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China’s response to a national land-system sustainability emergency: a perspective piece

“China’s unprecedented response to a national land-system sustainability emergency” was first published in Nature Research Journals on 12 July 2018. Download the paper here.

China has been farmed for over 8000 years. Over this time, forests were progressively cleared for agriculture and exploited for energy, food, medicines, and materials. Exploitation of land, forest, water, and nature over thousands of years of human occupation and development seriously degraded China’s environment and impoverished its rural people.

Twenty years ago, in response to its dire sustainability crisis, China developed large-scale, integrated sustainability programs to improve both environmental and socio-economic outcomes. Now in 2018, China has two decades of experience that can inform the rest of the world as we move toward meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under the United Nations’ Agenda 2030.

China’s sustainability programs are addressing issues of: erosion, sedimentation, and flooding; conservation of forests; mitigation of desertification and dust storms; and increasing the agricultural productivity. These environmental objectives are complemented by socio-economic objectives to improve food security and household income to achieve a holistic approach to managing China’s land-systems.

With a bill exceeding $378 billion US dollars since 1978, these programs stretch over 623.9 million hectares of land and engage over 500 million people. This significant investment has resulted in overwhelming improvements in the sustainability of China’s rural land-systems and has lifted many people out of poverty.

A newly published paper led by the Centre for Integrative Ecology at Deakin University, but including 19 collaborators from 16 Australian, Chinese, and US institutions, evaluates China’s 16 sustainability programs. This paper was first published in Nature and closely examines the impacts, challenges and threats to the durability of China’s long-term investment in sustainability. The authors in the context of the SDGs, identify take-away points to assist governments and organisations in developing informed programs as we move toward 2030.

The full paper is available to download here: "China’s unprecedented response to a national land-system sustainability emergency."

The impacts of China’s sustainability programs

China has seen a significant improvement in national forest coverage and a reduction in dust storms and desertification. Water quality has improved in some areas, biodiversity decline has been slowed and there has been a marked improvement in agricultural production and a reduction in national hunger. Many households have reported an increase in income.

These successes should be celebrated, but not without careful reflection on some of the challenges faced along the way.

Afforestation of some regions resulted in a reduction of water-table levels that impacted community access to water and threatened and food security for the local region. Biodiversity is still in decline partly due to the prevalence of non-native, single-species plantations. Increased productivity in agriculture, while improving food security and household income for many, has polluted waterways. Migrations from environmentally-stressed land to urban centres have resulted in cultural disruptions, loss of social networks and an increased cost of living.

While these challenges threaten to dampen the successes of China’s programs, improved practice, policy adjustments and evidence-based planning informed by reflective review processes will continue the upward trend.

Keys to China’s success

The success of China’s sustainability programs lay within its integrated, long-term, large-scale investment and its coordinated, adaptive and evidence-based planning. With a steadfast government that has been committed to engaging in pilot programs, trials and staged rollouts, China has created the opportunity to establish conservation as a social norm.

By jointly addressing systemic socio-economic and environment causes, China’s integrated programs aimed to break the vicious cycle of poverty and environmental damage, and as a result have progressed towards many of the UN’s SDGs.

For the rest of the world, achieving these goals requires a step-change increase in spending. Governments need to bring sustainability funding more in-line with expenditure on other public services like health, defence, and education.

Additionally, the unified vision required for transformative change may prove to be a challenge for democratic governments which typically plan sustainability programs over much shorter electoral cycles.

The outlook for China and the world

Despite considerable efforts, China still faces enormous social and environmental sustainability challenges associated with rapid development, industrialisation, and urbanisation.

Meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals will be an ongoing process for China, but its successes and the challenges it faces present the rest of the world with an informative road map.

When governments are designing their own approach to the SDGs, they must embrace the complex nature of sustainability challenges and target key systemic causes, leverage points and address socio-economic and environmental stresses concurrently.

Creating programs that are evidence-based, long-standing, cost-effective and adaptive will be the key to our success. We must be prepared to take urgent, strong, and decisive action, but must also provide appropriate economic and cultural support for those affected.

Moving towards the SDGs will be filled with challenges, but we must continue to progress and learn from China’s experience.

For more on "China’s unprecedented response to a national land-system sustainability emergency," read Dr. Brett Bryan's Behind the Paper in Nature Sustainability.