Australia must learn from China on environment: Deakin study

Media release
12 July 2018

Developed nations like Australia can learn from China in reaching global sustainability goals, according to the first comprehensive study on the effectiveness of China's world-leading environmental investment.

The study, published today in Nature, reviewed China's response to a national land-system sustainability emergency, where hundreds of billions of dollars were poured in to arrest alarming levels of environmental degradation, hunger, and rural poverty.

The team behind the study - which included a collaboration of 19 scientists from 16 Australian, Chinese and US institutions - reviewed China's 16 major programs designed to improve the sustainability of its rural environment and people.

Lead author Brett Bryan, Professor of Global Change, Environment and Society in Deakin University's School of Life and Environmental Sciences, said the goal was to see how learnings from China's experience could help other nations like Australia progress towards the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

"A good news story about China's environment is not something you hear every day," Professor Bryan said.

"While it has not been perfect, China's environmental turnaround shows decisive action on the environment can be effective if it is evidence-based, coordinated, and most importantly backed-up by significant financial support."

Professor Bryan said that last century China began facing enormous problems due to overuse and mismanagement of its land systems through farming and deforestation.

"By the late 1900s, natural forest cover was well below 10 per cent, around five billion tonnes of soil eroded annually, causing major water quality and sedimentation problems, and the Yellow River laid claim to the title of the 'world’s muddiest'.

"Agricultural soils were exhausted and productivity was down, grasslands were overgrazed and desertification affected more than one quarter of China."

From 1998, China responded to this crisis by dramatically escalating its investment in rural sustainability.

"Through to 2015, more than US$350 billion was invested via 16 sustainability programs, addressing more than 620 million hectares (65 per cent of the country's land area), and mobilising a 500-million-strong labour force," Professor Bryan said.

"At around 0.34 per cent of GDP, China's investment in sustainability was unprecedented for a single nation.

"In comparison, the next biggest single sustainability program after China's - the US Conservation Reserve Program - invested around $46 billion over the past 30 years, less than 0.01 per cent of US GDP. Australia spent about $30 billion on similar programs over the same period."

Professor Bryan said the subsequent sustainability impacts in China had been overwhelmingly positive, but there were still some areas of caution.

"Deforestation has declined and forest cover has exceeded 22 per cent. Grasslands have expanded and regenerated," he said.

"Desertification trends have reversed in many areas, soil erosion has waned substantially, water quality has improved dramatically, agricultural productivity has increased, hunger has disappeared and households are generally better off.

"Though there have been some unintended consequences, particularly with vast areas of afforestation impacting water resources, and the social impacts from moving people out of the worst-affected areas.

"China is by no means out of the woods in regards to environmental sustainability. They still have major issues with air, water, and soil pollution for example, and as China continues to develop it needs to ensure that it does not simply shift its impacts offshore.

"But they have made great steps forward and the opportunity is open for them to become a global leader in sustainability."

While the scope and scale of China's land sustainability issues were unique, Professor Bryan said there were lessons to be learnt from China's experience for every country.

"Ultimately, to make a difference we need to spend a lot more on the environment," he said.

"We need to think about it not as a luxury but as an essential service requiring long-term and large-scale public investment, similar to health, education, defence or infrastructure. It’s something the government needs to take on as a priority, and really lead from the top.

"China does have a central government, and this kind of investment is harder in democratic society. Our short election cycles and two-party wedge politics make it difficult for the kind of long-term planning and commitment required to make a sustained difference. But we could be doing a whole lot better."

Click here for a video of Professor Brett Bryan discussing his research - 'China’s response to a national land system sustainability emergency'.

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