Climate and Energy

China plans landmark biodiversity talks

Next year Kunming will host the most important biodiversity conference for a decade
<p>UN biodiversity talks in Kunming in 2020 will aim to agree a plan for protecting endangered species such as China&#8217;s golden snub-nosed monkey (image: <a href="">Jack Hynes</a>)</p>

UN biodiversity talks in Kunming in 2020 will aim to agree a plan for protecting endangered species such as China’s golden snub-nosed monkey (image: Jack Hynes)

In 2020, delegates from nearly 200 countries will meet in the capital of Yunnan province, southwest China, to thrash out a new framework to halt biodiversity loss and protect ecosystems.

The talks will be crucial to restoring the health of the planet, which is experiencing species loss at an unprecedented rate, according to the Platform for Science and Policy on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). There has been a 60% decline in mammal, bird, fish, reptile and amphibian populations over the past 40 years. In South and Central America, this figure hits 89%.

“I would expect China’s technological development, its investment in innovation and its financial capacity to make clear contributions to prioritising biodiversity,” IPBES chair Ana María Hernández said recently about China’s leadership of the UN’s convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

In 2010, countries party to the CDB approved a 2011-2020 Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. The talks held in Aichi, Japan, yielded 20 overarching goals to end biodiversity loss and restore ecosystems, known as the Aichi targets.

It’s unlikely these targets will be met by 2020, so the talks in Kunming are tasked with finding a new way forward.

Slow progress

A recent UN evaluation found that 77% of national biodiversity goals were lower than those set at Aichi. Two thirds of nations have said their progress is too slow to meet the 2020 goals.

For example, the 11th Aichi target calls for at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water and 10% of coastal and marine areas to be protected by 2020. But countries are still a long way from achieving this.

Only the 11th Aichi target could have realistically been met, according to John E Scanlon, former Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). “But many of these areas are not well-funded or well-managed, often being referred to as ‘paper parks.’” Scanlon said it’s unclear whether the “protected areas are all in the right places from an ecological point of view.”

Thomas Lovejoy, a professor in the Environmental Science and Policy Department at George Mason University, said in Beijing recently that next year’s talks were of historic importance. “We may be the last generation [able] to save the environment and humanity… If we don’t work hard, future humanity will face unimaginable chaos.”

China’s role

For its part, China is attempting to break with its destructive “pollute first, clean up later” approach to development. It’s now pursuing an “ecological civilisation” that was first proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2012. The country is supposed to have built this by 2020, but actually doing so will require more ambitious targets to be set in Kunming.

There are some positive signs.

In February, vice-premier Han Zheng said that “China must actively prepare to carry out its duties as host nation and ensure a… conference of landmark significance.”

In March 2018, ministerial reforms to better protect the environment saw the creation of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE). The latter’s Department of Nature and Ecology Conservation is responsible for the country’s biodiversity. The head of its biodiversity protection office, Jing Xin, said at a seminar in Beijing in late 2018 that Chinese public awareness had changed in recent years and the ministry was now under much greater pressure to improve the environment.

Those 2018 reforms also brought China’s various types of nature reserve under a single management body. Between June and December, the State Forestry and Grassland Administration, which sits under the Ministry of Natural Resources, inspected over 10,000 reserves – about 18% of the country. This is greater than the 17% Aichi target. Provinces have also set “ecological redlines” to protect vulnerable areas. Initial estimates claim over one quarter of the country will be covered.

“This shows China can set more ambitious targets for reserves,” said Xue Dayuan, a professor at Minzu University of China’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences. Xue thinks that China could protect at least 25% of its terrestrial and inland water areas.

A focus on science

At the last UN conference on biodiversity in Egypt, the EU called for “ambitious, realistic, measurable and time-bound targets”. The Small Island Developing States bloc requested greater financial resources, while Costa Rica called for 1% of global gross domestic product to be directed at conservation. China stressed “scientific community involvement”.

Efforts by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment to deliver on the Aichi targets by protecting endangered species, managing nature reserves and establishing ecological redlines have required major support from scientific institutions.

China has emphasised the need for scientists to be involved in decision making at the conference

For example, Liao Guoxiang, a deputy researcher at the National Marine Environment Monitoring Centre, said that the ministry is working with central bodies such as the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the State Forestry and Grassland Administration to create a national ecological monitoring network.

“Better surveys and monitoring means improved understanding of biodiversity and the state of the environment, which is necessary to better implement the convention,” said Liao. He wants universities and research institutes to be involved as well.

Balakrishna Pisupati, chair of the Forum for Law, Environment, Development and Governance (FLEDGE), said that decisions on issues such as synthetic biology, species conservation and habitat corridors will need more scientific support and engagement in the policy-making process.

“China and other countries have emphasised the need for better science and more scientists to be involved in decision making at the UN biodiversity conference and not just in making recommendations,” he said.

A similar point was made in a 2018 editorial in Science, written by Zhang Yaping, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Jonathan Baillie, chief scientist at the National Geographic Society. They argued that the Aichi target on protecting marine areas is nowhere near enough to ensure that other targets are met, such as preventing the extinction of known threatened species or promoting the protection of ecosystems.

They suggested that national governments commit to protect 30% of both the ocean and land, focusing on biodiverse and productive areas, rising to 50% by 2050. “This will be extremely challenging, but it is possible,” they concluded.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on