China’s New Forests – leading the World to a greener future.

China – its trees and its forests – facts, figures, fantasies and futures.

At prompts from the recent UN conference in New York on the Global Forest Reserve (4) which says that net forest loss has been slower for the last ten years almost totally because of the Chinese I thought I’d better investigate. Is there a “Great Leaf Forward” as one could find ones-self describing it? (1) Early on I reckoned to take the UK as compare and contrast – not a control but a reference point.(In 5)

The figures given (In above, plus 2 and 3) were:

  • Forest loss 1990-2000 at 8 300 000ha/annum but
  • 2001-2010 had been a mere 5 200 000ha/annum so
  • 3 100 000 less ha/annum.

All these are due to China with losses still in South America, Polynesia and Africa and the rest of the World b r o a d l y neutral.

Other contextural figures are:

  • Total Global forest area is “circa 4 billion hectares” (I also have a figure of 3.87 billion hectares in my files.) About one third of total land mass, though some say it’s a quarter or even 30%!
  • 1ppm CO2 is equal to 8.14 Billion Tonnes of the gas in our atmospheric conditions, given a figure of 3.5 BT as total mass carbon dioxide in the atmosphere(7).
  • 1T tree, burned gives rise to 1.5 TCO2
  • Thus 1ppm CO2=16/3BT forest = 5.33BT
  • At 200 T/ha average forest mass then 1ppm is equivalent to

26.5million hectares or 265 000km sq. This is 2 million hectares greater than the UK land mass.

  • Global forest loss of 13million ha/annum was my stock quotation (6). Here the UN FAO uses this figure for current loss down from 16 million per annum in the 1990s. Note this decline is the same as the New York figures (1) but from a higher maximum. So the New York figures are 8.3m down to 5.2m, a 3.1m decline. Both sets are UN derived figures. I have a suspicion that the New York conference is attempting to put on positive glosses but there is a huge gap to fill to establish the reality of actual forest loss.
  • At 13mha the atmospheric impact is 0.49 ppm increase whereas at 5.2mha impact is 0.2ppm. For now we can take this to be the range of figures to denote the impact of deforestation on the atmosphere.
  • This relates to the present 2ppm per annum increase in atmospheric CO2 derived from all human activities. It is said elsewhere [need reference] that 12 to 20 percent is due to forest clearance, the figures above suggest 10 to 25 per cent. The release comes from tree and brushwood burning, soil decay with CO2 and methane release, harvest and transport activities as well as the loss of the carbon fix capacity of the cleared woodland. Again this is not a straightforward equation.

China instigated its re-afforestation policy as a sixty year plan in about 1990 so it’s now 20 years along the line and they’re showing most positive outcomes already. They say, and who am I to deny them?

  • They were down to 117 000 000ha of natural forest (around 12% land area so not any way near as bad as the UK got by 1919 when we were under 5%) but have, since 1990, protected and revived most of that and:
  • Planted53.65mha of “Land conversion” , “Protection forest”, “Coastal shelterbelt” and the like.
  • That’s 2.68mha per annum over the 20 years but is best weighted  more to the second ten years – as the mechanisms got “on stream”. Thus, this very accurately accounts for the UN figures quoted above of 3.1 million hectares less lost each year since 2000.
  • There have been 49 billion trees planted under this strategy, often by volunteer groups for example on National Tree Planting Days.
  • “Sandification” was a big problem, increasing by 343 600ha per annum in the late 1990s. It is now reducing by 128 300ha each year.
  • The “Great Green Wall of China” is envisaged to be 400mha by 2050. That will be impressive and will take China to around 50% forest cover. Where’s the food to be grown – they are planting to some agricultural lands? And the towns – will forest encroach rather than deserts?!

For further clarification and understanding other reference points are needed now:

  • Chinese land mass is 960mha and the UK is 24.2mha so UK is approx 2.5% China’s land area.
  • Chinese population is 1.33 billion up from 0.7 billion in 1960. UK is 62million up from 50million in 1950 ie doubled as opposed to 19% increase. And they’ve had famines, a one kid policy and emigration!
  • Thus the UK has 4.7% of the Chinese population at nearly twice the population density. (China 1.39/ha, UK 2.56/ha)
  • China releases 6.5BT CO2 per annum whereas the UK emits 0.54BT ie 12%. (4.89T as opposed to 8.71T per person per annum)
  • 6.5BT CO2 is about 0.85ppm as atmospheric CO2.
  • This is equivalent to 21.2million hectares of forest cleared and burned. Each year.
  • And each year they’re only planting at 3 million hectares.
  • Say China continued present emissions for the next forty years. That would be equivalent to clearing and burning 848 million hectares.
  • So 117 plus 53.65 plus 848 is 1018.65. Remember China’s land area is 960 million hectares…


Well, anyone could write this, now. “We’re all doomed” “There’s not the slightest chance that this’ll help in any way but to their own consciousness and consciences”. Well, hell, it’ll make China a better place as they’ll slowly be turning the game around again. Will they crack their whips and have us provide all their timber as has been happening more and more in recent years anyway. They certainly write of their extracting their own timber from their current new forests, and I’m sure they will, but will they continue to import much more? Apparently they go for the tropical woods illegally harvested, slander slander, as if we didn’t and we don’t now. But there’s a very good line in Siberian structural timber they’re mining at the moment and it’s still got a few years before it runs out, apparently.

Hey, that’s a bleak summarisation. Not only is their massive afforestation only of marginal use climatically, as their current carbon use far outweighs its contribution, but they’ll probably still import huge amounts of timber from elsewhere and so are also creating further net carbon release. They’re doing what Japan has for a long time – exporting deforestation. Yeah, yeah, and we’ve exported a large part of our carbon footprint to them at the moment so it’s very tit for tat. And “Displacement”. So if we reduce our carbon release and they plant loads of trees we all look so much better whilst in reality the whole picture is constantly descending into catastrophe. Unabated.

Oh dear, it stayed bleak. That’s not good – surely there’s positive outcomes? Well, I guess there’s motivation. The more I see the realities, the clearer becomes my advice. Now I need a measure of the urgency. Closer focus on the impacts of these nasty little CO2s as they collect up there and only maybe go to the sinks. I remain convinced that a vast increase to the global forest cover is essential and the fact that the country managing by far the best at reafforestation is still belching out far more CO2 than it will ever fix with the establishment of 150 billion new trees is more than a touch worrying.

I read Porritt or some other Media Green talking of how it was essential to halve the UK population. Well, yes, that’d reduce demand but how would he achieve that? And by when? Is it a five year cull or maybe more long term? Fifty years? Well, that’d take CO2 levels up to 500 or so, perhaps even higher. And where’ll the trees be by then? Scary. Look, I’m trying to draw positives here and all these bad vibes keep leaking out and subverting me.

I’m happy that even here in the UK we could feed ourselves from our land at our population levels. So much rich agricultural land is so underperforming due to our excessive devotion to livestock. We could maybe keep on some smart ass bankers to earn the money for our banana boats and coffee but otherwise we could do pretty well.

But then we’ve got to overcome the problems of so energy intense living by movement into communities where all the essentials can be provided locally. Plus super energy efficiency. And super insulation of dwellings. But we should plant the woodlands for work, shelter, raw materials, food and amusement as well as climate mitigation. Or maybe just look after ourselves and bother those bad vibes just jumped back in. We just don’t have a receptive society, do we? It all goes against the grain, the never had it so goodness of the recent who-are-you-kidding years. And I have to ask myself who was kidding whom and am I right or is, no, was the mirage in fact the reality? Is it really possible to live as spend spend spend as we did and many still do? Is it just societal bullying or has something actually run out? And does that signify some sense of the environmental collapse in itself? Was the financial collapse partly a result of global climate alterations? No, I don’t think so either, but you’ve got to ask! Maybe morally there’s a connection but, of course, those still holding the reins are the greater polluters, the biggest bullies, in fact or the more ego-centric. Would they were, instead, eco-centric.

So what’s to be my sermon? There seems to be a figure somewhere to relate national carbon use to carbon fixed. Ideally these should be in balance or, indeed, running negative for a good while. I’m sure Brazil is negative already but the calculation is complicated, si? And still it depends on the veracity of the problem. I know all the associated issues of crazy pace of life, waste, gross mis-planning, biodiversity loss, ecological decay, no protection from storms and other intense weather, poor health from over indulgent and excessive diets but is climate really changing and are sea levels a danger? Would it not be just totally OK to move uphill and further north? Is it fast enough to be an issue? Are the El Ninos and the El Ninas dissipation of the energy and so “letting off steam”? Maybe we should just learn to live with change, as we always have?

It’s going to go on happening, anyway, whatever we do as the dice are truly cast. Thus we must promote the means to live in a changing climate and how to mitigate the effects and stabilise matters in the future. So all I’ve writ above, really, as we mitigate like hell, planting forest to emulate the Chinese and yet moving to live within these zones of increased tree cover. Permaforest and permaculture and treehouses. Latter day wood elves, even. That’ll please the Tolkeinophiles. Cast out the cattle and shove off the sheep, though place pigs in the oakwoods and chickens in the orchards. We’ll not do away with meat – just reduce it.

The Chinese are ahead of us but also oddly driven by us. In improving our own standing we – all the over-indebted, overindulged “Western” economies – should learn to emulate their actions and to cut off our dependency on their products. That in turn will tend to close down their export industries and so reduce their net carbon release. Once they recover from their mass unemployment they’ll thank us as they meander through their steadily maturing new forests, breathing ever cleaner, clearer air.

Then they can start replanting the Siberian forests!


  1. Personal calculations based on derived constants, given.
  1. as source for basic data on mass CO2 in atmosphere.

By: Chris Hemmings, February 7th, 2011.


About greencentre

Non grant supported hence independent scientist, green activist, writer and forest planter.
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2 Responses to China’s New Forests – leading the World to a greener future.

  1. greencentre says:

    As a PS to the above I have a couple of observations:
    Firstly it appears that this great Chinese project dates back much further – to the immediate post revolutionary Maoist era. Around 1950 there began a move to replant, although not coordinated as emerged later in the 1980s. Thus damage to existing forests continued and there continued to be net loss during this initial period or thirty years or so. It must be noted that this time included further major upheavals including the period of the Cultural Revolution and substantial famine when planting new forest may have lacked importance.
    Secondly there has been praise heaped upon Eithiopia, Turkey,Mexico, Romania, Kenya and Cuba recently for planting a total of up to three billion trees. Which is good but not many compared to forty nine billion in China, admitedly over a longer period. It seems, though, that the best exemplar is being ignored. Why?

  2. Pingback: Further to the above « Five Trillion Trees

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