On July 5, a consultation draft of revisions to China’s Forest Law was published on the website of the National People’s Congress. Comments can be submitted until August 3, via the website or by mail.
The law was originally passed in 1984, and it has been over two decades since the last revision, in 1998. Forests and the environment have seen huge changes since then, both in China and globally, and the new revisions could aid China in better tackling existing and future challenges in forest governance. The explanatory notes on the draft revisions set a positive tone, stating that “forestry development is now focused on ecological construction rather than production of timber.”
However, disappointingly, the draft revisions do not mention the importance of China to forest governance globally, as environmental organisations and experts had hoped. China is currently among the world’s largest importers, manufacturers and exporters of wood products. Given that half of China’s timber supplies come from overseas, the long-term success of its wood manufacturing sector depends on sustainable forests outside its borders. It also means that China's management policy on timber imports will have a significant impact on global forest protection. But, as described in the recent Global Witness briefing, Lessons from China’s Global Forest Footprint: How China can rise to a global governance challenge, illegal logging and deforestation are rife in the countries supplying 80% of China’s tropical wood imports, as well as other key timber suppliers such as Russia.
China, which benefits from the source of timber in these areas, should also have a responsibility to protect their forests and, at the very least, reduce deforestation by rejecting imports of illegally harvested timber. China is currently the largest economy in the world that does not prohibit the import of illegal timber. The revisions to the Forest Law provide an opportunity to do this.
Keeping illegal timber imports out of Chinese markets will directly support China’s global commitments to safeguarding our climate and biodiversity. The revisions to the Forest Law do not mention the importance of forests to climate change, the importance of which is global, rather than limited to China’s borders. China’s exposure to imports of illegal and high-risk timber may increase the risk of deforestation in source countries and reduce the key contribution of forests (in particular, tropical forests) to maintaining a stable climate. Scientists have found that, for the first time in history, forests are releasing more carbon than they absorb – due to deforestation and forest degradation. A 2018 study found that if tropical deforestation were a county, it would rank third in carbon dioxide emissions - after the US and China and before the European Union. China has already made international commitments to use its efforts and knowledge to aid the global response to climate change. If China does more to manage its impact on forests overseas – in particular, by actively fighting illegal logging – it will make a real contribution to tackling climate change and reducing global emissions.
The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recognizes that forests are among the most biologically rich systems on Earth, harbouring the vast majority of terrestrial species. Logging in tropical countries is especially destructive to biodiversity, because tropical forests are among the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth. The conference of the CBD will be held in Kunming, China next year, with signatories to the Convention expected to pass a new Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. Chinese State Council Vice Premier Han Zheng has said that “China must actively prepare to carry out its duties as host nation and ensure a conference of landmark significance.” China has always taken its responsibilities under the Convention seriously. Considering sustainable use of overseas forests in its revised Forest Law would be a valuable contribution to fulfilment of the fourth of the CBD’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets on sustainable production and consumption. It would also be of huge significance for the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, by indicating that the duty of each nation to conserve biodiversity does not stop at national borders but rather the impact of domestic production and consumption on biodiversity worldwide must be taken into account.
In 2017, speaking at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, President Xi Jinping said “China will continue its responsible leader role, by actively participating in the reform and construction of the global governance systems and by contributing Chinese wisdom and strength.” This makes us hope that China will use the revision of the Forest Law to introduce mandatory measures to prohibit the import of illegal timber to make real contributions.