KUALA LUMPUR – There was nothing cute about the Chinese paddlefish. Its most notable features were its length, which could exceed 3 meters, and a long, elephant-like snout. Nonetheless, it was often called the “Giant Panda of the Rivers” in recognition of its rarity.
Unlike the endangered bear, however, the Chinese paddlefish never enjoyed a significant effort to preserve it or its habitat. So, over the years, overfishing, pollution and dam-building reduced its numbers. As recently as the 1970s, fishermen harvested 25 tons of Chinese paddlefish from the Yangtze River. By the 1990s, almost none remained. The last official sighting in the wild was in 2003, and just as 2019 turned to 2020, scientists made it official: The Chinese paddlefish is extinct.
Of the estimated 8 million animal and plant species on Earth, about 1 million are threatened with extinction. The problem in China, with its rapidly developing economy and urbanizing population, has been particularly acute. Since 1970, almost half of China’s terrestrial animals have vanished. The Yangtze River, a key fishery and former home to the Chinese paddlefish, is so dead that President Xi Jinping has said it has reached a “no fish” level. Meanwhile, consumer demand for wildlife products, like tiger-skin rugs or bear bile for medicinal use, is responsible for a boom in the trafficking of endangered species.
Despite these problems, China, as the world’s biggest developing economy, is uniquely positioned to take a global leadership position in addressing a dangerous decline in biodiversity.
As any farmer can attest, human life and economic activity are intricately connected to the natural world. For example, as much as $577 billion in global crop output is at risk because of the loss of bees and other pollinators. The degradation of land has already reduced agricultural productivity on 23 percent of Earth’s surface. Loss of coral reefs and coastal habitats like mangrove forests puts 100 million to 300 million people at risk from flooding and storms.
The global community hasn’t ignored the problem. Five years before the Paris climate accord was signed, representatives from 194 countries met in Aichi Prefecture and agreed to 20 conservation goals designed to safeguard global biodiversity through 2020. Despite some local successes, the Aichi targets are widely judged as unfulfilled failures. In part, that’s because it’s difficult to prescribe a set of conservation measures applicable to all countries.
China certainly appreciates the problem. For years, it prioritized economic development over environmental protection, with devastating consequences. In recent years, it has reversed course modestly in the face of populist pressure and made progress on a range of issues, including air pollution. The government has also begun to assert itself on a handful of global environmental issues, including climate change.
China will add to this environmental portfolio in October by hosting the 2020 U.N. Biodiversity Conference. In key respects, it’s the biodiversity equivalent of the 2015 Paris meeting. Countries will attempt to negotiate a global biodiversity framework for the next decade (and perhaps beyond) to replace the goals that failed after Aichi. In the places where terrestrial biodiversity is most threatened — emerging markets — China’s efforts and methods to improve its environment are more credible and emulatable than those practiced in developed countries like the United States.
For example, China’s recent embrace of zoning that takes into account the value of services provided by ecosystems, such as the filtering and preservation of fresh waters, is ideally suited to emerging markets where development pressures are strongest. Preservation of a wetland to mitigate floods has tangible environmental benefits, as well as financial ones: It’s probably cheaper than building a dam. Urban planning that takes into account ecosystem services is new, but early results suggest that it’s an effective way to balance developmental and ecological needs. China is keen to export it and — thanks to the development assistance it provides to countries around the world — it has the leverage to demand that recipients adopt the concept. It should do so.
Of course, no single policy is going to bring back the Chinese paddlefish. And innovative mechanisms for preserving biodiversity won’t mean much if the global community can’t agree on ambitious goals for habitat and species preservation to reverse the biodiversity crisis. The Chinese government’s interest in stemming and even reversing the environmental damage that its development policies have inflicted on its biodiversity is a positive sign for the global environment, and one that’s worth encouraging, both within its borders and beyond them.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.