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June 16, 2016

China’s environmental investments show people and nature can win

China’s massive investment to mitigate the ecosystem bust that has come in the wake of the nation’s economic boom is paying off. An international group of scientists finds both humans and nature can thrive – with careful attention.

The group, including scientists who have done research at Michigan State University, report on China’s first systematic national accounting of how the nation’s food production, carbon sequestration, soil and water retention, sandstorm prevention, flood mitigation and biodiversity are doing, and what trends have emerged.

The work, which spans from 2000-2010, appears in this week’s edition of Science Magazine.

“To achieve global environmental sustainability and enhance human well-being, effective government policies can play crucial roles,” said co-author Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and director of MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

The paper notes that China’s effort to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty since the 1970s came at a high cost of environmental degradation, including deforestation and erosion that resulted in devastating flooding. The National Forest Conservation Program and the Sloping Land Conversion Program, which started around 2000, paid farmers and households in critical areas to restore forest and grassland – delivering alleviation of poverty in addition to environmental benefits.

In roughly the first decade, the programs cost $50 billion.

The researchers examined a staggering amount of data from all of mainland China – satellite images, field studies, historical records and more.

They found that food production and carbon sequestration were the ecosystem services that increased the most, while the conservation programs directly contributed most dramatically to carbon sequestration, soil and water retention and sand fixation. They found varying gains and losses depending on what part of the country they looked at. Sometimes, there were tradeoffs – such as food production and soil retention.

The paper notes that continuing to improve understanding of how people benefit when conservation programs succeed is important to future success.

Liu noted that sustainability science continues to demand the holistic approach applied to the China Ecosystem Assessment, and the increasing use of an integrated framework of telecoupling, which examines socioeconomic and environmental interactions across distance to better understand far-reaching consequences.

“It is hopeful that the experiences from increasing China’s ecosystem services can help address China’s enormous environmental challenges such as air pollution, water pollution, and resource shortages,” he said.

Besides Liu, “Improvements in Ecosystem Services from Investments in Natural Capital” was written by Zhiyun Ouyang, Hua Zheng, Yi Xiao, Stephen Polasky, Weihua Xu, Qiao Wang, Lu Zhang, Yang Xiao, Enming Rao, Ling Jiang, Fei Lu, Xiaoke Wang, Guangbin Yang, Shihan Gong, Bingfang Wu, Yuan Zeng, Wu Yang and Gretchen Daily.


By: Sue Nichols