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China’s attempts to reverse decades of deforestation are looking hopeful, scientists say, but the problem may simply be moving abroad.

Analysis of satellite imagery, published in Science Advances last week, shows that between 2000 and 2010 tree cover increased by 20 per cent or more in roughly 1.6 per cent of China's territories, while less than 0.5 per cent have seen tree loss.

The authors from Michigan State University (MSU) measured these changes against economic, geographical and social policies. They suggest much of the credit is owed to the Chinese government’s Natural Forest Conservation Program implemented in 1998.

The policy introduced logging bans, and reforestation laws and incentivised alternative employment for forest workers. But despite the domestic success of the policy, the paper’s co-author Jianguo Liu, director of MSU’s Center for Systems Integration, says the country might simply be farming out the problem.

"While China has largely stopped cutting down trees within its borders, it is still importing a lot of forest products from other countries, which could be causing deforestation there,” he says. The authors also say their estimates are conservative because the imagery from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer satellite is not granular enough to pick up reforestation of small parcels of land, meaning some efforts may have been missed.

According to Tim Forsyth, a professor of environment and development at the London School of Economics, the paper’s focus on tree cover offers only “a very reduced vision of forests”, because it does not take account of the quality of the forest or its impact on biodiversity or livelihoods.

WWF’s director of forests Rod Taylor says the news is positive for China, but agrees this kind of satellite imagery analysis "can miss lots of shades of grey”. For instance, it can’t differentiate single species plantations from rainforest or identify selective logging of high-value wood in tropical forests, he says.

Restriction of domestic wood supply is also likely to increase imports from other countries with worse forest governance, Taylor adds.

But Liu says the movement of wood in and out of China is more complicated than simple imports. “Often China is importing these products to make things like furniture that is then exported to developed countries,” says Liu.

WWF’s Taylor says the next step for China would be to follow the United States and Europe’s lead by introducing stronger vetting of the sustainability of wood imports.