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Shifting Sands

In Kangbashi, what was once desert is now forest. NewsChina caught up with Jia Xiaoxia of the State Forestry Administration on the sidelines of the UN Conference on Combating Desertification, held this year in Ordos, to learn about an ambitious terraforming project, and what China can do to combat land degradation

By NewsChina Updated Oct.1

Ordos, a city in Inner Mongolia, was described by the press as a “modern ghost city” a few years back. But it is no longer empty or silent. The 13th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD COP13) opened there on September 6. Participants from around the world who descended on the city were amazed at the charm and vitality of this modern city, which has sprung up in the middle of the desert. 
On the first weekend of the conference, delegates were invited to visit Kubuqi Desert, some 200 kilometers to the northwest of Ordos, to see a pilot “desert greening” project. They marveled at the effects and scale of this control of nature, which had transformed a stretch of desert into a lush forest. 

The biannual COP of the UNCCD has long been considered the “poor silent sister” of the three Rio Conventions launched in 1992, lacking the fanfare of the annual UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).  

With its focus on land neutrality, the UNCCD has drawn more international attention in recent years. But without sufficient funding and scientific research, according to Jia Xiaoxia, head of the National Bureau to Combat Desertification under China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA), land degradation and desertification – issues so closely related to climate change and biodiversity – remain overlooked by the international community.  

Between meetings of the UNCCD COP13 on September 13th, our reporter interviewed Jia Xiaoxia on China’s role as the host country of this COP, as well as the nation’s role in combating desertification.  

NewsChina: What is the significance of China being the host country for this COP?
Jia Xiaoxia: China, being one of the countries most affected by land degradation and desertification in the world, has made visible achievements during the previous decades in combating these problem. Three executive secretaries of the UNCCD, including the present one Monique Barbut, have continually expressed their enthusiasm about China holding a COP to showcase our successful projects to the world. 

China started taking part in the development of the UNCCD from the outset in the 1990s, and played an active role in implementing the convention. China also promoted, jointly with developing countries, the establishment of the Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC), one of the two subsidiary bodies of the UNCCD, along with the Committee on Science and Technology (CST).  

The environmental and ecological conditions in China have encountered many problems due to rapid modernization, however, we have done a lot to control desertification. China also participates in global ecological management to promote sustainable development. Hosting the COP13 is one way to demonstrate China’s active attitude in this regard. In addition, we are willing to share, to communicate with other countries our successful desert control experiences as well as to learn from others. To have international participants come here is the best way to clarify previous misinterpretations and rebuild our image.  

China has held a number of bilateral and multilateral conferences on regional issues, but this UNCCD COP13 is the first time China has hosted an UN-level environmental convention conference, thus a good opportunity to gain experience. Besides, China is to hold CBD COP15 in 2020, thus by building up a capable team we can prepare well for future occasions.  
NC: Can you tell us a bit about the preparation for this COP13? 
JXX: China, as the host country for this COP, has worked to integrate high-tech with Chinese culture, as well as Mongolian traditions. The SFA, Foreign Ministry and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, co-hosts of the conference with the local Ordos government, took joint responsibility for preparing conference venues, logistics, security and other necessities. Around 2,000 staff are working inside the venue, with over 1,000 additional volunteers and other related staff working outside the venue.  
NC: What’s the reason for dedicating Ordos, in particular Kangbashi, the new city area, as the conference venue? 
LXX: When I came to Ordos in the 1990s, the outskirts were mostly sand and desert. A three-storey building was then the tallest you would see. Now you cannot relate it to the previous rural town. Ordos is a model for turning deserts into modern cities, with better forestry and ecological surroundings. Due to its relative proximity to the upper-middle stream of the Yellow River, it will revitalize the desert area through three decades of greening efforts. Now the precipitation and climate have both changed, and locals say there is more rain than before. With a better environment and climate, more people will come to live here. Apart from traditional natural resource industries [coal mining, natural gas and rare earth minerals], the tourism industry has also started to take off. The city is no more a dead city as some media described. And so, we want to present the real picture of this desert city to the outside world, so we chose it to be the venue for this international conference.  
NC: What is China’s role and standpoint in the UNCCD negotiation? 
JXX: In 2016, China signed the joint national voluntary action plan to achieve Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) by 2030. So far a total of 113 countries have joined the initiative with Brazil, India and Liberia being the latest on this COP.  
China has always been active in promoting international efforts to combat desertification. In June 2016, SFA and UNCCD jointly issued the “Belt and Road Joint Action Initiative to Combat Desertification.” The proposal called on countries within the initiative to work together to solve this problem. 
From our point of view, we tried to push forward an Ordos Declaration, and to demonstrate our experience to other countries and regions.  
NC: What are China’s achievements in combating desertification, and how can it achieve sustained success?  
JXX: According to our statistics, China has reforested more than 28 million hectares since the late 1980s, and helped pull more than 150 million people out of poverty by setting up orchards. In recent decades, income for farmers and herders in desert and semi-desert areas of China has achieved an annual increase of more than 18 percent.  
We have changed our old mentality from the collective call for reforestation by central political will in the 1950s through 1970s, to the present model of setting up partnerships among the private sector, governments, and local communities.  
The Kubuqi Desert program is a good example of involving both the private sector and the government. However we have to admit some greening techniques or choices for proper desert industries are not a panacea. The best way to sustain our achievements is to find new development options for locals, so as to allow them to make a living through means other than exhausting local resources. Kubuqi as a model has found its sustainable pattern of involving local communities into producing ecological products.  
 Favorable government policies, such as low interest rates for bank loans, can attract the private sector to step into the ecological industries. Political will cannot sustain the restoration efforts, but efficient business models can push locals into alternative industries. Of course, the restoration efforts in each area are different. It all depends on the local natural and social environment.  
Apart from the pioneering project in Kubuqi, there are many other private companies and business models mushrooming across China. The key is to icultivate the right locally-adaptable species. There is definitely a trial-and-error period, and even for Kubuqi itself, we are not 100 percent sure that all the species will be successful in the long term.  
NC: Are there any obstacles that need to be overcome?  
JXX: In some areas, once an industry becomes profitable, more companies will rush into the same region, and we have cautioned local governments to create ceilings for entry of similar industries. There are natural limitations, thus overdevelopment of certain industries, even desert-related ones, will lead to damaging competition that harms sustainable development.  
NC: How can cambating desertification be integrated into the country’s overall climate change action plan? 
LXX: People tend to separate the land issue from climate change and biodiversity. However, the three are closely interrelated. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, while restoring a desert into a stabilized ecological system can help to expand habitats and revive biodiversity. Even the Global Environment Facility which was established for financing environment projects in around 170 countries, would prefer projects that can combine as many elements as possible, including climate change, biodiversity, water, land and so on. 
China places a consistent emphasis on land issues. It has put a great deal of energy into achieving the goal of LDN by 2030. In this way, we have achieved a lot, and we are expecting more to be done. Land restoration is a long-term issue, and we need to be patient in that regard.