Today, experts widely agree that biodiversity is at risk. Because of human activities – especially overhunting, overfishing and altering land – species are disappearing from the planet at 50 to 100 times the historic rate. The United Nations calls this decline a “nature crisis.”
This meeting was originally scheduled to take place in Kunming, China, in 2020 but was rescheduled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some negotiations held online. China will lead the deliberations in Montreal and will set the agenda and tone. This is the first time that Beijing has presided over a major intergovernmental meeting on the environment. As a wildlife ecologist, I am eager to see China step into a global leadership role.
Biodiversity in China
If you ask people where on Earth the greatest concentrations of wild species are found, many will assume it’s in rainforests or tropical coral reefs. In fact, China also is rich in nature. It is home to nearly 38,000higher plant species – essentially, trees, shrubs and ferns; more than 8,100 species of vertebrate animals; over 1,400 bird species; and 20% of the world’s fish species.
Western media coverage of environmental issues in China often focuses on the nation’s severe urban air pollution and its role as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. But China has a vision for protecting nature, and it has made progress since the last global biodiversity conference in 2018.
In that year, Chinese leaders coined the term “ecological civilization” and wrote it into the nation’s constitution. This signaled a recognition that development should consider environmental impacts as well as economic goals.
At that point, China had already created over 2,750 protected areas, covering nearly 15% of its total land area. Protected areas are places where there is dedicated funding and management in place to conserve ecosystems, while also allowing for some human activities in designated zones within them.
In 2021 President Xi Jinping announced that China was formally augmenting this system with a network of five national parks covering 88,000 square miles (227,000 square kilometers) – the largest such system in the world.
China also has the fastest-expanding forest area in the world. From 2013 to 2017 alone, China reforested 825 million acres (334 million hectares) of bare or cultivated land – an area four times as large as the entire U.S. national forest system.
Still, China has major areas for improvement. It has underperformed on four of the original Aichi Targets – goals that members of the Convention on Biodiversity adopted for 2011-2020 – including promoting sustainable fisheries, preventing extinctions, controlling invasive alien species and protecting vulnerable ecosystems.
On Feb. 24, 2020, the law was expanded to impose a near-total ban on trading wildlife for use as food. Now, however, the ban is being revised in ways that could weaken it, such as easing restrictions on captive breeding.
The proposed new framework includes 22 targets to meet by 2030 and four key long-term goals to meet by 2050. They include conserving ecosystems; enhancing the variety of benefits that nature provides to people; ensuring fairness in the sharing of genetic resources, such as digital DNA sequencing data; and solidifying funding commitments.
Many people will be watching to see whether China can successfully lead the negotiations and promote collaboration and consensus. One central challenge is how to pay for the ambitious efforts that the new framework lays out. Environmental advocates are urging wealthy countries to provide up to US$60 billion annually to help lower-income nations pay for conservation projects and curb illegal wildlife trafficking.
China moved in this direction in 2021 when it launched the Kunming Biodiversity Fund and contributed $230 million to it. Pledges from other countries currently total some $5.2 billion per year, mainly from France, the United Kingdom, Japan and the European Union.
China is likely to face questions about its Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure project that is building railways, pipelines and highways across more than 60 countries. Critics say it is causing deforestation, flooding and other harmful environmental impacts – including in global biodiversity hot spots like Southeast Asia’s Coral Triangle, which contains one of the world’s most important reef systems.
China has pledged to “green” the Belt and Road Initiative going forward, and in 2021, Xi announced a ban on financing new coal power plants overseas, which so far has led to cancellation of 26 plants. This is a start, but China has more to do in addressing Belt and Road’s global impacts.