Chinese media has increased its coverage of environmental issues dramatically in the past decade. In recent years, coverage of climate change and carbon emissions has also started to make headlines.
At the September 2020 United Nations General Assembly, President Xi Jinping pledged that the country’s carbon emissions would peak before 2030, with China becoming carbon neutral before 2060.
Contrasting with the growing media attention on China’s carbon ambitions, Chinese media coverage of deforestation has lagged far behind. The contribution of forest ecosystems, especially rainforests, to mitigate the climate crisis, has rarely been highlighted and debated. Subsequently, the widespread deforestation that has occurred in tropical countries has not been effectively communicated to the public in China. This has led to a general lack of awareness on the gravity of China’s ever-increasing impact on the world’s remaining natural forests.
World’s forests in sharp decline
According to new data from the University of Maryland and World Resources Institute (WRI), in 2021 alone, the tropics lost 11.1 million hectares of forest cover. Based on WRI’s Global Forest Watch, the tropical region is where more than 96 percent of human-caused deforestation occurs. Forest loss in boreal and temperate forests is primarily caused by logging and wildfires. In 2021, boreal forests experienced unprecedented tree cover loss, mostly in Russia.
China has three remaining patches of rainforest located at Hainan Island, Xishuangbanna in southern Yunnan, and the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon in Tibet. In the northern frontier regions, its boreal forests, like forests in other regions of the country, have benefited from conservation measures since China’s total ban on logging in 1998.
The ban resulted in a sudden increase in timber imports. Therefore, the international environmental community has been advocating for China to shift to a greener policy which would reduce the country’s dependence on natural resources and energy imports. This green transformation, if successful, would not only benefit the planet’s climate, but help ensure China’s own ecological and energy security, and avoid potential tensions with commodity-producing countries.
Climate Action Tracker, an independent organization that tracks countries’ commitments to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, estimates that if China can achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, it could lower global warming projections by around 0.2–0.3 degrees Celsius by 2060. This would represent the largest and most significant reduction by any country.
To meet this commitment, China not only needs to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, but also needs to protect its natural ecosystems, such as forest and ocean, to allow them to serve as a carbon sink.
Chinese media coverage of deforestation
How forest value and deforestation is covered by Chinese media reflects the state of knowledge among its citizens. News articles could also influence discussions by shaping the opinions of the audience.
Over the past two years, international media coverage of forest loss worldwide has increased due to the reality of severe deforestation and efforts from conservation groups addressing them. There has also been a notable increase on indicating deforestation’s link to climate change . Through the introduction and translation of international news articles, Chinese language media also helps disseminate news about related forest issues and the climate crisis.
Internationally, environmental groups, such as Rainforest Foundation Norway, WWF and Forests and Finance, play a key role facilitating the media’s continuous interest and knowledge of these issues. News articles and reports produced by environmental groups both inform the public and policymakers, and in turn give influence or pressure to key decision makers.
Due to their acceptance of new media and easy access to information through social media, young Chinese have a growing awareness of global forest destruction and are willing to make ecologically sensitive consumer choices. The concept that forests are hugely valuable in mitigating and adapting to a changing climate is also easy for young people to understand, even though they may have limited knowledge of international agreements such as the New York Declaration on Forests, Amsterdam Declaration on Deforestation, REDD and Forest Law Enforcement, and Governance and Trade (FLEGT).
Chinese media coverage of forest loss and deforestation has a clear distinction on domestic forests and those in other countries. News on deforestation in other countries is mostly from translated articles from international media outlets or news feeds from global environmental groups. Chinese language articles on rainforest destruction in Central Africa, Indonesia and South America tend to be more of a global picture and reflect journalistic perspectives of Western media. China’s media reporting on domestic forest loss has been mostly on specific local cases of forest destruction and illegal logging.
Another difference is the source information for these news stories. Much deforestation news in other parts of the world comes from actual experience or witnesses, news releases of researching findings or interviews with reputable institutions. Coverage of forest loss in China has been mostly from government channels, such as local forest departments who sought to publicize their successful law enforcement actions.
This practice leads to a phenomenon that media coverage of deforestation outside China tends to expose the deforestation crisis and indicate the urgency of the problem; while coverage of forest loss domestically often emphasizes government action in tackling forest crime. In other words, China’s focus on its own forests is still on law enforcement; while coverage of forests abroad has increasingly shifted to large scale deforestation, reflecting the world’s trend of linking it with climate change.
Reframing Chinese media on deforestation and rainforest conservation
Given China’s role in deforestation in many countries, it is vital to inform the Chinese public and decision makers about the grave reality of forest destruction happening outside China.
Not only is there a need for Chinese media to introduce forest issues using the lens of connectivity — that global deforestation and climate change have a huge impact on China and its economic sustainability, but also there is a need for presenting China’s undeniable global responsibility in ensuring sound global environmental governance and protection of forest-dependent communities.
Chinese media should be encouraged to discuss and debate solutions to the climate crisis. Conservation groups should help to ensure forests are better considered in climate strategies. Thus understanding that natural forests are critical for climate change mitigation and adaptation should be strengthened and popularized to and by Chinese media.
In the meantime, a wide range of environmental services forests provide, like water cycles and biodiversity, together with their cultural and economic value, should be publicized and enriched through Chinese media to raise knowledge and awareness, thus building public support for conservation.
Environmental groups, through their own publications and websites, and also via Chinese media, should try to introduce a more nuanced understanding of the environmental, economic and social value of forests. Maintaining focus on the full range of these values will be crucial in supporting the development of policy measures for forests that are both effective and equitable.