How China became the world’s largest contributor to forest growth


China’s rapid economic development has been accompanied by environmental problems that have been the subject of much criticism. On March 12, the 44th Arbor Day in China, Liu Min and Hu Angang used detailed data to show the lesser well-known achievements of China’s forestry industry and the reasons that drove them.

Key points
  • From 1990 to 2016, the world’s forest area and carbon sink – the ability of forests to absorb and store carbon dioxide – entered a period of sustained decline. During the same period, China increased its forest area by a net 553,000 square kilometers, equivalent to 3.8 times that of OECD countries, while the Global South countries (excluding China) decreased their forest area by a net 2.202 million square kilometers. China’s contribution to the world’s forest area growth reached 41.8 percent, and its actual contribution to the world’s forest carbon sink capacity was as high as 247.1 percent.
  • China’s forest cover reached 22.96 percent in 2020, with eight provinces exceeding 60 percent, significantly exceeding the average for EU countries (39.8 percent). China has taken the lead among developing countries in moving from a forest deficit to a forest surplus.
  • China has initiated long-term efforts to plant forests and reforestation. For example, the “Three Northern Projects” (1978-2050) have afforested 46.1 million hectares and become the “Great Green Wall” in the north of China.
  • The reforestation plan allows natural forest resources to rest and recuperate. After the 1998 floods were allegedly linked to deforestation, China introduced the strictest land management system and measures to protect forests and grasslands.
  • Under the framework of the five-year plan, national investment in ecological construction has been increasing. By 2020, China had invested 430 billion yuan in forestry, 400 times more than at the beginning of the reform and opening up in 1978.
  • Beginning in 1982, China launched a nationwide voluntary tree-planting campaign , and as of December 2021, 78 billion trees have been planted, revealing the superiority of the socialist political system.
  • China has actively promoted forestry reform to develop ecological productivity. The reform of the collective forestry rights system grants property rights to individuals by issuing forest rights certificates or paper share certificates and inspires peasants’ enthusiasm; the 70-year contract period of forest land allows farmers to plant trees without worrying about ownership.

The authors point out that China has experienced a development path from mainly logging, to both harvesting and planting, to making incredible contributions to the world’s forests through ecological protection and afforestation. There are painful lessons and successful experiences. Adherence to the improvement and development of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics and the continuity of central decision-making have played a key role in creating a green miracle in China’s forestry. The authors estimate that between 2020 and 2060, the carbon sink of China will increase by 22.74 billion tons, making it the world’s largest.


Chinese Voices, No.37, 20.03.2022.

Authors: Liu Min and Hu Angang

  • Liu Min (刘珉) is a researcher at the Economic Development Research Center of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration.
  • Hu Angang (胡鞍钢) is professor and director of the National Research Institute of Tsinghua University

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