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Turning the Tide of Extinction

As scientists warn of the serious threats to the environment and wildlife, China is to host a major international conference on biodiversity in 2020 to establish a new framework. NewsChina asks conservationist Zhu Chunquan how China can accelerate the process

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

Nankunshan Nature Reserve in South China’s Pearl River Delta, only two hours’ drive from the most populated area in China, struggles to remain a sanctuary for wildlife. In recent decades, efforts have been made to keep the ecosystem intact within the 120-square-kilometer reserve, home to over 2,000 species of flora and fauna. Some endangered species have seen steady revival inside the reserve, but others have not had the same fortune. In the 1960s, there were South China tigers; in the 1970s, clouded leopards were spotted; in the 1980s, there were still red foxes; and in the 1990s, Chinese pangolin were still common. Now they are lost forever to Nankunshan. The situation in Nankunshan is being repeated all over the globe, mainly due to human activity. According to a United Nations’ summary report on biodiversity and ecosystem services released in May, human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before. The report shocked the world as it noted that “an average of around 25 percent of species in assessed animal and plant groups are threatened, suggesting that around one million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss.”  

Over the past 20 years, global targets for biodiversity have not been fully achieved. The latest global Strategic Plan for Biodiversity (2011-2020) set 20 targets, called the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, were supposed to provide a roadmap and schedule for global biodiversity sustainable use and benefit sharing. However, the disheartening reality is that most Aichi Targets will not be fulfilled by 2020.  

China will host the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Kunming in October 2020. In early June, during the 2019 Annual General Meeting of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) held in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, there were keen discussions on what the post-2020 reality for global biodiversity conservation should be.  

Many international observers suggested the Kunming COP 15 would be vital in changing the current situation of biodiversity conservation, with renewed strategic targets for 2020 to 2030. This period is critical to move the line toward more sustainable resource use, conservation and ecological restoration. Many participants expressed the hope that next year’s conference would be as much a turning point for conservation as was the 2015 Paris Agreement for Climate Change.  

On the sidelines of the CCICED conference, NewsChina interviewed Zhu Chunquan, Country Representative for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) China on what needs to be done to preserve global biodiversity, and how China as the host can help facilitate this crucial mission.   

NewsChina: China is to be the host for next CBD COP 15 in 2020, what’s the significance of the conference for both China and the world? 

Zhu Chunquan: A Global Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011- 2020 with 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets was adopted by the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP 10) of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010 in Japan. COP 15 is an important meeting to evaluate the plan, while summarizing progress toward the achievement of the Aichi Targets. It is time to set up renewed and updated targets for the next decade 2021-2030. Thus an ambitious and practical plan and targets attained would be a turning point, vital to global biodiversity conservation.  

NC: What are the major obstacles for the fulfillment of the current Aichi Targets and why? ZC: Through evaluation by various international institutions, the conclusion made during COP 14 [in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt] in November last year indicated that the targets for the previous decade could not be attained. Many assessments show that most Aichi Biodiversity Targets will not be achieved by 2020. National biodiversity strategies and action plans (NBSAPs) are the principal planning tool for the implementation of the CBD at the national level. By the end of 2018, almost all the 196 parties to the CBD have developed at least one NBSAP since they became a signatory. Overall, the majority of national targets and/or commitments contained in the NBSAPs was lower than the Aichi Targets or did not address all of the elements of the Aichi Targets.  The root causes of the failure to achieve the Aichi Targets, as far as I know, is due to biodiversity targets not being mainstreamed at the national and local government levels, nor by business, civil society or individuals. The level of ambition of the Global Aichi Biodiversity Targets is much higher than most national plans, which are unable to match the Global Aichi Targets. This is partly because both the Aichi Targets and NBSAPs were developed with a top-down approach without encouraging participation from civil society. Lack of bottom-up voluntary commitments from the private sector and general public resulted in less ambitious plans and insufficient implementation. 

Another factor is the absence of indicator systems and integrated planning in place to guide and facilitate the implementation of the national action plans. Only 60 parties out of the total 196 presented their mid-term national report on implementing NBSAPs to the CBD Secretariat on a timely basis. There is no independent third-party monitoring for the individual NBSAPs to see how much has been fulfilled.  

So people expect a new monitoring and evaluation mechanism to be completed before the COP 15 in 2020. The Post 2020 Strategic Plan for Biodiversity Targets could be implemented based on the new mechanism with a dynamic and step-by-step approach.  

For China itself, comparatively, it performed well by presenting a timely national strategic action plan and mid-term evaluation report. For the 20 targets, China has achieved most, with a few even surpassing the Aichi Targets. China has presented evaluation and reports on its progress for the 20 targets.   

NC: From an IUCN perspective, can you illustrate the progress on finalizing the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework? 

ZC: Through openly soliciting opinions and suggestions from organizations and various sectors, there are two main proposals for the post-2020 framework. One opinion, based on confirming the Aichi Targets’ scientific role, suggests minor adjustments to the Aichi Targets. The second opinion suggests restructuring the framework, or reclassifying the previous 20 targets into new categories. So far, most parties agree on a ‘pyramid type structure’ for the new framework with a long-term visionary target at the apex and short-term targets set at various timelines. A better structure also requires a new monitoring and evaluation mechanism for the implementation and reporting of CBD targets. 

For climate change, limiting the average global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 to 2 C is commonly cited as a single target. This closely relates to people’s lives. Thus the biodiversity framework also wants to set a similar quantifiable target. Some suggest a global target number for protected land, while others suggest limiting the number of extinct species. This remains undecided. So currently, finding a target that the general public can easily understand is the key problem to resolve. Furthermore, the biodiversity community could learn from the climate community in forming both top-down and bottom-up initiatives and aim to replicate the success of the Paris Agreement, including mobilizing non-state actors to make similar commitments as the National Determined Contributions [country action plans] for climate change.   

NC: What preparations have been made and what is yet to be done by China to host a successful and ambitious COP 15? 

ZC: The Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) is mainly responsible for coordinating the work. So far it has organized a series of research projects and studies, and encouraged international participation through inviting both domestic and foreign non-government organizations to forums and soliciting their opinions. On this recent International Biodiversity Day, May 22, the MEE declared the launch of a public participation coalition for biodiversity conservation, and started a government-enterprise biodiversity partnership, mainly to encourage society’s involvement and united efforts.  

China has been working on its national biodiversity conservation strategy and action plans for 10 years, so I think a major task for now is to review and update the plan by next year. Through cooperation and joint research among government departments including the MEE, the Ministry of Natural Resources, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, an updated biodiversity strategic plan could be presented to assure the national targets and evaluation methods. Other significant works that have been fulfilled include the China Species Red Lists on Higher Plants, Vertebrates and Macro Fungi as joint projects of the MEE and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. We strongly recommend making a further red list evaluation on China marine species, the sooner the better. I hope an integrated national evaluation report on China’s biodiversity, including marine life, will be available by next year to facilitate the setting up of global and national renewed targets.   

NC: Can you explain the measures needed to mainstream the biodiversity targets and China’s progress in this regard? 

ZC: Mainstreaming biodiversity targets means first, having both the government and the general public acknowledge the importance of biodiversity conservation as vital for human development. Second, including biodiversity targets into national and local development plans and evaluation systems [for that], as well as including them in strategic plans in private enterprises across various sectors. In this regard, China is ahead of the global attempts in mainstreaming biodiversity targets. At the national level, China has promoted the notion of an ‘ecological civilization,’ and included this concept in the country’s updated constitution. It has adopted a holistic approach to conserving mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes and grasslands and built up idea of a ‘community of shared life.’  

In contrast to the national government’s efforts, there is a lack of mainstreaming of biodiversity targets at local government levels, in business, civil society and by individuals. For example, more can be done to address integration of biodiversity targets into transportation, communication and the energy sectors, and into their annual responsibility reports. Of course, there are quite a number of successful cases where Chinese enterprises have made achievements in promoting ecological preservation and in attracting public participation.   
NC: What are some of these achievements? What is China’s potential leadership role in biodiversity conservation? 

ZC: The concept of ‘ecological civilization’ brought up by Chinese President Xi Jinping and highly promoted and implemented across the whole country in recent years has been widely acknowledged by the international community. China’s ‘ecological conservation redline’ policy, [an approach to land-use planning that sets limits for environmental degradation] could also be a model for others in the conservation of ecologically sensitive areas.  

Other commonly known and colloquial expressions such as ‘green is gold’ proposed by the Chinese government can be easily understood by the general public and decision makers, thus effectively mainstreaming the idea of conservation at various levels. Some successful attempts on the enterprise levels include the Ant Forest program by the Alipay Foundation [a mobile app through which users can help plant trees in marginal areas under tech giant Alibaba, environment restoration programs by the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology, and Elion Resources Group’s ‘greening the Kubuqi Desert’ project can all be promoted on the international level.  

Also thanks to China’s ambitious tree-planting programs since the 1980s, according to a NASA study published earlier this year, China has contributed a quarter of the planet’s total increase in forest coverage. Furthermore, China has so far achieved significant successes in wildlife preservation, particularly the revival of some once endangered species such as the giant panda, Tibetan antelope and the crested ibis.  

NC: Why did China decide to host the COP 15 in Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province?  

ZC: Yunnan is a hot spot for biodiversity. While it is located in the poor and remote southwestern part of the country, and it is the most fragile in terms of biological protection, an opportunity to host an internationally important event could also enhance local efforts and people’s awareness of biodiversity preservation, as well as stimulate local sustainable development to a certain extent.

Tibetan Antelope

South China tiger