are the two primary forces behind anthropogenic climate change (Humphreys 2008). As major carbon sinks, forests play a key role in climate change mitigation both globally and locally. A change in size and quality of forest cover alters the levels of soil and atmospheric moisture. This may lead to the drying up of streams and rivers, and bring about local climate change which in turn affects an ecosystem’s ability to support numerous species (Humphreys 2013).
Forest cover itself is not immune to shifts in global climate, and may therefore contribute to further global warming. Above a certain temperature, which varies between ecosystems, enzymes necessary for photosynthesis in trees begin to break down, affecting the species’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide. As a result, forests may leak carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, and contribute to further global warming (Je et al. 2007). Climate is a major determinant of the carbon holding capacity and and carbon budget of forest ecosystems (Ju et. al 2007).
On August 30, 2002, China ratified the Kyoto Protocol given that it would not apply to Hong Kong and Macau (although Hong Kong was included on April 8 2003). As a non-Annex-1 country, China was not required under the Kyoto Protocol to meet emissions targets in the first commitment period, from 2008-2012. During this time, however, China agreed to participate in Clean Development Mechanism projects (CDM) under which Annex 1 countries were able to earn Certified Emissions Reduction credit by collaborating with non-Annex 1 countries (Chen et al. 2006).
The implementation of the Kyoto Protocol had come two years after China launched Six Key Forestry Programs for reforestation and forest protection. Many of these programs were not designed with carbon sequestration in mind, rather they focused on erosion control, flood mitigation, wood supply, agroforestry and agricultural commodity price control (i.e. Grain for Green) (Xu et al. 2001). However, large scale afforestation initiatives, forest regeneration programs, agricultural land use conversion to forest cover and forest protection policies all affected the carbon sequestration potential of China’s forest ecosystems.
As a participant in the UNFCCC and a Kyoto Protocol signatory, China engaged in estimating regional carbon sinks and sources in 2002. This information would be key to understanding the global terrestrial carbon cycle, and the sustainability of current carbon sinks (S. Wang et al. 2007). In 2002, a four year joint-project with Canadian institutions was launched, titled “Confronting Global Warming: Enhancing China’s Capacity for Carbon Sequestration”. The project aimed to develop tools to improve land-use decisions based on scientific analysis, which balanced ecology with economy (Chen at al. 2006). Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing application were introduced to monitor and model carbon cycle models. The potential for carbon sequestration in China’s forest ecosystems would thus be estimated, which would provide a scientific basis for the development of carbon-favorable sustainable forest management practices such as “site preparation, species and provenance selection, fertilization, thinning, harvesting, and adjusting rotation length” (Zhou et al. 2013). This would, in the long run, provide Chinese policy makers with cost-effective means to reduce net emissions while mitigating global climate change (Zhou et al 2013).
Previously, China’s forest carbon budget was estimated utilizing forestry inventories published by the SFA utilizing the bio-mass-volume relationship (Chen et al 2006). Since the 1970’s, China has implemented a nation wide Forest Resources and Inventory Program, which involves documenting forest areas and timber volumes by age, class and forest type. The forest areas were sampled from permanently designated plots on a five year basis (Yin et al. 2011).
As part of the joint Canadian-Chinese project, carbon sequestration studies in 2002 utilized remote sensing based carbon cycle models developed in Canada which were introduced to China. These were the Boreal Ecosystems Productivity Simulator (BEPS) for short-term carbon cycle modeling, and InTEC or the Integrated Terrestrial Ecosystem Carbon Model for determining annual changes of Carbon and Nitrogen in forested ecosystems (Ju et al. 2007). In 2007, scientists published a series of maps showing carbon sink distribution in China’s forests from 1900-2011 (S. Wang et al. 2007). This was the first time that forest stand age structure was considered in carbon sink estimation in China, as well as factors such as climate, soil texture, land cover types, leaf area index derived from remote sensing (S. Wang et al. 2007).
The historical model was also extended a century ahead, using 3K and 5K climate warming scenarios and two scenarios of precipitation redistribution (Ju et al. 2007). This study concluded that without climate change, China’s forest would increase in carbon sink strength until 2015, and then decrease to a near neutral level by 2100 because of age-related forest growth dynamics, potentially becoming a carbon source rather than sink (Ju et al. 2007).
The project also introduced a ground-based instrument called TRAC, or Tracing Radiation and Architecture of Canopies, in order to measure the effects of forest canopy structure on photosynthesis (Feng et al. 2007). Remote sensing and ground data were combined to map country-wide and county level carbon cycle components (Feng et al. 2007). Country wide maps provided regional forest carbon budget estimates, integral to state planning and policy making as well as global climate research (Chen et al. 2006).
Forest and soil assessments were taken in select ecological zones in order to adapt carbon cycle models to existing ecosystems in China. Studies were carried out in order to analyze the role of afforestation and other forest management options in carbon sequestration. The effects of species composition and forest dynamics on carbon pools were also analyzed through these assessments. Through these forest assessments, tree species for optimum carbon sequestration could be selected, and effects of forest age structure on carbon sequestration could be analyzed. Also the impact of various silviculture practices—such as timber harvest interval—on carbon sequestration can also be analyzed (Chen et al. 2006). Ultimately, these assessments would assist Chinese foresters in developing forest policy and management strategies for maximizing and sustaining carbon sequestration.
In 2007, an international consensus emerged at the UNFCCC that governments should actively reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from the forests, leading to the REDD initiative, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. REDD seeks to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands. As of yet, however, no binding legal principles have been decided upon (Humphreys 2013). Rather, REDD has evolved as a governing principle and idea with no single, multilateral institutional focus. It is a broad term for the exchange of forest conservation for modes of payment in order to slow anthropogenic climate change.
In order to implement the UNFCCC recommendations, China enacted the “Action Program to Deal with Climate Change” pledging to reduce the level of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP in 2020 by 40 to 45% compared with the level of 2005 (Environomist China Carbon Market Research Report 2014). The program led to the formation of “China’s Forestry Action Plan to Deal with Climate Change” in 2009. The plan outlined a framework for forestry policy and strategy to contend with climate change until 2050 (Yang et al. 2010). By 2010, annual afforestation would average 4 million hectares, with nationwide forest cover reaching up to 20%. Protected area of forests would increase to 51 million hectares and 50% of natural wetlands would be protected (Yang et al. 2010). By 2020, Chinese forest cover would reach 23%, protected areas would increase to 110 million hectares and 60% of natural wetlands would be protected. The carbon storage capacity of forests will increase 13.2 billion cubic in 2010 meters to 15.5 billion cubic meters in 2020 (Yang et al. 2010). Forest cover should exceed twenty 6% by 2050, most ecosystems are to be protected, forest carbon storage would be stable and forestry would shift to sustainable forest management.
As a blueprint, the forestry action plan provides an insight into China’s commitment to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions over the next 35 years, and the increasing role that forestry will play in climate change mitigation. The plan overlooks several aspects of forest carbon sink management. Water yield reduction due to afforestation is estimated between 50% in the semi-arid North to 30% in the tropical South; these numbers must be integrated into future afforestation plans (Yang et al. 2010). Alongside afforestation, programs aimed at improving the quality of China’s artificial forests and soils can also be implemented for increased carbon sequestration (Yang et al. 2010).