For years China was notorious for denuding its forests of vegetation to expand their economy. The economy grew, but water sources were tainted, air polluted, and animal habitats demolished. Only a few years ago, just 2 percent of China’s forests were undisturbed, and to make matters worse, the destruction of forests leads to one fifth of climate change-inducing emissions. Horrendous floods in 1998 that stemmed from the lack of trees prompted the government to finally take action. They implemented the National Forest Conservation Program, and a new study reveals it’s working.

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So how did the Chinese government restore their forests? To start with, they banned logging in many areas and then paid farmers, who were accustomed to earning money by cutting down trees for wood, to plant trees instead. Some local citizens were even paid to monitor forests and report any illegal logging. After several years of this, the Chinese government claimed their conservation project had begun to show signs of progress, a claim confirmed in a new independent analysis.

Related: INFOGRAPHIC: What is driving deforestation and what can you do about it?

Scientists from the University of Michigan evaluated the Chinese government’s conservation measures using images from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer. They studied data between 2000 and 2010 and found forest cover has grown rapidly in 1.6 percent of China. That may not sound like much, but it’s about 61,000 square miles. 0.38 percent suffered from deforestation – that’s around 14,4000 square miles.

So the research isn’t simply a green light for China to continue every current policy. They’re importing more wood now, from countries such as Vietnam, Madagascar, and Russia, which the scientists warned could lead to deforestation in those other countries.

“We are all part of the problem one way or another. We all buy products from China, and China has not changed their imports and exports of wood at all,” said lead author Andrés Viña. “What has changed is where timber is coming from.”

However, the study still offers some hope that deforestation is not permanent. Many of the areas that benefited from China’s program had been heavily logged in the past. The country’s conservation efforts may serve as a blueprint to other countries seeking to reverse the harmful effects of deforestation. China’s goal is to reforest an additional 99 million acres by 2020.

Via IFL Science

Images via Chi King on Flickr and Wikimedia Commons