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Biodiversity Conference
Earlier this year, a herd of wild Asian elephants wandering in southwest China's Yunnan Province captures the attention of the entire world
By Li Qing  ·  2021-10-18  ·   Source: NO.42 OCTOBER 21, 2021
Folk artists perform at the opening ceremony of the 15th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, Yunnan Province, on October 11 (ZHANG WEI)
Earlier this year, a herd of wild Asian elephants wandering in southwest China's Yunnan Province captured the attention of the entire world. Departing their home range in Xishuangbanna on the very southern border of Yunnan as early as March 2020, the herd traveled more than 500 km north before reaching the provincial capital, Kunming, in June, and finally returned home in August after a 500-day round trip.

While the elephants' adventure led them into close proximity of towns, villages, croplands and other human settlements, effective management by local governments prevented clashes with local people. Key in moderating the human-elephant interaction was the oft-cited fact that while crops will grow back next year, endangered elephants are a precious and irreplaceable treasure.

The epic journey of this troop of 14 elephants, which was live-streamed on the Internet, drew the attention of people around the world, not only to biodiversity conservation in Yunnan, but also to the importance of cultivating a harmonious relationship between humans and nature.

On October 12, at the 15th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), President Xi Jinping said that the northward travel and return of the elephants was a vivid demonstration of the human endeavor to protect wild animals in China.

The meeting, also known as COP15, kicked off on October 11 in Kunming. It shoulders the task of reviewing progress and experience gained in fulfilling global biodiversity goals over the past decade. The meeting is expected to produce a global biodiversity framework and action plan for the coming decade, which will provide solutions to combat the world's worsening biodiversity crisis.

Actions underway 

A main achievement of the COP15 is the Kunming Declaration. It declares that putting biodiversity on a path of recovery is one of the defining challenges of this decade—a challenge that requires strong political momentum and the implementation of an ambitious and transformative post-2020 global biodiversity framework. The declaration also codifies the determination of signatories to solve the problem of biodiversity loss and puts forward a list of 17 commitments.

"The Kunming Declaration details some of the key elements needed for success: mainstreaming, redirection of subsidies, rule of law, and full and effective participation of indigenous people and local communities," said Elizabeth Maruma Merema, Executive Secretary of the CBD.

In his speech via video link at the COP15 Leaders' Summit on October 12, President Xi announced China's initiative to establish a Kunming Biodiversity Fund and take the lead by investing 1.5 billion yuan ($233 million) to support biodiversity protection in developing countries.

Noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a shadow over global development and compounded challenges to the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, President Xi said developing countries face the dual tasks of economic recovery and environmental protection, and "need help and support all the more."

"China also calls for and welcomes contributions from other parties to the fund," he said.

"The measures President Xi announced will make an important contribution to addressing the twin global crises of biodiversity loss and climate change," Manish Bapna, President and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Xinhua News Agency.

"In establishing the Kunming Biodiversity Fund and inviting other countries to contribute, China is taking a significant step toward strengthening protections for biodiversity across the developing world," Bapna said.

Landing in colorful Yunnan 

The CBD came into effect in 1993. So far, it has 196 signatories, and China was one of the first countries to sign. The biennial COP is the highest mechanism for discussion and decision-making.

The COP15 was originally scheduled to open in Kunming last year but was postponed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first session took place from October 11 to 15. Parallel activities across online and offline fora attracted over 5,000 representatives from governments, international organizations, research institutes and enterprises.

The meeting puts Yunnan, China's most biodiverse province, in the spotlight.

China is one of the 12 countries in the world with particularly rich biodiversity. The species inhabiting these 12 countries together account for 70 percent of the total number of species in the world.

Accounting for only 4.1 percent of the country's land area, Yunnan is home to nearly 20,000 higher plants, accounting for 50.1 percent of China's total. Between 1992 and 2000, over 3,700 new species were discovered in the province, one third of the total number discovered in China during that period. Among them, many are endemic to Yunnan, unique and irreplaceable to China and the world.

Situated on the edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and bordering the lush, tropical Indo-China Peninsula, Yunnan's diversity of protected ecosystems has made it an arc of sorts for tens of thousands of plant and animal species. It is also home to the world's second largest seed bank—the Germplasm Bank of Wild Species.

These rich natural resources have attracted the attention of British scientist Alice C. Hughes, who now works as a professor with the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Hughes moved to the region in 2013 to work on biodiversity research and conservation. She told Beijing Review that, during the years she has spent on the project, she has seen progress on biodiversity protection, with improved institutional mechanisms for safeguarding protected areas.

"In Yunnan, there are many projects that attempt to take inventories of rare species in order to prevent them from becoming extinct," Hughes said. "I hope that these kinds of fantastic projects can spread across China."

China's performance 

President Xi said at the COP15 Leaders' Summit that China is moving faster to establish a protected area system with national parks as the mainstay, and that it has already officially designated its first group of national parks. 

The area of the protected land is 230,000 square km, and the parks cover nearly 30 percent of the key terrestrial wildlife species found in China. The parks also ensure residents and communities living in or close to the protected area will benefit from the conservation activities.

In addition, implementation plans for peaking carbon dioxide emissions in key areas will be formulated to achieve the country's carbon peak and neutrality targets. The government will continue to readjust its industrial structure and energy mix, and work hard to develop its renewable energy capacities. 

Projects including large wind power and photovoltaic bases in sandy areas, rocky areas and deserts, with an installed capacity of approximately 100 million kilowatts, have recently started construction, President Xi said.

"China has just released a white paper covering the steps it is taking to conserve the natural world. The document covers everything from the preservation of germplasm to maintaining genetic diversity. There aren't many countries doing that—certainly not on the scale that China is," Hughes said.

Released on October 8, the white paper titled Biodiversity Conservation in China details the wide range of measures China is taking to pursue the protection of biodiversity including coordination of green development, the establishment of a national park system, comprehensive strengthening of conservation methods, and reinforced management of biosecurity.

"Progress has also taken place in the legal system," said Zhou Jinfeng, Secretary General of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation. The government has revised the Environmental Protection Law and has twice amended the Law on the Protection of Wildlife. It has also updated the endangered species list, which had not been revised in decades.

The most fundamental development is the engagement of the nation's people in biodiversity protection. Chinese people lead the world in their understanding of eco-diversity, as the word biodiversity is mentioned more frequently in the Chinese media than it is in any other country, Zhou explained.

International cooperation has been initiated for biodiversity conservation and governance. With the help of multilateral cooperation mechanisms such as the Belt and Road Initiative and South-South Cooperation, China has provided support for biodiversity conservation in other developing countries and is striving to build a shared future for all life on Earth.

Lem Puthviro, Consul General of Cambodia in Kunming, told Beijing Review that it is important for Cambodia to learn from China. "We hope to follow the good experiences for our country, for our own results and the benefit of the Cambodian people," Puthviro said.

However, despite the progress that China has made in biodiversity conservation, biodiversity protection is still a pressing issue in the country and the world, Zhou said.

A common challenge 

In the past 50 years, human activities have greatly reduced global biodiversity. Increasing population, accelerated urbanization and pollution have caused severe ecological problems. Today, the loss of biodiversity, climate change, and environmental pollution are among the three major global crises threatening the planet.

A prominent example is the unprecedented rate of species extinction taking place in the Amazon rainforest, one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. Previously home to 3 million species in total, the forest has already experienced the loss of 1 million species, according to the UN. From August 2018 to July 2019, the region lost more than 9,000 square km of forest, and in that year the deforestation rate reached a 10-year high.

In 2021, the International Union for Conservation of Nature released the Red List of Threatened Species, which covers the living range, population, habitat and other information of over 130,000 species. It says that 38,000 species face the danger of extinction to varying degrees, with 902 species declared extinct and some 80 species already extinct in the wild.

"It is of the most urgent importance to alter people's modes of living and production," Zhou said. "Only by promoting ecological progress can mankind solve the crises of biodiversity degradation."

Since 2012, China has been prioritizing environmental progress and pursuing green development through the concept of ecological civilization proposed by President Xi. This period has seen new models of biodiversity conservation emerge in China.

The development of ecological civilization should be taken as a guide to coordinate the relationship between humans and nature, President Xi said at the COP15 Leaders' Summit, adding that human activities need to be kept within the limits of what is ecologically sustainable.

Ecological civilization, balancing the harmonious coexistence between man and nature, is in line with the CBD's long-term vision. Merema said pursuing ecological civilization means forging a close relationship between the two sides with the vision of living in harmony with nature by 2050. "All countries want to develop, but as development and rapid industrialization continue, that should not come at the cost of the environment," she said.

Shared responsibilities 

"We must also look beyond the usual suspects. Indigenous people and local communities, businesses, and the financial sector all play a key part in the transformation to a nature-positive future," Merema said.

"I hope that during and after this meeting, people will pay more attention to environmental protection education, especially in China's central and western regions, and in nature reserves," Qian Lei, Director General of Roots & Shoots Beijing, an organization focusing on environmental and biodiversity protection, told Beijing Review. "These regions see more conflicts between people and nature as the competing needs of protecting biodiversity and improving people's livelihoods are both urgent," she said. Qian also hopes more achievements in this regard can be reported to the public so that they can realize their individual behaviors can make a difference.

Guo Peiyuan, Manager of SynTao Co. Ltd., a consultancy in China that promotes sustainable development, told Beijing Review that enterprises need to further understand the relationship between their actions and biodiversity.

"Enterprises should be finding methods to protect biodiversity over the course of their business operations, and at the same time, convey this concept to consumers," Guo said, adding that doing so is part of their social responsibility.  

(printed edition title:A BEAUTIFUL HOME FOR ALL) 

(Reporting from Kunming, Yunnan Province) 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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