The role of China’s forests in mitigating climate change

Written by Manon Verchot

Forest areas in China are rapidly expanding through reforestation and afforestation activities.  There has been much discussion in China about opportunities for climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration and through opportunities for producing feedstock for electricity generation and liquid fuels from new forest plantations.  There has been less discussion about the role that existing forests could and should play in climate change mitigation.

A recent set of studies carried out by an interdisciplinary team from five institutions, including the Kunming Institute of Botany, the University of California, Berkeley, and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), provides insights into the economics and institutional implications of different forest management options that support climate change mitigation.

The first study analysed different forest management strategies for existing, low productivity collective forests in Southwest China. These forests are currently characterized by low yielding trees that are regularly cut and sold as small diameter logs. The authors considered four management alternatives for these forests: (1) maintain the status quo; (2) transition to sustainable forest management (SFM), with a large initial thinning and periodic thinnings thereafter; (3) replace the existing forest with a fast growing, short-rotation species for electricity generation; and (4) replace the existing forest with a fast growing, short-rotation species for timber production.


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The study showed that the economic outcomes of SFM are sensitive to revenues from initial tree thinning, which improves tree growth by reducing the density of the forest.  The authors also found that carbon revenues can lower some of the risks of SFM and improve its economics.  However, carbon revenues are effective in incentivizing management changes only if the thinning stimulates a moderately high increase in total wood yield. Electricity generation from short rotation plantations produced too little revenue and could not compete with timber, even with revenue from CO2 offsets.

As conversion of existing forests into short rotation species for timber rather than energy is more profitable than any scenario considered here, it is important to highlight the need for regulatory innovations to balance incentives for timber production with conservation goals. The results underscore the importance of improved public sector regulatory, planning, extension, and analysis capacity as an enabling force for effective climate policies in China’s forestry sector.

A second study by the group examined the trade-offs between large bioenergy systems for urban energy use and small, more decentralized bioenergy systems for rural energy use. China has energy challenges at the national level, such as growing energy demands in cities and the need to decarbonise urban energy supplies, but there are equally compelling challenges in rural energy. Forest bio-energy could provide a solution to rural energy needs, and if produced sustainably it would provide climate benefits, as it is a low to zero carbon energy source.

Currently, inefficient biomass combustion is the most commonly used form of energy in China’s more than 200 million rural households. Technological and institutional limitations to commercializing improved forest bioenergy impede the development of more modern, rural forest bioenergy systems. More efficient forms of forest bioenergy include the conversion of biomass into gas or electricity. Bringing them to scale would require developing an appropriate infrastructure for energy distribution and implementing new technologies, driven by demand from rural households and financed, at least in part, by the private sector.  These changes would reduce indoor pollution and would improve rural health. They would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Rural parts of China will continue to be home to a significant part of the population and these areas need to develop in a sustainable way. The authors suggest that these factors make bio-energy technologies a more meaningful solution for rural energy than for urban energy.

Transitioning from current practices, such as low productivity forests and inefficient biomass combustion in rural areas, to practices that favour climate change mitigation and improvement of rural health, such as SFM and modern, rural bioenergy systems, is a complicated process. Challenges exist at economic, political, and social levels, requiring institutional changes to ensure that incentives for forest management are aligned with policy goals.  These studies show that careful thought is needed about the design of forest policies for climate change mitigation, and about the appropriate roles of the public and private sectors in implementation.

Read the full journal articles:

Incentives for carbon sequestration and energy production in low productivity collective forests in Southwest China

Large or small? Rethinking China’s forest bioenergy policies

Related Reading:

Rethinking bioenergy: value chains that put farmers first


Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences

University of California, Berkeley


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