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Harmony with environment

China Daily | Updated: 2009-09-30 10:01

I have to get out my old photos to remind myself of conditions in China during the 1980s. It is so far removed from the shiny new skyscrapers and multilane highways of China today.

Harmony with environment

In 1986, China had 300 nature reserves. Today that figure is more than 2,500, covering more than 16 percent of the territory; way above the global average and four times the size of Germany! There are another 2,000 protected areas as scenic sites, forest parks, geo-parks and marine areas. This is astonishing growth that has catapulted China to be one of the biggest global players in terms of setting aside natural areas to protect biological diversity and environment. More than quarter of a million staff require training to manage these areas effectively.

Today, China has become the workhouse for the world, even the worldwide economic crisis has not been able to stop the tremendous growth. Half of all new development globally occurs in China and this of course puts tremendous pressures on the natural landscape and environment.

As in every country that has undergone rapid industrialization, this comes with dirt, dust, pollution. Cleaning up the damage lags behind. We still read of lead poisoning, air pollution, acid rain, mining accidents and natural disasters are always lurking in the form of floods, droughts, earthquakes and strange new diseases. But at least these issues are being openly addressed and tackled in a very serious manner. The great floods of 1998 triggered a logging ban on all old-growth forests, the SARS epidemic was handled effectively and followed by a temporary ban on wildlife markets in Guangdong. Huge efforts and expenditures are made in returning degraded steep farmlands to green cover.

China plants more trees than the rest of the world combined. We were all impressed by the amazing rescue operations following the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes. Meanwhile, environmental protection has become very visible on the national agenda. Policy embraces the concept of ecological society in harmony with the environment - a new concept but totally in line with China's ancient traditional beliefs in the need for balance. Environmental protection is routinely listed as a priority for cooperation with major partners such as the EU and USA.

A long list of new environmental laws and regulations have been issued. Environmental protection has been raised to full ministerial level and polluting factories are being fined and closed. China is now the leading country in terms of developing green energy sources and has the most ambitious targets for reducing per unit carbon emissions.

But threats still loom. A combination of deforestation, overgrazing, irrational use of underground water tables, an invasion of alien species resulting from China's growing world trade and climate change all combine to degrade the natural environment. Climate change now threatens to create more droughts, floods, extreme weather, loss of biodiversity, reduction of crops, flooding of coastal cities and higher frequency of typhoons.

These are huge challenges, but China is a huge nation. She can rise to the task and I am happy to see her increasing leadership in climate change negotiations on the world stage.

John MacKinnon, EU-China Biodiversity Programme.

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