SAN FRANCISCO, June 16 (Xinhua) -- A new paper, involving an international team of 3,000 researchers, reveals that China's environmental policies are making clear positive impacts.
"China has gone further than any other country," said Gretchen Daily, professor of Environmental Science at Stanford and senior author of the paper. "In the face of deepening environmental crisis, China has become very ambitious and innovative in its new conservation science and policies and has implemented them on a breathtaking scale."
The paper, titled "Improvements in ecosystem services from investments in natural capital," is published in the June 17 issue of journal Science, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The research team used InVEST, a software suite designed by the Natural Capital Project for evaluating economic and environmental tradeoffs, to assess China's conservation efforts from 2000-2010 by analyzing data from satellites, soil samples, biodiversity surveys, meteorology, hydrological studies and other types of field surveys.
It leads to discovery that the country's conservation policies improved key ecosystem services such as soil retention, water supply, carbon sequestration and sand storm prevention on a country-wide scale.
"The hope is that this can bring about a transformation in the way people think of and account for the values of nature," said Daily, who is a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and co-director of the Natural Capital Project.
Officials in China began considering significant environmental reform following a series of natural disasters in the late 1990s that were exacerbated by human activities, the researchers noted.
By 2000, China developed the Natural Forest Conservation Program and the Sloping Land Conversion Program, which costed 50 billion U.S. dollars over 10 years and was designed to reduce natural disaster risks by restoring forest and grassland, while also improving life conditions for 120 million poverty-stricken farmers.
Such investments can have big payoffs, said Steve Polasky, Fesler-Lampert Professor of Ecological/Environmental Economics at University of Minnesota and a co-author of the report. "Restoring forests and grasslands can reduce flooding and sandstorms, which has large benefits for the people downstream and downwind."
Much of China's success can be traced to how officials incorporate assessments of the state of ecosystems and their economic values to society into decision-making processes.
This approach, Daily said, is applicable anywhere on planet Earth. For instance, forests, wetlands and other heavily vegetated places play a key role in regulating the flow of water and its quality, but these are under constant threat of conversion to farming or settlement.
"China is using science to identify and define the priority areas for protection or restoration in order to improve water security in a way that anybody could apply," she said.
Likewise, sand storms are a significant problem in some Chinese cities and are the result of deforestation and dry conditions. The researchers identify the areas that should be restored to mitigate storms, and which forested areas are at future risk of contributing to sand storms, and should thus be protected.
The science can inform society's choices, Daily said, but it can't make the final call. Research can quantify the benefits a particular area can provide if it were used to grow food or reforested to prevent floods, but ultimately it will be up to policymakers to decide, both for that region and where the decision falls within a set of national priorities.
There are still areas where China needs improvement, Daily said. Although the country has the highest rate of reforestation in the world, many of the newly planted trees are not native to the regions. These plantings are a pragmatic short-term answer to rebuilding forests efficiently, quickly and inexpensively, but don't fare as well in the long term.
This provides a basic infrastructure for wildlife, but biodiversity continues to worsen, and will do so until there is a more natural landscape.
The researchers noted that the report didn't examine other significant challenges, such as air quality and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. These will require interventions beyond ecosystem restoration alone.
"To realize the dream of becoming the ecological civilization of the 21st century, China needs more innovation in approaches to securing both nature and human well-being," Daily said.
"This is humanity's grand challenge -- and while China is only in the first phases of transformation, its efforts are inspiring adaptation and adoption of their approaches in other countries worldwide," she said. Enditem