Shrub and tree planting in China’s western deserts.
Photo: © Jianchu Xu/ ICRAF

China’s afforestation effort

Over recent years China has made considerable investments in its afforestation programme. A new study that takes stock of the successes achieved differentiates between new tree plantations and “real” forest areas.

A new study shows that much of China’s new tree cover consists of sparse, low plantations as opposed to large areas of dense, high tree cover, ICRAF reported in May 2017.

China has invested more resources than any other country in reversing deforestation and planting trees, according to the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF). However, given the large scale of these programmes it has been difficult to quantify their impact on forest cover

Since devastating floods in 1998 highlighted the dangers of deforestation, China has enacted strict bans on logging in primary forests, a massive expansion of forest reserves, and multibillion-dollar afforestation programmes. 

China has spent more than USD 100 billion on planting trees over the last decade alone, according to Antje Ahrends of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) and the Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB), and lead author of the study. Antje Ahrends notes, however, that despite the many successes of this programme, planting trees is not the same as gaining forests.
The researchers analysed high-resolution maps derived from satellite data using different definitions of “forest”. Under the broadest definition, that used by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), China gained 434 000 km² of forest cover between 2000 and 2010 – larger than the areas of Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg combined.

However, this definition includes scattered, immature or stunted plantations often consisting of a single species or even single clones, which are unlikely to provide the same benefits as large areas of dense and tall forest.

By looking only for large areas of tall, relatively dense tree cover the results were dramatically different: under the stricter definition, China’s forests expanded by less than a tenth of the previous estimates – 33 000 km², an area smaller than the size of The Netherlands.

The paper China’s fight to halt tree cover loss, co-authored by a team from organisations including RBGE, KIB and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Ahrends A, Hollingsworth PM, Beckschäfer P, Chen H, Zomer RJ, Zhang L, 14 Wang M, Xu J. 2017. China’s fight to halt tree cover loss. Proc. R. Soc. B 20162559.


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