Global biodiversity is collapsing. What is China doing to bend the curve of nature loss?

Science & Health
Sponsored by Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University

After two years of delays due to the coronavirus, the in-person portion of COP15, a key United Nations biodiversity summit, will finally take place in Kunming later this year. Prior to the event, China already demonstrated its commitment to addressing nature loss.

Visitors at a COP15-themed exhibition in Kunming. Image from China Daily.

This article is brought to you by Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, a leading international joint venture university based in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.

If you had to guess the most severe risks on a global scale over the next 10 years, what would you say? According to a recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the top two most severe risks for the next decade are climate action failure and extreme weather, which are probably obvious to many people. 

But number three? This one might not be what you expect and it is biodiversity loss. The study cautions that as a result of species extinction and/or reduction, a catastrophic biodiversity collapse will lead to profound and irreversible consequences for various aspects of human life and “a permanent destruction of natural capital.” 

For years, the public discourse concerning environmental issues has been disproportionately focused on global warming, but a spate of recent events — from the 3 billion animals affected by Australia’s devastating bushfire in 2020 to the possible correlation between COVID-19 and wildlife — have made it clear that the world is also in the grip of a worsening biodiversity crisis, one that threatens to not only wipe out plant and animal species but also endanger humanity’s food supply, health, and security, according to a United Nations report issued in 2020.

How are policymakers around the world tackling the steep, ongoing loss of biodiversity? And what action has been taken by China, which harbors nearly 10% of all plant species and 14% of animals on Earth, to bend the curve in this regard?

The current state of biodiversity

It’s common for wildlife populations to shrink and new species to emerge in the course of evolution, but what worries ecologists today is the fast pace at which extinctions are taking place. Previous studies by experts have shown that birds, mammals, and amphibians are going extinct at least 100 to 1,000 times faster than they did in the millions of years before humans began to dominate the planet. In the last century, at least 543 species of vertebrate land animals were lost to unnatural extinction, a tally that would normally take 10,000 years to accrue.  

Some scientists are convinced that the sixth mass extinction of the planet’s biodiversity is already underway and it’s happening much faster than previously expected. Unlike any annihilation event in the past, including the fifth one that took place 65 million years ago and made dinosaurs disappear, the sixth mass die-off — or Anthropocene extinction — is the only one caused by humans, with climate change, habitat destruction, toxic pollution, industrial agriculture, overhunting, and overfishing all playing a hand.

“There’s no other way to put it: Biodiversity is in really bad shape all over the world,” says Xiao Lingyun, an Assistant Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. “And we have an extremely short window in which we can make a difference.” 

What to expect from COP15

A decade ago, in attempts to reverse the extinction of plant and animal species, more than 190 countries participated in a Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Japan. After rounds of negotiations, the delegates ultimately reached an agreement on a 10-year strategic plan for biodiversity conservation. Known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, the document contained a set of 20 specific goals, including reducing pollution, integrating biodiversity values into national development, and halving the rate at which natural habitats were being lost.

But as the deadline passed, only six of the 20 objectives were partially achieved, including those on protected land and invasive species, the United Nations said in its Global Biodiversity Outlook report released in 2020. “The consensus among scientists and conservationists is that the nature protection efforts in the past decade were a failure,” says Xiao, whose main research interest lies in large, rare carnivores such as snow leopards. “The intention was good when the targets were made. But in the following 10 years, most countries spent an unnecessary amount of time making plans and dragged their feet on actual execution.”

The 15th United Nations biodiversity conference (COP15) — not to be confused with COP26, the UN climate change conference in Glasgow last year — provides an opportunity for the international community to get the world’s biodiversity targets back on track. After suffering several delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference, which was originally scheduled to take place in Kunming, China, in 2020, finally saw its virtual portion happening in October 2021. 

During the online meeting, representatives from different countries adopted the Kunming Declaration, in which they expressed their political will to address biodiversity loss and acknowledged new goals set in the first draft of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, a document created by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to guide actions worldwide through 2030. In November, nations will reunite in a face-to-face meeting in Kunming to ratify the targets. In the meantime, scientists and other parties of interest will gather to discuss administrative matters and technical issues related to CBD initiatives.

Commenting on the Kunming Summit, Xiao says that the core theme in the framework is a target of “30 by 30,” which means conserving 30% of Earth’s land and waters by 2030. At the moment, about 17% of Earth’s surface and 8% of marine areas are within formal protected areas.

“The realization of this ambitious goal requires contribution from a wide range of entities across various sectors. For example, there is a strong case for financial institutions to get involved in the efforts because they depend on and impact biodiversity through many of their operational activities, supply chains, and investment decisions,” Xiao says. 

Unique challenges and opportunities for China

As one of 17 mega-biodiversity countries in the world, China is expected to take leadership in nature conservation and it has been working steadily to protect biodiversity through a host of policies and measures. At the first meeting of the COP15 summit, China pledged $237 million in a new fund to support biodiversity conservation in developing countries and announced the creation of several new national parks to cover 88,800 square miles of land across the country. “There’s no doubt that economic development is still China’s top priority, but we’ve reached a critical point where effective action needs to be taken to protect and conserve natural systems,” Xiao says.

In addition to conventional methods such as setting ecological red lines and pursuing carbon neutrality, Xiao says that authorities should consider exploring new approaches like “other effective area-based conservation measures,” such as better land management of urban and agriculture areas to make it more biodiversity friendly. 

Xiao also points out that China’s biodiversity preservation work could benefit greatly from more government officials who are academically trained in relevant fields. “For now, China lacks routine programs to collect baseline data on biodiversity monitoring. Fundamental tasks like this will be given more attention if more ecologists are hired in the government.”

While much work remains to be done, Xiao says that many researchers in her academic circle are encouraged by the government’s commitment to address the biodiversity collapse. She recalls that when she entered the field of biodiversity conservation around 2010, it was “a very marginalized subject” in comparison with pollution. 

“But there has been a palpable shift in the political winds in the past two years, which is very exciting. We now have more sources of funding, both from the government and other organizations,” Xiao says.