China set to lead on biodiversity

As China gets set to hold a key biodiversity conference in 2020, the biggest in a decade, Feng Hao provides the context of why this is such an important issue, both for China and the world
<p>In the name of &#8220;conservation&#8221; China&#8217;s tiger farms have fuelled the sale and consumption of tiger parts, encouraging the destruction of the species [image by Alexa Avitto]</p>

In the name of “conservation” China’s tiger farms have fuelled the sale and consumption of tiger parts, encouraging the destruction of the species [image by Alexa Avitto]

China’s embrace of an “ecological civilisation” has received comparatively little coverage, especially in developing countries, a number of whom are pursuing development strategies – backed by Chinese funding – that are environmentally problematic. The landmark biodiversity talks to be hosted by China will be a key test of this initiative, especially as biodiversity is threatened in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, where China is a key actor. Its previous models, critically of things like its “tiger parks”, have been dangerous for the species they are supposed to conserve. – eds

In 2020, delegates from nearly 200 countries will meet in the capital of Yunnan province, southwest China, to agree on a new framework to halt biodiversity loss and protect ecosystems. The talks will be crucial to restoring the planet’s health.

According to WWF, there has been a 60% decline in mammal, bird, fish, reptile and amphibian populations over the past 40 years. Another recent study that reviewed the evidence on biodiversity suggested that 40% of insects are threatened with extinction in the coming decades from habitat loss, intensive agriculture, pesticide use and climate change. In the Asia-Pacific region where fisheries are a key source of food, there may be no exploitable fish populations left by 2048 if current fishing practices continue.

In 2010, countries party to the Convention on Biological Diversity approved a 2011-2020 Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. As the talks were held in Aichi, Japan, the plan’s 20 overarching goals to end biodiversity loss and restore ecosystems are known as the Aichi targets.

It’s unlikely these targets will be met by 2020 so the talks in Kunming must find a new way forward.

Slow progress

A recent UN evaluation found that 77% of national biodiversity goals were lower than those set at Aichi. Two thirds of nations have said their progress is too slow to meet the 2020 goals.

For example, the 11th Aichi target calls for at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water and 10% of coastal and marine areas to be protected by 2020. But countries are still a long way from achieving this.

Only the 11th Aichi target could have realistically been met, according to John E Scanlon, former Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). “But many of these areas are not well-funded or well-managed, often being referred to as ‘paper parks.’” Scanlon said it’s unclear whether the “protected areas are all in the right places from an ecological point of view.”

Thomas Lovejoy, a professor in the Environmental Science and Policy Department at George Mason University, said in Beijing recently that next year’s talks were of historic importance. “We may be the last generation [able] to save the environment and humanity… If we don’t work hard, future humanity will face unimaginable chaos.”

China’s role in biodiversity

For its part, China is attempting to break with its destructive “pollute first, clean up later” approach to development. It’s now pursuing an “ecological civilisation” that was first proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2012. The country is supposed to have built this by 2020, but actually doing so will require more ambitious targets to be set in Kunming.

There are some positive signs.

In February, vice-premier Han Zheng said that “China must actively prepare to carry out its duties as host nation and ensure a… conference of landmark significance.”

In March 2018, ministerial reforms to better protect the environment saw the creation of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE). The latter’s Department of Nature and Ecology Conservation is responsible for the country’s biodiversity. The head of its biodiversity protection office, Jing Xin, said at a seminar in Beijing in late 2018 that Chinese public awareness had changed in recent years and the ministry was now under much greater pressure to improve the environment.

Those 2018 reforms also brought China’s various types of nature reserve under a single management body. Between June and December, the State Forestry and Grassland Administration, which sits under the Ministry of Natural Resources, inspected over 10,000 reserves – about 18% of the country. This is greater than the 17% Aichi target. Provinces have also set “ecological redlines” to protect vulnerable areas. Initial estimates claim over one quarter of the country will be covered.

“This shows China can set more ambitious targets for reserves,” said Xue Dayuan, a professor at Minzu University of China’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences. Xue thinks that China could protect at least 25% of its terrestrial and inland water areas.

A focus on science

At the last UN conference on biodiversity in Egypt, the EU called for “ambitious, realistic, measurable and time-bound targets”. The Small Island Developing States bloc requested greater financial resources, while Costa Rica called for 1% of global gross domestic product to be directed at conservation. China stressed “scientific community involvement”.

Efforts by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment to deliver on the Aichi targets by protecting endangered species, managing nature reserves and establishing ecological redlines have required major support from scientific institutions.

For example, Liao Guoxiang, a deputy researcher at the National Marine Environment Monitoring Centre, said that the ministry is working with central bodies such as the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the State Forestry and Grassland Administration to create a national ecological monitoring network.

“Better surveys and monitoring means improved understanding of biodiversity and the state of the environment, which is necessary to better implement the convention,” said Liao. He wants universities and research institutes to be involved as well.

Balakrishna Pisupati, chair of the Forum for Law, Environment, Development and Governance (FLEDGE), said that decisions on issues such as synthetic biology, species conservation and habitat corridors will need more scientific support and engagement in the policy-making process.

“China and other countries have emphasised the need for better science and more scientists to be involved in decision making at the UN biodiversity conference and not just in making recommendations,” he said.

A similar point was made in a 2018 editorial in Science, written by Zhang Yaping, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Jonathan Baillie, chief scientist at the National Geographic Society. They argued that the Aichi target on protecting marine areas is nowhere near enough to ensure that other targets are met, such as preventing the extinction of known threatened species or promoting the protection of ecosystems.

They suggested that national governments commit to protect 30% of both the ocean and land, focusing on biodiverse and productive areas, rising to 50% by 2050. “This will be extremely challenging, but it is possible,” they concluded.

Feng Hao is a researcher at chinadialogue, where this story was first published