China has key role in protecting biodiversity

By Kathleen Naday Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/11 18:23:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

As much as scientists and climate activists are urging the world not to forget the promises it made in Paris in 2015 at the ongoing COP24 United Nations climate meeting in Katowice, Poland, another key global meeting on an issue of global importance barely made the news recently, even if the issue, biodiversity - the ecosystems on which all human life depends - needs just as much attention.

At the UN Biodiversity Conference 2018 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, from November 13-29, senior delegates warned that urgent leadership is needed if the world is to halt the current wave of extinction, often referred to as the "sixth mass extinction," the Guardian reported. Many of the delegates then pointed to China as a possible leader in the fight to protect biodiversity, as other issues, political and otherwise, continue to distract other nations.

Scientists have been warning of the sixth wave for some time. In a sobering report published in the leading US journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July 2017, researchers described the rapid global loss of diversity among species as a "biological annihilation." It found that all kinds of species, including mammals, insects and plants, are contracting. The report warns that such is the unprecedented rate of species extinction, it will have "negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization."

The main causes of these losses, says the report, are habitat destruction, overhunting, toxic pollution, invasion by alien species and climate change. But one of the report's authors, Paul Ehrlich, also warns of the consequences of further biodiversity loss from overpopulation and overconsumption, according to the Guardian.

Moreover, the annual WWF Living Planet Report 2018, published in October, found that since 1970, populations of vertebrates have declined by 60 percent, and among them freshwater species by 83 percent. Since 1500, agriculture and human overexploitation of animals has caused 75 percent of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and plant extinction, said the WWF. The world is exceeding its biological capacity.

It is not something that we think about a lot. For example, we depend on trees to take carbon out of our atmosphere and provide oxygen, or that deforestation leaves people in mountainous areas at risk of landslides, but they are not perhaps aware of all that ecosystem brings to humans.

These range from food and medications, to timber and mineral resources. It includes cultural services. Then ecosystems help regulate our world - sometimes nature turns on us, when there is a wildfire or an avalanche, but we also need working ecosystems to protect us from floods, from the extremes of climate and to purify our water resources. Even pollination of crops is included.

Many people will not ever think of these resources in purely economic terms. But now in this increasingly money-driven world, people may only pay attention if an issue is couched in dollars and cents.

The WWF report noted that pollinators account for $235 billion to $577 billion in crop production every year, involving over 20,000 species of bees, as well as other insects, birds, flies, beetles - even bats.

More to the point, as climate change exacerbates the problems of biodiversity loss, so does the loss of biodiversity exacerbate the effects of climate change, and all the problems we can expect from unchecked temperature rises - extreme weather, disease, drought, climate refugees. It is a classic example of a vicious circle.

During the Egypt conference, senior leaders and experts talked of the absence of leadership from the US, Europe and the incoming administration in Brazil, which it is feared will dismantle many of the protections for Amazon rainforest, and pointed to China's potential to lead the way.

Cristiana Pasca, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity told the Guardian that China is a crucial player in the fight against biodiversity loss, particularly given that it was instrumental in pushing through the Paris Climate Accord, but also because China will host the next high-level biodiversity conference in 2020, at which new targets are to be agreed on the protection of rivers, oceans, forests and wildlife.

China apparently took a low-key approach at the conference, media said, but the country has set itself new environmental targets, which include the drawing of ecological "red lines" to strengthen environmental protection and the establishment of national parks, in which human activity will be controlled. It also has an overarching goal of creating an ecological civilization, and creating fundamental changes in the environment by 2035, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

We can see that China is serious about improving its environment, but there is still a long way to go, and laws are still routinely flouted. We often see reports of animal and plant trafficking in the press, or of people operating illegal polluting factories or coal mines, all of which negatively impact ecosystems and biodiversity. Increased urbanization as people move from rural areas to cities also takes away habitats.

Yet so much of China is still mountain, plateau or desert, all unique ecosystems. Many efforts are starting to concentrate on the restoration of particular ecosystems or even species - and here, we are looking beyond pandas, known as a "charismatic" species as it attracts attention, to tree restoration in the deserts of western China, for example.

But does China have enough clout to make an impact on the global fight to protect biodiversity? The fact that the key 2020 meeting will be held in the country will perhaps be a decisive factor, as surely the hosts will want to crown the meeting with major achievements.

Perhaps, in the interim, China can take the lead in tackling wildlife trafficking and continue to work on giving its environmental laws real teeth, as well as ensuring that when its companies take on projects overseas, they adhere to best environmental practice, then where it leads, others may follow.

The author is a Beijing-based freelance writer who is doing postgraduate studies in sustainability at SOAS, University of London.

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