Lessons from China’s environmental front

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China’s investment of money and decades to stem the tide of environmental destruction and protect its natural resources has done more than save flora and fauna – it has also provided a roadmap for itself and the rest of the world.

Jianguo “Jack” Liu and colleagues at Michigan State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences take a sweeping look at three enormous programs China has adopted to save natural resources. Their analysis and perspectives are presented in an article in the second edition of “Encyclopedia of Biodiversity,” which was recently released by Elsevier.

The Nature Reserve System – which now is comprised of 2,588 reserves that cover 15 percent of China’s territory -- protects valuable plants, animals and ecosystems, including the endangered giant panda. The Grain to Green Program is an effort to persuade farmers to return cropland to forest and grassland through financial incentives. The National Forest Conservation Program seeks to conserve natural forests by banning logging and creating new forests.

In other publications, Liu has worked with teams to find that China’s devastating 2008 earthquake would have been worse had forest conservation policies not maintained or improved the amount of forest cover that helped reduce landslides.

They also have found room for improvement, pointing out that much of the land returned to forest in the Grain to Green Program is not most valuable as wild space.

The group also notes that decentralizing programs would give local governments, communities and households more of a say, which gets to the heart of policies built for success.

China’s economy is booming and the country’s will to continue investing heavily to protect biodiversity continues to be strong. What is apparent from broad analysis is that all the programs would benefit from a more stringent assessment to truly understand what’s working and what isn’t. That could provide more opportunity to design the next generation of policies that target specific problems.

The article points out that it’s a unique combination of environmental and social sciences that provides a full picture of how policy works in the real world, and how it can grow stronger. The strongest policies are ones that balance environmental protection with measures that allow the people who live in areas of biodiversity to also thrive.

China’s successes – and its sheer size – make its programs of note for the rest of the world struggling to create policies that protect both humans and nature across coupled human and natural systems.

The article, “Evaluation of Ecosystem Service Policies from Biophysical and Social Perspectives: The Case of China,” is written by Liu, director of the MSU Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS); Wu Yang, doctoral student and Shuxin Li, research assistant, both at CSIS; and Zhiyun Ouyang and Xu Weihua, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

Financial support was provided by the National Science Foundation, NASA, National Natural Science Foundation of China, National Key Basic Research Program of China and Michigan AgBioResearch.

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