Nourishing China’s Forests Can Create Millions of Green Jobs

China's forest distribution

By Haibing Ma

New research from the Worldwatch Institute shows that over the next 10 years, afforestation efforts in China—planting forests where there were none before—could lead to the creation of more than 1 million “green jobs” in 2020 alone. If indirect employment opportunities in related sectors are also included, China’s investment in its forestry sector could generate as many as 2.5 million green jobs in 2020.

These are among the findings of an upcoming Worldwatch research report exploring the potential for green job opportunities in China, focusing on three main sectors: forestry, power generation, and transportation. The goal of the study, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland and written in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is to examine the current status and future potential of China’s green economy.

There is no doubt that China is seeking to green its economy. Over the last five years, the country has made significant progress in both boosting energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s energy intensity—its total energy consumption per unit of GDP—decreased 19.1 percent between 2006 and 2010, equivalent to a reduction in coal consumption of 630 million tons or a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 1.46 billion tons.

To differentiate among China’s “more” and “less” green initiatives in the forestry, energy, and transportation sectors (logging, for example, is far less green than planting new trees), Worldwatch has developed a “shades of green” hierarchy. The research report evaluates environmental efforts along a spectrum that ranges from reactive and remedial measures to proactive and more transformative measures. Based on this approach, the three “greenest” sub-sectors in China’s forestry industry are afforestation, forest management, and forest park tourism.

Because forests function as a natural carbon sink, they play a vital role in mitigating climate change while also protecting biodiversity and the environment. Unfortunately, China lacks abundant forest resources, especially relative to the global average. According to the State Forestry Administration, China’s forest coverage in 2005 was 18.2 percent—38 percent lower than the worldwide average and ranking behind 129 countries. China’s per capita forest area and reserve were only about one-fourth and one-sixth of the global average, respectively. However, considering that the country’s forest coverage was as low as 8.6 percent in 1948, it is clear that government afforestation efforts over the past half-century have been effective.

According to China’s National Climate Change Program, afforestation activities, including national forestry programs as well as voluntary tree planting, helped sequester 3.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide between 1980 and 2005. In 2008, China’s afforestation activities generated a total output of 47.6 billion yuan (about US$7 billion). Although afforestation accounts for only 3.3 percent of the country’s total forestry output, it has a significant impact on employment, especially in rural areas, due to its labor-intensive nature.

Worldwatch estimates that China’s afforestation efforts employed an average of 1.63 million full-time workers annually between 2005 and 2010. This figure jumps to 3.47 million if indirect employment in related sectors is included. In 2010 alone, China created an estimated 35,000 full-time forest management jobs to maintain newly forested land and more than 52,000 jobs in closely related sectors. Total revenue from forest park tourism in 2010 was an estimated 27–29.3 billion yuan (US$ 4.2–4.5 billion), with the potential to sustain up to 178,000 jobs.

Looking forward, China aims to increase its forested area by 40 million hectares between 2005 and 2020. To reach that goal, afforestation activities would have to generate an estimated 130 billion yuan ($20 billion) by 2015 and 270 billion yuan ($41.6 billion) by 2020, with the potential to offer full-time employment to an average of 520,000 afforestation workers annually between 2011 and 2020. After that, the newly added forested area would create an average of 104,000 forest management jobs per year. Assuming continued rapid growth, China’s forest park tourism has the potential to generate some 400,000 full-time jobs in 2020.

These trends in China’s forestry sector illustrate that building a green economy while pursuing rapid economic development and growth is not only possible, but has the potential to create significant employment. As the world’s biggest developing country, China is already benefiting from its green transition and will continues to invest in its green economy in the future.

This is the first in a series of blog posts that reports on findings from a forthcoming Worldwatch Institute report on China’s green economy. Please stay tuned for coverage of additional economic sectors.

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