Biodiversity summit offers China a chance to burnish its environmental credentials

China is set to take advantage of an international stage to show it’s serious about protecting the planet’s threatened species and ecosystem. At a United Nations biodiversity conference opening on Monday in Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, a high-level Chinese official may endorse an ambitious framework for biodiversity conservation, due to be finalized next spring, conservationists based in China say.

“China wants to be seen as a leader in this area,” says Alice Hughes, a conservation biologist at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden. The country is “likely to be in very strong favor of most elements of the framework,” she says. That gesture of concern for the planet would be consistent with China’s recent pledges to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and to end Chinese financing for overseas coal plants. But conservation advocates add that China should also shore up its own biodiversity efforts, which often take a back seat to economic development.

The venue is the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, originally slated for October 2020, and then repeatedly postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With international travel still uncertain, meeting planners decided in August to split the meeting in two, holding an opening ceremony online next week while putting off the hard negotiations until next spring when delegates hope to gather in person in Kunming.

On Wednesday, delegates are expected to adopt the Kunming Declaration, which, in typical U.N. parlance, calls for “an effective post-2020 global biodiversity framework.” The latest draft lists 31 targets and milestones to reach by 2030. Among them: setting aside 30% of the world’s land and sea areas for conservation, halving the introduction of new invasive species, eliminating plastic pollution, and increasing financial support for conservation efforts in developing countries by $200 billion.

The world fell short of the less ambitious 20 “Aichi targets” set at the convention meeting in 2010 in Nagoya, Japan. But Stuart Pimm, a conservation scientist at Duke University thinks the Kunming goals are realistic. Over the past 30 years, “We have dramatically increased how much of the planet we’ve protected,” he says.

“I think it’s entirely possible to implement more ambitious targets within the next decade,” adds Georgina Chandler, an international policy specialist at the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The problem over the past decade was the lack of political will “to get on with it and do it.” But more resources are being devoted to biodiversity now, Chandler says, and planning and monitoring tools have improved.

U.S. President Joe Biden is likely to support ambitious goals as well. Biden issued an executive order on 27 January committing his administration to the goal of protecting 30% of the United States’s land and coastal seas by 2030, in line with an international “30 by 30” initiative to protect 30% of the globe’s surface by 2030.

But such targets face opposition. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts (R) called the plan the “30 x 30 Land Grab” in a message to constituents, and bills have already been introduced in the U.S. Congress to limit “federal government overreach.” Nongovernmental organizations have also raised concerns over how the 30% framework target would affect Indigenous peoples and local communities.

Even supporters warn against just setting numerical targets. “Conserved areas should be carefully chosen for maximal impact … and not just designated for the purpose of boosting percentages,” says Xu Haigen, an environmental scientist at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences.

This is the first time China has led deliberations on a major international environmental agreement. The country considers the Kunming meeting “the most important diplomatic event hosted by our country this year,” Cui Shuhong, an official with China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, said at a press conference in Beijing on 23 September. China has been the largest contributor to the convention’s trust fund, Cui said, and a major supporter of international environmental initiatives such as the Global Environment Facility, which supports biodiversity efforts by developing countries.

Its record at home has been mixed, however. It now has 18% of its land area under protection, according to government figures, and the country scored a notable conservation achievement when the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded the status of the iconic giant panda from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in 2016. Protecting panda habitats benefited other species as well, Pimm says, including the takin, a goatlike animal considered vulnerable, and endangered snub-nosed monkeys.

But China has made less progress battling invasive species, Xu says. And although air quality in China has improved, “water pollution is not getting any better,” says Johannes Knops, an ecologist at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. Pollution, boat strikes, and fishing bycatches all likely contributed to the decline of the baiji, a river dolphin found only in the Yangtze River watershed that hasn’t been spotted since 2002 and is thought to be extinct or nearly so.

China’s immediate task is shepherding the action framework negotiations. Conservationists have a long list of issues they hope will make it into the final document, including provisions to hold parties to the convention more accountable for implementation, better monitoring of progress, and increased financing. The opening ceremony next week is “like the starting gun in a race,” Chandler says. “We’ve got 6 months to finish the negotiations.”

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