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China leading in sustainability?

7th July 2018

It’s not often we hear a good news story about the environment from China, but a report published in Nature highlights the significant progress the world’s most populous country has made. A review of 16 programs designed to improve the sustainability of the rural environment and communities highlights the success, as well as the shortcomings of China’s efforts.

China’s focus on sustainability in the 1990s came as a kind of emergency response to the heinous conditions in rural communities. China has been farmed for more than 8,000 years, but by the middle of the 20th century, the cumulative impacts of poor agricultural practices were resulting in environmental degradation and extreme poverty. Droughts, floods and the Great Chinese Famine from 1959 to 1961, resulted in the first sustainability programs being established in the late 1970s. But in the late 1990s natural forest cover was below 10% and around 5 billion tonnes of soil was eroded annually, causing major water quality and sedimentation problems.

Between 1998 and 2015, China invested more than US$350bn in 16 sustainability programs, addressing more than 630m ha – the equivalent of 65% of China’s land mass. And according to the scientists from Australia, the US and China who reviewed the programs, the impacts of China’s sustainability efforts are unrivalled globally.

The programs improved rural livelihoods by paying farmers to implement sustainability measures on their land. Housing and off-farm work in China’s booming cities also boosted incomes and reduced pressure on farmed land.

As a result, deforestation has declined and forest cover exceeds 22%, grasslands have expanded and  regenerated. Desertification trends – the process of fertile land becoming desert – have reversed in many areas. Soil erosion has substantially reduced, improving water quality and reducing river sedimentation. Yellow River sediment loads have fallen by 90%, and the Yangtze isn’t far behind. Agricultural productivity has increased through efficiency gains and technological advances, meaning living standards for rural households have increased and hunger has largely disappeared.

There have also been some failures and unintended consequences. Planting trees where they never grew has depleted water resources and led to plantation failures. In the most degraded areas, significant cultural disruption has occurred through the migration of entire communities to less sensitive environments. More could be done to conserve biodiversity, particularly by prioritising diverse natural forest restoration and regeneration over single-species plantations.

While China’s circumstances are unique, there are lessons to learned for other nations grappling with sustainability. Nations must commit to sustainability as a long-term, large-scale public investment like education, health, defence, and infrastructure.