“Ecological civilisation” and the conservation of biological diversity – a glance at China ahead of CBD COP 15


The 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will kick off in October 2021 in Kunming, China. What is the importance of biodiversity in China and what are the Chinese government's goals for COP 15? Lili Fuhr, Head of the International Environmental Policy Division, spoke with our Beijing Office Director, Paul Kohlenberg.

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Arbeiter:innen auf einer Gingkoplantage in China

The fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP 15) officially opens on 11 October in Kunming, China. High-level launch events are initially planned for October, with the substantive negotiations likely to take place in late spring 2022. This order of events was agreed by the international community and the Chinese government after a lengthy delay.

COP 15 was originally scheduled for October 2020 but was postponed several times due to the pandemic. As things stand, the second part of COP 15 will take place as an in-person meeting in April/May 2022. One of the items on the agenda will be the adoption of the new post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which the parties to the CBD have been negotiating since 2018.

Although there will be no in-person attendance by foreign delegations at the opening of COP 15 in Kunming in October, the eyes of the world will nevertheless be focused on China this autumn. But how significant is the topic of biodiversity in the People’s Republic itself? Which goals is the Chinese government pursuing with COP 15? What are the challenges for Chinese agriculture, for example? And in the world’s largest economy, which stakeholders are involved in the debate about the conservation and use of biological diversity, and what are their positions?

I spoke about these issues with Paul Kohlenberg, our Chief Representative in Beijing.

The interview took place on 20 August 2021 (originally in German).

Lili Fuhr: How is the topic of biodiversity discussed in China? Is there a direct translation of the term?

Paul Kohlenberg: In China, the concept of biodiversity – translated directly as shengwu duoyangxing – is used in the majority of contexts in much the same way as it is in Europe. What is interesting, however, is that in more official Chinese discourse, biodiversity is often discussed in conjunction with other concepts that are quite distinct from those featuring in our own environmental debate.

So the connotations of the term “biodiversity” are rather different in China?

The conceptual differences are less significant; what is important is how the more political aspects of the topic of biodiversity can be discussed in China. As one of its governance techniques, the Communist Party of China prescribes what is known as a “discourse system”, comprising key concepts and language rules. These concepts and rules must be used in politically relevant discussions and serve as a kind of discursive anchor or fixed point in the official line in a specific policy area. In the field of environmental policy, for example, “ecological civilisation” must always be mentioned in texts of a more official nature at present. In a sense, “ecological civilisation” provides a semantic framework for other environmental policy concepts such as biodiversity.

If a Chinese scientist writes a paper aimed at a specialist international readership, she is not necessarily obliged to refer to political concepts such as “ecological civilisation”. However, if Chinese stakeholders wish to make active efforts to ensure that progressive approaches to biodiversity conservation are genuinely implemented, they would tend to formulate their ideas with the official language rules in mind. They do so for two reasons: in order to convey the idea that their cause has domestic policy legitimacy, but also to influence the overall discourse with maximum effect by adding new attributes to these core policy concepts.

How should I visualise this working in practice?

We see this, for instance, in Chinese discourse contributions which postulate that biodiversity is a key measure of “ecological civilisation”. But at the same time, “ecological civilisation” – as the more dominant concept by far – also limits the creative potential for thinking about biodiversity conservation at all. This means that these contributions to the debate ultimately repeat, directly or indirectly, the mantra – which also tends to be dominant in China – of an ecological civilisation process in which problems, old and new, are to be solved through development. There is often tension between this kind of developmentalist approach and perspectives that place the emphasis on restoration and recovery.

Does that mean that in China, a more nuanced debate on the topic of biodiversity only takes place within a narrow and prescribed field of discourse?

No, I wouldn’t say so. Chinese decision-makers and theorists actually speak in very nuanced terms about how conflicts of interest between economic development and nature conservation can be resolved. However, the core concept in environmental policy in China at present – namely “ecological civilisation” – is the continuation of a long Chinese political tradition whereby ecology is seen as part of an official development narrative in which state and party are assigned an interventionist role in order to drive urbanisation or the modernisation of agriculture, for example. The politically mandated centrality of modernisation and development thus influences the way in which concepts such as “biodiversity” or “conservation of biodiversity” are prioritised at policy level.

Perhaps we could look at a specific example. What does this mean for the biodiversity/agriculture nexus?

The prioritisation of modernisation, development and techno-scientific solutions, which I have just mentioned, is reflected in China’s National Action Plan (2011-2030) to implement the Convention on Biological Diversity, for example. Although it mentions projects aimed at the cataloguing  or use of traditional knowledge (particularly the genetic material of traditional crops) for rural development, this document contains few thoughts on the contribution that an expansion of traditional forms of agriculture can make to preserving biological diversity – even though cultivation techniques that are associated with increased species diversity in their respective regions undoubtedly exist in China.

But it is the modernisation of agriculture which, for understandable reasons, has long been the focus of Chinese politics. Grain production in China increased by 74 percent between 1982 and 2017. However, there has been a threefold increase in pesticide use at the same time: it’s currently around five times higher than the world average. Although little reliable data are available on biodiversity in China’s agricultural landscapes, the consequences for biodiversity in adjacent areas are worrying – not least because most of these toxic substances leach straight into the soil and groundwater. Interestingly, the research also shows that relatively large-scale and more mechanised Chinese farms tend to use less pesticide than small farms do.

What’s the situation with regard to organic agriculture?

Organic farming is a rapidly growing sector in China, but organic production still accounts for less than 1 percent of the total farmed area. However, we are seeing some young Chinese from the urban centres returning to their home villages and successfully utilising their new knowledge of organic farming and direct marketing (e-commerce). The demand for chemically untainted foods across the Chinese middle class offers the prospect of sustained growth over the next few decades, but there are multiple factors that restrict the market: beside Chinese consumers’ price sensitivity, one limiting factor is that China is not on the EU’s list of third countries for organic products, so Chinese farms are unable to export to the EU.

The challenges seem to be immense. Can an event such as COP 15 have positive impacts in China itself?

In China, decision-makers are acutely aware of the environmental problems and the associated challenges. There are many Chinese policy approaches which originally followed a different impetus – combatting desertification, adapting to climate change, protecting flood plains, afforestation, eco-tourism, etc. – but which, depending on how they are implemented, can potentially have a very positive effect on biodiversity conservation. For this reason too, the broader coverage and more in-depth debate about biodiversity now prompted by the COP in Kunming are very helpful in further developing coherent environmental policies in China.

Why is it so difficult to develop and implement these coherent environmental policies?

A recurrent problem in Chinese environmental policy in general and in biodiversity conservation in particular is the lack of clarity in the separation of administrative responsibilities, as well as the absence of any institutional authority for the environmental agencies vis-à-vis local government. For example, in 2002, regulations on “marine functional zones” were adopted, assigning sea areas to one of 10 categories, such as fisheries use or tourism zones. This innovative system initially met with a very positive response at the international level as it appeared to offer effective options for marine biodiversity conservation.

However, the power to designate the zones was assigned to the lower tiers of government – without central government, let alone civil society, having any say. As a consequence, economic interests were prioritised, while the protection of the marine environment continued to take a back seat in most cases. Chinese studies show that between 1990 and 2019, China lost more than 60% of its original biological shorelines, a trend that is especially worrying because they include areas that were once biologically rich and diverse. Likewise, the management of the national parks was negatively impacted by local governments’ economic interests in the past.

Are there grounds for optimism in any areas?

Yes, definitely. Take coastal protection, which I have just mentioned: according to information from China’s Environment Ministry, as part of the next (albeit still unpublished) Marine Five-Year Plan, restoration projects are planned for more than 100 bay areas. And at present, negotiations are under way in China on major new laws for a new system of national parks and protected areas. These rules are primarily intended to strengthen the institutional foundations and structures of the national park administration. These are hopeful signs. And despite the difficulties that I have described, it is essential to pay tribute to the process to establish nature reserves and national parks since the 1980s. Since then, more than 2,700 protected areas of many different types have been established (conservation areas, World Heritage sites, marine protected areas, etc.). H

owever, according to Chinese studies, the total area covered by these sites decreased slightly between 2007 and 2014, and their geographical distribution (mainly in Western China) does not correspond to the habitats of endangered species. There is also considerable scope to frame their respective biodiversity goals more precisely.

The same applies, incidentally, to the afforestation programmes, which I have already mentioned. China increased its forest cover by an incredible 60.15 million hectares between 1998 and 2014. However, a predominance of non-native, single-species plantations accounted for much of this increase. Larger biodiversity gains could probably be achieved here with relatively little effort if there were more emphasis on native mixed forest. These issues are certainly discussed in China. Recently, on 18 August 2021, China’s National Forestry and Grassland Administration presented its draft of the forthcoming Five-Year Plan which, among other things, aims to increase the share of mixed forest to 45 percent by 2025 (the current figure is 41.9 percent).

The mainstreaming of biodiversity aspects – e.g. in land-use planning, drafting of economic development strategies, or environmental impact assessments – is progressing. These are welcome developments. Another is the opportunity, which has existed for some years, for Chinese NGOs that advocate for species diversity to bring public-interest litigation (PIL) against infrastructure projects. In reality, China’s weak civil society is rarely in a position to prepare and proceed with this type of lawsuit, but there are some successful examples. Nevertheless, legal reforms are still required. For example, the penalties imposed on individual poachers – mostly poor people from minority communities – are often excessively harsh.

A more sensible approach is to take action against the organised wildlife trade that was observed in China in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak. It is to be hoped that alongside the new ban on the trade in wildlife for human consumption, the Wildlife Protection Law can be extended in future to include more stringent prohibitions on the use of wildlife as decorative items or as ingredients in traditional medicine.

Biodiversity is an exciting topic, and not only in relation to China itself. After all, China is investing worldwide in infrastructural mega-projects that undoubtedly pose a threat to the conservation and protection of biological diversity. What is the status of the debate here?

With regard to addressing biodiversity issues in the context of China’s foreign investment, there is some movement – although mainly in the field of non-binding agreements, declarations of intent and guidelines at present. However, these texts can send important signals if they are issued by key authorities within the Chinese bureaucracy. For example, China’s Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment recently (mid-July 2021) issued updated green development guidelines for overseas investment and cooperation, which place greater emphasis on compliance with international environmental standards than before – and (compared with the 2013 precursor document) also make specific reference to multilateral agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. However, there is still considerable scope for tougher rules here.

We have talked a lot about the government’s role and perspective. Which civil society actors in China are working on the issue of biodiversity, and what are their entry points, challenges and successes?

Although a considerable range of Chinese civil society actors have been advocating on various environmental and species diversity issues for some time, biodiversity per se is something of a niche topic, with a relatively small number of professional Chinese NGOs engaged in this area. (In comparison, government-affiliated research institutions as well as a few transnational organisations tend to be more visible in the debate.)

Nevertheless, these NGOs play an important role in sensitising Chinese decision-makers to biodiversity issues. For example, through workshops and training events, organisations such as Greenovation Hub are successfully encouraging Chinese financial institutions and banks to reflect on new concepts such as “biodiversity risks”. In the latter case, it is about examining to what extent internal credit granting procedures and assessments (especially for loans to Chinese firms) can be extended accordingly. The Heinrich Böll Foundation is currently working with Greenovation Hub on identifying gaps in biodiversity funding within ASEAN and involving Chinese financial institutions here, with a focus on the management of biodiversity risks.

China’s oldest environmental NGO, Friends of Nature (FON), approaches the issue of biodiversity from a different angle, namely by focusing on legal aspects, among other things. FON attempts to incorporate its own recommendations and comments into environmental law-making processes and has already initiated around a dozen environmental lawsuits on biodiversity issues. The Heinrich Böll Foundation is currently working with FON on sensitising young people in China to biodiversity conservation and getting them involved.

“Grassroots” NGOs continue to be actively engaged on a range of environmental and species protection issues. In recent years, however, it has become much more difficult for foreign and domestic NGOs to officially register – and new environmental initiatives, in particular, have to invest considerable effort in ensuring that they operate in compliance with the law from the outset.

Other civil society groups, such as the growing Chinese bird-watcher community, also contribute by improving the data on species diversity. The CBD COP in Kunming will hopefully give this “citizen scientist” sector a further boost. More precise habitat mapping provides an important basis for discussing the risks of ecosystem collapse using international comparisons, or, as part of the forthcoming CBD negotiations, developing indicators for successful national biodiversity policy. Although Chinese academic research on biodiversity issues has undergone a rapid evolution in recent years, this is still a colossal task, not least because China is one of the few countries with the entire spectrum of climate zones – from tropical to cold temperate.

Let’s finish by revisiting COP 15 itself. What does hosting a major international event mean for China at this time? How does China want to be perceived by the world?

At the COP in Kunming, the aim is to agree a completely new framework – with new criteria, targets and processes – for global biodiversity conservation. This is also the reason why the negotiating process can’t take place entirely online. At some point, the delegations will have to get together at one location to negotiate in person, and they need to be able to communicate effectively. As China is still adhering to a zero-Covid strategy, the plan is to hold a launch event in October initially, which high-level guests will attend online, followed by substantive negotiations in Kunming itself in April/May 2022.

In recent years, China’s leadership has demonstrated on multiple occasions that it is capable of hosting top-level political summits in a highly professional manner. As host, China hopes to convey a positive image of itself outside the country – as a world power with leadership aspirations in all the key areas of international policy – but also domestically, in order to show the Chinese people that China is respected and that the specific vocabulary of the Chinese “discourse system”, which I mentioned at the start, is externally legitimised at international events. For the latter reason, these mega-events are necessarily tailored to domestic aesthetics. The glossy visuals in the presentation of Chinese achievements and the stiff ceremonial proceedings can look rather showy to foreign observers.

What does this mean for the negotiations themselves? What are China’s positions going into the talks?

In terms of the substantive content to be agreed at COP 15, China’s position as a world power with leadership aspirations creates both opportunities and risks. For example, China would like to see the adoption of a Kunming Declaration right away, in October – before the actual negotiations next year – to conclude the high-level segment, and it seems that there will be side events such as the Ecological Civilization Forum. There is something of a risk that the non-specialist element of the Chinese leadership, at least, will then consider most of the political capital from the Kunming COP to be exhausted, with China’s role as host country then losing traction. This latter aspect is also relevant because it is still unclear to what extent China will in fact open its borders for negotiating teams to travel to Kunming in 2022.

At the same time, the view that China will make pragmatic use of the process in the long term in order to present itself as a responsible world power is entirely plausible. Currently, however, some individuals who are directly involved in the negotiations report that the host country has yet to adopt any firm positions. One possible reason is that China has relatively limited diplomatic experience in this area; another is that as the host, it would prefer to keep its cards close to its chest for now.

There are certainly some thematic areas where China can share a great deal of expertise and know-how. The production and review of biodiversity data, for example, may be an area where China would wish to present its own technological solutions or which it could utilise to build its own profile. A focus on the implementation, financing and monitoring of (national) biodiversity targets will be necessary in any case to avoid any repetition of the disappointing outcomes of international biodiversity policy over the past decade. Overall, however, China has made few official statements indicating which specific negotiated outcomes it hopes or expects to achieve at COP 15.

Paul, thank you so much for this insightful conversation.

Further Reading on “Ecological Civilization”