Public Release: 

China's environmental programs pass the test

American Association for the Advancement of Science

China's first national ecosystem assessment shows that major protection and restoration projects are improving ecosystem services, or "natural capital," a new study reports. Since the 1970s, booming economic development in China has come at a steep environmental cost that snowballed to a point in 1998 where extreme deforestation led to erosion and flooding along the Yangtze River, killing thousands of people, rendering 13.2 million people homeless, and causing $36 billion (US) in property damage. This crisis prompted the creation of the world's largest government-financed ecosystem services programs: the Natural Forest Conservation Program (NFCP) and the Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP).

Here, Zhiyun Ouyang et al. report results from the first China ecosystem assessment (CEA) to determine the impact of these programs, although the authors note that this CEA does not account for air and water quality, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and an expanding global footprint from importing raw materials. The assessment does involve a variety of data, including from satellite images, biophysical measurements (i.e., soil), historical records, and more than 100,000 field surveys. The constituent data reveal that nearly all the assessed ecosystem services experienced an overall performance increase between 2000 and 2010. Food production had the largest increase, at 38.5%, followed by carbon sequestration, at 23.4%. Soil retention, flood mitigation, sand storm prevention, and water retention also increased, while habitat provision decreased slightly. These changes varied by region, with some areas experiencing decreases in certain ecosystem services, despite overall increases nation-wide. Notably, regions that were given priority by the Chinese government experienced the most significant improvements. Collectively, priority areas, comprising 37% of the area of China, saw increases in 83.4% of carbon sequestration services and 77.7% of soil retention services. The authors highlight several ways in which future assessments can be improved to gain a better understanding of the impact of the NFCP, SLCP and similar programs.

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