GUIYANG－Although the major players in China's carbon market are businesses, individuals who also engage in environmental malpractice are now legally required to purchase carbon sinks to offset their activities.
Carbon sinks, like forests, grasslands and oceans, absorb and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Revenues generated from forestry carbon sink trading are used to fund activities such as afforestation and to pay the wages of forest rangers.
Individuals only account for a small portion of carbon sink transactions, but some local courts in China are using the practice to boost public environmental awareness.
Earlier this year, a man in Guizhou province surnamed Luo was ordered to pay 20,668 yuan ($3,062) for a carbon sink, as well as a 4,000 yuan fine to compensate for the damage he had inflicted on local forests.
The man was charged with felling 469 trees near his village in the Qiandongnan Miao and Dong autonomous prefecture in May last year. He was found guilty of illegal logging as his license－which strictly limited the number of trees and species he was entitled to log－and stipulated regenerative measures had expired.
The crime is punishable by between three and seven years of imprisonment and fines. However, taking into consideration that rural residents often use trees for housebuilding, Wu Zhangyi, vice-president of the Leishan County People's Court, which has jurisdiction over environmental cases in Qiandongnan, believed a more lenient sentence without imprisonment would be more effective on the legal and social level.
The replanting remedy previously employed in Leishan was no longer practical. According to Wu, the forest coverage rate had already reached 72 percent, and there was not enough empty land left.
Luo's case opened up a new route for environmental compensation for regions with ample existing forests, he added. The carbon sink in this case will offset an estimated 344 metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to forestry authorities.
Following the settlement of Luo's case, similar verdicts requiring the purchase of forestry carbon sinks were reported in the provinces of Shaanxi, Sichuan and Zhejiang.
China has vowed to tackle climate change and follow a path of green and low-carbon development. It has also pledged to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.
Its first environmental protection tribunal was set up in 2007 in Guizhou, and 34 such tribunals have since been set up in the province.
They have established jurisdiction over environmental issues related to forests, bodies of water, mountains, wetlands, ancient villages and natural parks, as well as sectors such as tea, liquor and mining, according to Li Li, the presiding judge of the environmental tribunal of Guizhou Provincial Higher People's Court.
"Better protection makes ancient villages more attractive and brings locals greater wealth," said Yang Zaimin, who manages nine cabins that accommodate up to 1,000 guests a year in Qiandongnan's Zaima township.
His township's government was once subject to public interest litigation over its lack of supervision of ancient houses, some of which were over 200 years old.
Since then, villagers have developed a greater awareness of the importance of preservation, according to Yang. Now, there are no more cement buildings surrounding ancient structures and no illegal construction on rivers, and the original look of the village is being maintained.
In Guizhou's Jiangkou county, four fishermen convicted of illegal fishing in 2020 were ordered to release more than 70,000 fry and take part in river patrols for six months.
The lawsuit on environmental restoration has educated the public, according to Jin Fei, the presiding judge with the Jiangkou county people's court's environmental tribunal.
Qin Huiwu, a villager who witnessed the release of the fry, said efforts to improve environmental awareness have borne fruit for local residents.
"We replant trees in the forest and release wildlife back to nature. In return, the beautiful scenery earns us many times more money from ecotourism," Qin said.