EDITORIAL

China’s researchers have valuable experiences that the world needs to hear about

As China prepares to take on a crucial role in the governance of global biodiversity, its researchers must be at the table.
Sunset over a wetland, with the silhouettes of birds.

China’s researchers have shown that the country’s largest body of fresh water, Poyang Lake (pictured) in Jianxi province, has been drying out, in part because of the Three Gorges Dam.Credit: Fu Jianbin/Xinhua/ZUMA Wire

Last week, the United Nations confirmed that the world has failed, again, to achieve its goals to protect nature. This grim conclusion was delivered in the fifth edition of the United Nations Global Biodiversity Outlook report.

The report from the UN Convention on Biological Diversity reviewed progress towards 20 biodiversity targets that the convention’s participating countries set for themselves in Aichi, Japan, a decade ago (www.cbd.int/gbo).

None of the targets, which include making progress towards the sustainable harvesting of fish, controlling the spread of invasive species and preventing the extinction of threatened wildlife, will have been achieved by the deadline at the end of this year.

This is no time for regret or apology, but for urgency to act. Last year, an analysis by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services revealed that some one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. And the wildlife charity WWF’s latest Living Planet Index, published earlier this month (see go.nature.com/32wzvdz), was similarly sobering, stating that vertebrate populations monitored between 1970 and 2017 have declined by an average of 68%.

All nations must do more, but some of the greatest responsibility now rests on the shoulders of China: the nation, along with the leaders of the UN biodiversity convention, will jointly host the next Conference of the Parties (COP) in Kunming next year. That summit, originally scheduled for this year, is where biodiversity targets for the next decade must be set.

As we have written before, the previous targets were destined to fail, in part because their format made progress hard to measure, and because countries did not need to report on what they were doing. This must now change. The targets, furthermore, need to be more closely aligned with the UN System of Environmental Economic Accounting, which is becoming the global standard for environmental reporting. Without these changes, the next set of biodiversity targets will almost certainly fail again.

At the same time, China’s biodiversity scientists and policy researchers should be at the table, too, as plans for Kunming start to take shape. The country has decades of experience of studying how to — and how not to — balance economic development with controlling species and ecosystems loss. The world needs to hear these stories, in all their complexity.

Learn from China

The Global Biodiversity Outlook report confirms that known species are on an accelerated path to extinction, with cycad and coral species among the groups most at risk. The report shows that, although deforestation has slowed in the past decade, forests are still being splintered by agriculture, tree-felling and urban growth. Such fragmentation will further harm biodiversity and increase carbon emissions.

Demand for food and agricultural production continue to be the main drivers of biodiversity loss. And governments are not helping. On average, they invest some US$500 billion per year in initiatives that harm the environment — eclipsing financing for biodiversity projects by a factor of 6, the report says.

China has a set of experiences that could help the world learn valuable lessons. Its rapid economic growth lifted a generation out of poverty; however, this created a cascade of environmental problems, not least elevated pollution in the air and on land. People in China rightly questioned their leaders for underestimating — if not downplaying — the environmental and social impacts of its industrialization. Partly in response, China’s authorities have been working with researchers from China and around the world to chart a greener way forward.

For example, national and local administrations have been devising and experimenting with environmental targets, and creating mechanisms for monitoring and reporting progress towards them — albeit with mixed success.

China’s national biodiversity strategy includes creating what it calls ‘redlines’ — areas where human activities are restricted to protect biodiversity — across the country.

Then there’s China’s US$6-trillion Belt and Road Initiative — a massive programme to build roads, ports and infrastructure, which will run through natural habitats across Asia, Europe and Africa. Much of this investment did not initially come with safeguards to mitigate environmental risks — but these are now being actively studied.

And last but not least, China has a large community of researchers working to quantify, in monetary terms, the value of natural capital and ecosystem services, so that people and policymakers can more clearly understand that nature’s services to people do not come for free.

On 30 September, heads of governments will meet at the UN for a day of talks on biodiversity, ahead of next year’s Kunming COP. Nature spoke to a number of representatives of national delegations who plan to attend this meeting, including researchers and non-governmental observers. All want the Kunming COP to succeed in bringing nations together and reaching an agreement on targets that are measurable and meaningful. But they expressed concern over the limited public engagement from China’s government about its goals or strategy for Kunming — and the relatively limited involvement of its researchers in the process so far.

Scientists in China have been central to their country’s conservation and economic-development journey. Their collective experience on what works, and what doesn’t, can provide important learning opportunities for countries as they look to slow down and eventually reverse bio-diversity and ecosystem loss. These researchers are in the academy of sciences; in universities; in the academy of environmental planning; and in the community of Chinese and international non-governmental organizations.

Many are also active in the China Council for Inter-national Cooperation on Environment and Development, an organization located in both Canada and China, which last week concluded a two-day conference presenting its latest research outputs. This important but little-known advisory body, now nearly three decades old, has been instrumental in connecting China’s environmental-science and environmental-policy communities with international counterparts.

Next year will be the first time that China has hosted an international environmental meeting — similar to the 2015 Paris climate accords — where the stakes are too high to fail. It must draw on its rich diversity of talent and experience. Other nations’ researchers must be equally forthcoming with their knowledge. All sides must put aside political differences to agree on ambitious targets, ways to achieve them and methods to measure that progress.

The best way to preserve and revive biodiversity is to acknowledge where we’ve all failed it before, to learn from that and to try again, together.

Nature 585, 481-482 (2020)

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