It is now 10 years since the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) established 20 targets for biodiversity conservation. The bad news is that none of these targets has been fully achieved at the global level.

Among those Aichi Biodiversity Targets (2011-2020), six have been partially achieved, while five have shown no significant progress or are veering wider off the mark. These five include loss of natural habitats, pollution detrimental to ecosystems, human pressures on coral reefs, and extinction of threatened species.

This is an inconvenient truth that the international community is facing ahead of the 15th conference of Parties to the CBD, which is due to take place in Kunming, Yunnan, later this year. During this gathering, the post-2020 global biodiversity framework will be discussed and hopefully agreed on.

While the Parties will pursue an ambitious new framework, implementation of a series of outcome-oriented actions at the national level remains critical. In this respect, China’s experiences and lessons in the past decade offer a meaningful contribution to the Parties.

China, as one of the 198 parties to the CBD, has performed relatively well. Some 16 of the 20 targets are on track, including three that have been exceeded (essential ecosystem services, ecosystem resilience, and national biodiversity strategy and action plan). Four targets though are yet to be achieved, including sustainable fisheries, invasive alien species, coral reefs degradation due to ocean acidification, and extinctions of threatened species. Moreover, a large number of rare and endangered species are still facing risks of extinction, including reptiles, amphibians, fishes, and birds.

So what takeaways can China’s biodiversity experiences offer the CBD as it moves forward on the post 2020 agenda?

First, the government’s strong ownership and leadership have ensured a highly efficient top-down approach to implement priorities for biodiversity conservation. Powerful and effective policies for ecological protection resulted in a steady increase of protected areas from 1.48 million square kilometers (km2) in 2008 to 1.73 million km2 by 2018. That is 18% of terrestrial coverage compared with the Aichi target of 17% by 2020. These protected areas provide important natural habitats for many species and have significant biodiversity richness. Importantly, national nature reserves are generally under effective management (accounting for 9.7 % of terrestrial coverage, compared with the Aichi target of 5% achieved in 2020).

Second, China has integrated ecological management into the country’s legal and policy regime as well as key development programs to provide a platform for biodiversity conservation. “Ecological civilization” was written into China’s constitution as the ideological framework for the country’s sustainable development. The national and provincial social and economic development five-year plans also include ecological conservation as a key element.

Third, China has emphasized the benefits of biodiversity conservation to local communities. Conservation programs provided local people with alternative livelihoods such as small businesses involving ecological products or ecotourism and access to e-commerce, and/or employment opportunities such as rangers. Reliable and sustainable incomes give incentives to local people to be engaged actively in conservation.

Fourth, biodiversity and its associated ecosystems should be valued properly considering their significant benefits and services to human beings. Biodiversity and its associated ecosystem do have great value and can be treated as natural capital. But how to convert these natural assets into capital that can generate revenues eventually and further be invested back into conservation requires consensus based on a set of science-based accounting standards. The COP-15 will provide a platform for the international community to discuss this issue. 

Moving forward, there is a need to establish straightforward measurements to track conservation progress. This is a major deficiency in the Aichi Targets and makes it difficult at the national level to achieve consistency and comparison between the Parties in the measurement of target indicators. As measuring performance on biodiversity requires multiple indicators (e.g., coverage of natural habitats, the number of threatened species), the biodiversity loss or degradation is not captured in a simple indicator. In contrast, climate change is measured at the highest level using a simple unit of global temperature rise and mitigation efforts can be accounted in a single unit of CO2 equivalent ton for greenhouse gas emission reductions. With simpler measurements, it would also be easier to assess whether the aggregated national contributions are sufficient to achieve international targets on biodiversity. Such a framework could also be useful in the context of CBD.

Looking ahead to COP-15, the Parties should be aiming to set ambitious targets. But they also need to be easily measurable and backed by concrete actions and sufficient resources. Only then can the globe start making up for lost ground after lagging for the last 10 years in striving for biodiversity conservation.