China’s environmental conservation efforts are making a positive impact, Stanford scientists say

A series of ambitious environmental policies that invest in natural capital are improving services provided by China's ecosystems, such as flood control and sand storm mitigation, according to research conducted by an international team of scientists.

China gets a bad rap on its environmental stewardship, in large part due to the environmental damage and atmospheric pollution that result from the country’s rapid economic and infrastructure growth. But a new decade-long report, involving the work of 3,000 scientists, reveals that China’s environmental policies are making clear positive impacts.

Karst mountains in China with farmer in field.

Stanford biologist Gretchen Daily is senior author of a study of how China has increased the value of its ecosystems in part by carefully managing select agricultural activities. Here, a farmer works in a field surrounded by the steeply sloped karst mountains near Yangshuo. (Image credit: Stacie Wolny)

“China has gone further than any other country, as strange as that sounds given all the devastation that we read about on the environment front there,” said Gretchen Daily, the Bing Professor of Environmental Science at Stanford and senior author on the study. “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 efforts are guided in part by software developed by the research team, which identifies which environmental areas should be protected or restored to provide the greatest benefit. Through this work, China has eagerly incorporated science and funded some of the most far-reaching efforts in the world, which could serve as a model for other countries, according to the study’s authors.

Daily and an international team of researchers report the results of the China ecosystem assessment, which was launched by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, in the June 17 issue of Science.

Policy born from environmental crisis

Officials in China began considering significant environmental reform following a series of natural disasters in the late 1990s that were exacerbated by human activities. In particular, in 1998, massive deforestation and erosion contributed to devastating flooding along the Yangtze River. Thousands of people were killed, and more than 13 million people were left homeless following $36 billion in property damage.

That this occurred just a year after a historic drought signaled to officials in the country that steps needed to be taken to protect and restore China’s natural capital. By 2000, China developed the Natural Forest Conservation Program and the Sloping Land Conversion Program, $50 billion projects aimed at reducing 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 the University of Minnesota and a co-author of the study. “Restoring forests and grasslands can reduce flooding and sandstorms, which has large benefits for the people downstream and downwind,” he said.

The new report used InVEST, a software suite designed by The Natural Capital Project for evaluating economic and environmental tradeoffs, to assess these efforts from 2000-2010 by analyzing data from satellites, soil samples, biodiversity surveys, meteorology, hydrological studies and other types of field surveys.

The researchers found that the 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.

A worldwide approach for environmental accounting

Much of China’s success in these areas 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 eastern 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. 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, Daily said, 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 assessment 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.”

The study, titled “Improvements in ecosystem services from investments in natural capital,” is published in the June 17 issue of Science.

The Natural Capital Project is a partnership combining research innovation at Stanford and the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment with the global reach of conservation science and policy at The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund.

Media Contacts

Bjorn Carey, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944, bccarey@stanford.edu

Gretchen Daily, Biology: gdaily@stanford.edu