China’s approach to conservation

In the wake of an apocalyptic bushfire season, Australia’s land management and environmental policies have been thrust back into the spotlight.

With conversations around how we could better manage our land, and our environmental impact heating up, there’s a suggestion we could learn some lessons from an unlikely country: China.

While the world’s most populous country may have a questionable history of environmental sustainability, there are a few things we can learn from them and the changes they’re making, says an environmental expert from Deakin University.

Australia “doesn’t do much” to manage flow-on effects of land management

There are many aspects of Australia’s land management that intersect, like the protection of national parks, conservation efforts and legislation on threatened species. These have flow on effects for both water management and air pollution.

However, according to Deakin’s Brett Bryan, a Professor of Global Change, Environment and Society, Australia “doesn’t do much to manage these things”.

“Apart from the nature reserve system and Indigenous land, land is owned and managed by individual farmers whose objective, primarily, is to make a living – to put their kids through school and food on the table.”

“Many farmers are very good at looking after the land but unlike other countries like Europe and China, there are very few subsidies available in Australia for managing the land and often this comes at a cost to farmers.”

In fact, a report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development highlighted that Australian farmers were among the least subsidised in the 47 countries examined.

According to Bryan, farming in Australia is a market-oriented and productivity-driven economic system that “doesn’t always align with the objects of good land management and environmental conservation”.

Environmental solutions shouldn’t be a one-sized fits all model

China’s pivot towards creating a sustainable environment came as an emergency response to the conditions of its rural people and environment. By the 1990’s, agricultural soils were exhausted and productivity was declining.

“All of these things that were happening were attributed to bad land management in the past and so the government drew a line in the sand and said ‘we need to invest in this and fix up our environmental problems in land systems,’ and so they did and it’s had a massive impact,” Bryan says.

That led the Chinese government to take serious action, investing more than USD 350 billion into managing their land and agriculture with specifically designed policies.

And it’s from that avoidance of a one-size fits all model, that researchers say we can take note.

“China was really good at understanding all the linkages between the impacts of environmental problems – one of them being the linkage between poverty and environmental degradation.”

“The poorer the people are, the more pressure they put on their land to produce things like crops and livestock. The more they did that, the more degraded the land became, the less it produced and the poorer they became.”

“China’s policy aimed to break that vicious cycle by providing economic subsidies and financial payments to farmers in order to manage the land better. That reduced their level of poverty and improved the environment.”

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Afforestation of Western barren mountains, Handan City, Hebei Province, China. Credit: Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images.

A key part of China’s environmental policy was understanding that there are benefits and trade-offs.

“If you restrict agriculture on steep slopes because you want to reduce erosion and sedimentation of rivers and you reforest those slopes, you’re no longer producing food on that land and there’s going to be a shortfall in agricultural production,” says Bryan.

“What China did well was pair all these conservation strategies with strategies to improve agricultural production in the better farming areas.”

While China’s path to sustainability is a unique one, there’s another lesson that Australia can learn from China’s experience; environmental sustainability costs money.

“You can’t just throw a few million [dollars] at the Australian environment and expect it to be as good as new. China invested more than US$350 billion,” Bryan says.

“It calls for a change in investment in the environment which provides public goods and services.”

Isn’t China an environmental bad guy?

There’s no denying that China has some huge environmental issues, particularly with its air pollution, and water and soil pollution.

“Over a million people die from air pollution per year in China – it’s really a big deal because it’s killing people,” Bryan says.

China’s greenhouse gas emissions are projected to rise by 2030. They already account for approximately 27% of global emissions.

But to give credit where credit is due, instead of shying away from their issues China is working hard to fix them.

The 2019 Renewables Global Status Report (GSR) revealed that China was responsible for 32 percent of all global renewable investments in 2018. It was the lead investor in, and leads the world in installed capacity of hydropower, solar and wind.

China is also implementing reforestation initiatives, which have increased forest cover, prevented soil erosion while also acting as sinks for carbon dioxide. They’ve also set to work on the Wetland Restoration Project with aims to restore wetland biodiversity.

And, as Bryan points out, while the world watches on as China tries to repair its environment, perhaps the wider world has played a role in China’s environmental issues.

Offshore production can be much cheaper for the bottom line but is this just shifting the problem?

“These emissions that China is making are to produce things for the rest of the world. It’s for the iPhone we buy, for all the things that they manufacture that are then sold to the rest of the world,” Bryan says.

“In effect, we’re exporting our emissions and pollution to China to produce all this stuff for us.”

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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