Nearly a Quarter of China Could Be Forest by 2020

A UN report details the reforestation plan as part of China's "eco-civilization" program.

Forests could cover 23 percent of China's landmass by the year 2020 if the country is successful in the development of its "ecological civilization" program, according to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

The report, "Green is Gold: The Strategy and Actions of China's Ecological Civilization," notes that, since opening up its economy 30 years ago, the country has undergone economic growth at an average rate of 9.8 percent per year, successfully transitioning from a low-income to a high-middle-income nation in that time. That has brought considerable economic benefits, but it has come at a cost to the environment and human health, particularly in the form of chronic air pollution in many of its cities -- and the fact that China is now the planet's No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases.

In 2007, Xi Jinping, now China's president, began advocating for the concept of an "ecological civilization." Five years later, it was elevated to a national strategy. Zhu Guangyao, executive vice president of the Chinese Ecological Civilization Research and Promotion Association, explains rather breathlessly that ecological civilization "is a new concept in the development of human civilization. It refers to material, spiritual and organizational achievements in following objective laws of harmonious human, social and natural development."

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All of which sounds fine in principle, although it has been noted that, "Chinese leaders are keener on coming up with slogans than implementing them." In the words of one observer: "I can't pretend to know how serious China's leaders are with respect to their stated goal of achieving an "ecological civilization," and one certainly can't help but notice the irony when looking at the pollution belching out of smoke stacks as you travel to and from the airport," but, that same observer notes, "authoritarian leadership, like it or not, has pointed to a spot on a distant horizon and set change in motion."

By the end of 2014, the UNEP report notes, China had built 10.5 billion square meters of energy-saving buildings in urban areas -- roughly 38 per cent of the total area of urban residential buildings. In addition, China's production of new-energy vehicles increased 45-fold between 2011 and 2015. The country has also built the largest air-quality monitoring network in the developing world, and lowered energy consumption per unit of GDP and the amount of CO2 released per unit of GDP.

The program plans to build on such achievements by, in addition to increasing forest cover, increasing prairie vegetation coverage by 56 percent, reclaiming more than half of reclaimable desert and preserving at least 35 percent of the natural shorelines. Other targets include cutting water consumption by 23 percent, energy consumption by 15 percent and carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 18 percent, and reaching peak CO2 emissions by 2030.

"If China succeeds in achieving these targets," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, "then it will have taken a major step towards shifting to a greener economy that uses resources more efficiently, limits the risks of climate change and improves the health of its people."

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