“I declare this world is so beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, American philosopher, 1836.
Anyone who has experienced wilderness, whether a rainforest in Borneo, the Masai Mara in Kenya, Sanjiangyuan in China or Yellowstone in the U.S., will understand Emerson’s sentiment.
As well as providing essential life support systems for human beings, the sheer beauty of nature can have a profound effect on our senses. Nature is where we go to celebrate the good times and where we retreat to contemplate and seek solace in the bad times. This is no coincidence; scientists have shown that spending time in wild places can relieve stress, increase social interaction, encourage physical exercise and even help soothe mental illness. The economic benefits of a happier, more relaxed and less stressed population are hard to measure but are surely significant. In fact, research to value nature has been growing rapidly over the past few decades and, according to one study, so-called “ecosystem services” – all of the things that landscapes and the organisms that live in them do for us, from providing us with food and water, to sequestering carbon and filtering the air – could be worth well over USD 100 trillion per year to the global economy.
However, just as we are beginning to understand the real value of nature, it is under threat. According to the Living Planet Index, more than 60% of wildlife on Earth is estimated to have been lost since 1970. The IUCN Red List, the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species, reports that more than 27,000 species are threatened with extinction, including 40% of amphibians, 25% of mammals, 14% of birds and 34% of conifers. The extinction rate is estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural rate. Those are incredible statistics and a stark warning that, globally, the international community must do better at protecting wildlife and the ecosystems on which we all depend.
China is one of the mega-biodiversity countries on Earth, positioned in two of the world’s major ecozones: the Palearctic and the Indomalaya. This vast country is home to around 35,000 species of vascular plants, ranking it third in the world only after Brazil and Colombia. The incredible wildlife of China shares habitat with, and bears acute pressure from, the world’s largest population of humans. More than 900 species of vertebrates are threatened, vulnerable or in danger of local extinction in China, due mainly to human activity such as habitat destruction, pollution and poaching for food and fur.
Fortunately, as in many countries, there is much work ongoing in China to better understand the value of nature and strengthen protection of the most important places and species. On this agenda, the Paulson Institute is working with the Chinese government in three main areas: national parks, coastal wetlands and market mechanisms.
China is currently implementing plans for its first group of national parks, due to be announced in 2020. The value of a network of wild spaces is unquestionable. Aside from providing a safe haven for nationally significant ecological and cultural heritage, a network of National Parks will also help generate considerable economic benefits. For example, a 2016 study showed National Parks are worth USD 92 billion to the U.S. economy. The Paulson Institute is bringing in international experience from the U.S. and other countries to inform China’s policymaking. Several of China’s pilot national parks are home to endangered species of global importance, such as Giant Panda, Snow Leopard, Pallas’s Cat and Siberian Tiger and, once the National Parks are formally established, the future of these animals, and the local communities living alongside them, will be a little brighter.
We know from research published in the Paulson Institute’s Coastal Wetlands Blueprint that China’s coastal wetlands alone provide economic benefits of USD 30 billion each year. However, despite offering significant ecosystem services, wetlands have been under immense pressure. For example, the Blueprint reveals how, in the last 50 years, 53% of China’s temperate coastal wetlands, 73% of its mangroves, and 80% of its coral reefs have been lost due to land reclamation, unsustainable aquaculture, invasive alien species and pollution. As a result, the number of migratory birds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway has decreased by 5-9% annually – a red flag for the health of the ecosystem.
Fortunately, following the publication of the Blueprint, the benefits provided by coastal wetlands are being acknowledged at the highest level. In February 2017, the Chinese government added 14 key coastal wetlands to a tentative list of sites to be considered for World Heritage status and, in July 2018, the State Council issued a circular strictly curtailing further land reclamation along China’s coast. Now, the Paulson Institute is working to provide training for protected area managers to help ensure wetlands are managed effectively. The future of the migratory bird species that rely on China’s coastal wetlands – including the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Far Eastern Curlew – is now a little more secure.
At the end of 2018, nine Chinese ministries led by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) released an action plan to promote market-based ecological conservation and compensation mechanisms. The overall principle of the action plan is to build a policy environment in which those who benefit from ecosystem services – such as provision of fresh water, water purification, flood control, provision of food – contribute financially and those who protect, maintain and restore ecosystems are properly compensated. The Paulson Institute is providing international experience on market-based financing mechanisms for conservation, ecological compensation and restoration. For example, we are exploring the concept of mitigation banking for wetlands. This concept is a mechanism for compensating for unavoidable damage to wetlands caused by economic development activities. Under the mitigation banking mechanism, developers must first try to avoid, and then minimize, any impact on wetlands. For unavoidable damage, developers must pay the cost of replacing the lost ecosystem functions by restoring or creating wetlands elsewhere by themselves or by purchasing mitigation credit from the companies whose business is restoration of the degraded wetlands.
Helping to better understand, and value, the benefits provided by nature is a key step in protecting both important places and the creatures that inhabit them. The examples above are steps in the right direction and, on this Earth Day, it is worth reflecting on how we can all do more to slow, stop and reverse the decline in biodiversity. Nothing less than our future depends on it.