China is the world's biggest polluter—but a massive tree-planting program has helped absorb more of its carbon dioxide emissions than researchers expected. In a new study in the journal Nature, researchers say that according to ground and satellite observations, the rapid afforestation of areas of northeast and southwest China has created a previously underestimated "carbon sink" that accounts for around 35% of the country's land carbon absorption. The researchers estimate that China's biosphere absorbs around 45% of the country's human-caused emissions. Beijing, which is planting a "Green Great Wall" in the country's north, recently said it aims to make China carbon-neutral by 2060.
Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit think tank, tells the BBC that establishing the size of the carbon sink is a crucial part of moving toward "net zero" emissions. "However, although the forest sink is bigger than thought, no one should mistake this as constituting a 'free pass' way to reach net zero," he cautions. "For one thing, carbon absorption will be needed to compensate for ongoing emissions of all greenhouse gases, not just CO2; for another, the carbon balance of China's forests may be compromised by climate change impacts, as we're seeing now in places such as California, Australia, and Russia." China has expanded its forest cover from 16.74% in 1990 to around 23% in 2020, with billions of trees planted to fight desertification and establish new timber industries. (Read more China stories.)