Biodiversity supports a well-functioning ecosystem, promotes human wellbeing, and contributes to a virtuous cycle of sustainable development.
Tigers are an endangered Asian species, and almost extinct in numerous countries including the PRC. As top predators and keystone species, tigers ensure a rich and varied ecosystem. They help balance prey populations and in turn vegetation that prey populations feed on. Without top predators such as tigers, an ecosystem is likely to change dramatically or cease to exist.
Recognizing this, the PRC government, companies, and individuals have come together to help revive the population of Siberian tiger (Figure 1), the largest of the tiger subspecies, in the northeast region of the country.
Through anti-poaching, conservation, and high-tech measures, the Siberian tigers’ population rose from nearly none at the end of the 20th century to more than 50 in 2021, a minimum level necessary for self-sustainability.
Figure 1. Siberian Tiger.
Reverse the Decline by Preventing Poaching
Poaching is the single-biggest threat to tigers’ survival around the world. And tigers are the most popularly traded species. A whole tiger’s pelt can cost as much as $20,000, and a bottle of wine brewed with tigers’ bones over $30,000. One of the main poaching causes is the use of tiger parts in traditional medicine, an issue that is also affecting many other species.
The PRC has introduced various measures to address these threats. At the national level, the PRC government has introduced extensive laws and measures that not only ban poaching and illegal trade, and penalize parties involved, but also educate the public.
At the Siberian tigers’ main habitats in Hunchun, Jillin Province, and Dongfanghong, Heilongjiang Province, rangers adopt a widely used spatial monitoring and reporting system to identify and combat poaching threats.
Rangers use dedicated devices to collect data on tiger observations, poaching signs, and other suspicious activities. The data collected are fed into the system to generate reports on poaching patterns and suggestions on patrolling routes. Through its use, sightings of poaching activities fell markedly by 97.4% from 2017 to 2021.
The private sector has also joined the anti-poaching efforts leveraging on its own unique expertise. Taobao, the country’s largest e-commerce platform, uses algorithms to identify keywords, such as, poaching tools and traps, and tiger pelt, skin, or fur, to prevent poaching and illegal trading. The algorithms are also programmed to delete any posts or accounts associated with such information. In 2019, Taobao deleted 1.35 million posts to prevent illegal wildlife trading.
Meanwhile, Alipay, one of the PRC’s leading online payment platforms, has teamed up with Hangzhou city, Zhejiang Province, east of the PRC, to create a wildlife protection mini-program that allows users to report any illegal wildlife activities. Through videos or photos uploaded by users, authorities can quickly trace any leads.
Revive the Population by Restoring the Habitat
The authorities have also taken a major step by formally designating a part of the main tiger habitat as the Siberian Tiger and Leopard National Park. The park covering 14,600 square kilometers is larger than the combined size of the famous Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks in the US.
As a national park, it is not only the Siberian tigers and other key species that are protected, but the entire park’s ecosystem. Also any land encroachment activities, such as, mining and logging, are prohibited.
To allow tigers to roam more freely, the conservation area has been extended to the border with the Russian Federation to create an ecological corridor. Even if this meant the cancellation of a highway project and the rerouting of a high-speed railway connecting to the country.
In addition, to avoid prey depletion, the authorities have released about 100 artificially bred deer into the park. This is also done to increase the deer’s reproduction with the local herd, and to improve the general ecosystem.
All this has borne positive results. Cubs’ survival rate increased from 33% in 2017 to 50% in 2021. Other wildlife’s number also rebounded.
Monitor the Ecosystem through Innovative Technologies
Cutting-edge technologies are being used to monitor the ecosystem, evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, and generate timely data.
One key tool is artificial intelligence (AI) camera traps. Unlike standard camera traps, which take photos when any movement is detected, AI camera traps can identify whether a tiger or another animal is in the shot before a photo is taken (Figure 2).
Also with AI and big data, researchers can identify individual tigers based on their unique stripe patterns, and accurately monitor their population. Prior to AI and big data, much cost and time were spent looking for the required photos and identifying individual tigers.
Figure 2. An AI-Camera Trap.
In addition, previously, researchers had to regularly traverse the vast mountainous terrains to collect and replace data cards from thousands of camera traps. This work was not only treacherous but time consuming. It would take six months to collect all data.
To overcome these challenges, Huawei has built a real-time integrated ecosystem monitoring, evaluation, and management network system, the first in the world, at the park. The network not only connects the camera traps but also other climate and ecological devices including rangers’ communications.
All data are transmitted to a monitoring center, which allows real-time comprehensive monitoring of the entire park’s ecosystem. Within 18 months, the network has transmitted over 1 million images of wild animals, an impossible feat without modern technologies (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Real-Time Transmission of Wild Animals’ Images.
The year of the tiger deserves to be celebrated as a turning point of Siberian tiger protection in the PRC. What the country has achieved holds useful lessons for other developing countries facing a similar wildlife extinction crisis. Indeed, it is the courage and energy demonstrated by all stakeholders—qualities symbolized by tigers in the Chinese culture—that have contributed much to the success.
ADB recognizes the importance of biodiversity conservation and has implemented various conservation initiatives in the PRC, including the Shaanxi Qinling project (forest ecosystem), Jiangsu Yancheng project (wetland ecosystem), and the preparation of Yunnan Province’s first Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. ADB was also a major partner and participated in the 15th UN Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, Yunnan Province in 2021.
Famously known for its deserts and steppes, Mongolia is actually a forest nation too. Boreal forests cover 14.2 million hectares or 9% of this vast country. Compared with tropical forests, boreal forests store twice as much carbon per hectare, much of it below ground. They are the earth’s largest terrestrial carbon sink, a hugely important factor in the fight against climate change.
But Mongolia’s forests are under threat. More than 140,000 hectares of forest are lost every year to fires, insect pests, grazing, and illegal logging. Being one of the coldest countries in the world, Mongolia is already seeing the impacts of climate change, with average temperature increases of more than 2 degrees Celsius, and significant changes to once reliable precipitation patterns. Average annual precipitation in northern Mongolia is around 220 millimetres, less than a quarter of the globally averaged annual precipitation. Drier forests contain large amounts of deadfalls and debris, further increasing the fire risks.
Unsustainable and illegal logging poses another threat. The Government of Mongolia has enacted a variety of laws and policies to curb the loss of forest cover. One of these, the Law on Environmental Protection, was amended in 2005 to allow for the creation of Forest User Groups (FUGs), voluntary organizations of local citizens that are tasked with the appropriate utilization and rehabilitation of local forests in accordance with civil law. The implementation of FUGs has resulted in a significant decrease in illegal logging wherever these groups are active.
Sustainable Forest Management
In 2015, the Mongolian government and ADB signed a letter of agreement for a technical assistance (TA) project to improve sustainable livelihoods for local communities through sustainable forest management. The project, totaling $2.1 million, was financed by grants from the Government of Japan through the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction, now Japan Fund for Prosperous and Resilient Asia and the Pacific. The executing agency was the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, represented by its Forest Policy and Coordination Department.
The project targeted building resilience of boreal forest ecosystems, supporting policies around forest protection while encouraging private enterprises and FUGs to get involved in forest management. “To achieve these goals, the project was designed to boost capacity of governmental forest management line agencies and to strengthen forest product value chains. It was also necessary to improve FUGS’ capacities to managing the forests for which they are responsible,” says ADB Country Director for Mongolia Pavit Ramachandran. “The project also demonstrates technology for wood processing systems.”
In 2015, NIRAS, a multi-disciplinary consulting company with its global headquarters in Denmark, was awarded a contract of $2 million to provide the technical assistance. NIRAS’ Finland office, jointly with their local partner MonConsult LLC., implemented the TA.
Forestry a Finnish Specialty
As one of the most forested countries in Europe, with trees covering two thirds of its area, Finland has a long history of working for a balance between intensive industrial use of forests and sustainability. Until the 19th century, Finnish forests were heavily exploited for building materials and fuel as well as for exports, later for pulp and paper production. This was a concern for Anton Blomqvist, the father of Finnish forestry. Foresightful, he founded its first professional institution to train forest officers in 1862, the Evo College forest school, only two years after the establishment of Finland’s Ministry of Agriculture. In 1907, the Finnish forest management society (Tapio) was founded as the first nongovernment organization to assist with forestry management and the rational use of forest resources.
“We are proud to have played a role in promoting the importance of sustainable forestry and building related capacities in Mongolia,” says NIRAS Regional Director for Asia and Pacific Antti Inkinen. “NIRAS Asia, with head office in Manila, specialises in transferring our global expertise to the many countries NIRAS works in with ADB. In the case of Mongolia and forestry, this international expertise was firmly anchored in Finland, specifically applied in developing transparent fair value chains for forest products and services to generate new income and employment opportunities for the local community while securing protection of the natural environment.”
The project engaged in a variety of activities, including business management training; the integration of global information systems to capture related data in the planning of the sustainable forest management; and forest and non-forest product development. The Bayan Tunkhel Cooperative was created as a pathway for FUGs to derive economic benefit from harvesting forest products, utilizing wood processing technology, and providing biomass for heating.
The project found that improving the livelihoods of local communities through sustainable forest management would require policy changes. These would promote community-based forest management planning, the removal of ineffective timber quotas to allow FUGs to harvest more valuable products under controlled circumstances, and a greater sense of ownership that allows FUG members to derive economic value from their activities.
“The outcome from this TA puts forestry high up on the agenda in Mongolia,” says ADB Principal Environment Specialist Suzanne Robertson. “We see an increased environmental awareness and the role of forests within that, which, given the importance of forests in the fight against climate change is extremely welcome.”
Mongolia’s boreal forests act as ecological security buffers, being a source of food and fuelwood and livelihoods to local communities. By developing methods and tools, along with capacity building and knowledge sharing, the project has enabled FUGs to prepare sustainable forest management plans that restore and conserve forest resources, as well as develop economic opportunities. Continuing to support FUG’s is a good way to ensure the future of Mongolia’s boreal forests.
Providing Long-term Development Support
The ultimate goal of ADB’s support is to help achieve a climate-resilient, sustainable forestry sector which benefits local livelihoods. Achieving this requires a long-term commitment. In 2021, the Government and ADB initiated a follow-up project, the Forest Sector Development Program (2021–2023). The project is being funded by another generous grant ($0.8 million) from the Government of Japan through the Japan Fund for Prosperous and Resilient Asia and the Pacific. The program is in the early stages of implementation and will be reported on in the future.
ADB, Mongolia and Europe
Since Mongolia joined ADB in 1991, ADB has been Mongolia’s largest multilateral development partner, supporting the country’s transformation to a middle-income, market-based economy. In those 30 years, ADB has committed sovereign loans totalling $3 billion, nonsovereign loans totalling $182.1 million, grants of $335.7 million, and technical assistance worth $187.1 million for Mongolia. The blueprint for ADB’s operations in Mongolia, the Country Partnership Strategy (2021–2024), focuses on fostering inclusive social development and economic opportunity, climate-resilient infrastructure to drive competitiveness and diversification, and resilience for sustainable, green, and climate-conscious development.
ADB’s European Representative Office, based in Frankfurt, Germany, works with companies and governments across ADB’s 17 European member countries to facilitate the application of European expertise in ADB projects in its developing member countries.
With the right policies, the Yellow River can help the PRC achieve its goals for ecological sustainability and economic growth.
As the second largest river system in the PRC, the Yellow River transports more than 1.5 billion tons of sediment per year from its headwaters on the Tibetan Plateau to its estuaries on the Yellow Sea. The dynamics between water, land, soil and climate make it a unique, ecologically diverse, and fragile basin.
One of the most pressing environmental and socio-economic challenges surrounding the river is water scarcity. Today, the basin accounts for only 2% of the country’s total water but 26.5% of the national gross domestic product (GDP). Feeding a population of 420 million, it is vital for socio-economic development. People in the river basin depend directly on these water resources as a basis for their livelihoods, including for food production, hydropower, industry, and domestic supply.
In recent years, the river’s flow has greatly diminished, affecting the lives of millions. Land use changes have significantly contributed to ecological deterioration and ecosystem alteration. It is estimated that human activities, such as destruction of natural vegetation, have augmented natural soil erosion by about 40% in the basin.
Water-related disasters are another major issue in the basin. The July 2021 floods in Henan province – which sits in the middle course of the Yellow River – were triggered by a record-breaking rainfall over 24 hours, almost the equivalent of the annual average. Temperature in the basin increased faster than the global average. Climate models indicated that extreme events such as droughts and severe floods could become more frequent in certain areas of this region, with the probability of increasing in the future. Exacerbated by climate change, extreme weather events may threaten agriculture and animal husbandry, putting at risk both rural and urban livelihoods.
The lack of basin-wide planning is a key barrier to protecting the river’s environment. Addressing the challenges in the Yellow River basin requires a planning and management approach that spans the whole ecosystem. The basin should be treated as an ecological corridor: a clearly defined geographical space that is managed over the long-term to maintain or restore the ecosystem.
As part of this, nature-related aspects need to be an integral component of financial planning and fiscal policy reforms. Such investments must address nature’s complexity and maintain and restore biodiversity.
The Yellow River basin is a natural treasure to be preserved, a home to millions of people, and the foundation for economic progress.
River basins, such as the Yellow River, can help achieve the country’s targets for ecological sustainability and economic growth. Healthy ecological corridors improve biodiversity while enhancing food security, climate resilience, and disease resistance. There are four policy actions that are critical to achieving this.
First, ensuring that nature-based solutions (such as using constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment or ecological embankments to mitigate flood risks) are built into policies, planning and financial mechanisms. These measures can improve natural capital protection, restore fragile ecosystems, and foster sustainable agriculture, simultaneously building resilient and equitable rural economies for the most vulnerable communities.
Second, applying the gross ecosystem product (GEP), an accounting mechanism developed in the People’s Republic of China for valuing and pricing ecosystem goods and services, can improve ecological and spatial planning and inform decision-making.
Third, using governance and financing as incentive mechanisms, including eco-compensation and water funds, can expand natural capital investments by generating ecological benefits and economies of scale.
Fourth, integrating environment, social, and governance criteria into lending and investment decisions can increase private sector participation and private capital injections into projects to protect natural resources. Based on these criteria, investors can observe and evaluate the performance of enterprises based not only on their financial performance but also on their contribution in promoting sustainable development and fulfilling social responsibility.
The Yellow River basin is a natural treasure to be preserved, a home to millions of people, and the foundation for economic progress. Conceived as a single watershed, it can offer ecosystem services to people and nature and generate multiple benefits. Even though physical boundaries and human engineering have split the river into an upper, middle and a lower course, it is important to protect the entire basin as a single ecological unit from source to sea. Effective strategies for adaptation to climate change are essential for the sustainable development of water resources in the Yellow River.
Heart disease, pneumonia, and tuberculosis – these are just some of the diseases aggravated by the already hazardous level of air quality in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. Children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to pollution, which can stunt fetal growth, cause preterm birth, impair brain development, and lead to chronic respiratory diseases and premature deaths.
Some 46% of Ulaanbaatar’s residents are living in informal ger areas, or informal urban settlements, where raw coal has been primarily used for cooking and heating during winter months in what is on record as the coldest capital city in the world.
This leaves Ulaanbaatar also as the most polluted capital in the world. Average concentration levels of particulate matters and sulfur dioxide in the city during December 2015 and January in 2016 were up to 10 times higher than the limits recommended by the World Health Organization.
According to a 2019 study for the United Nations Development Programme, the welfare costs of air pollution are estimated at $486 million annually, the costs of lost productivity at $58 million, with a combined cost equal to 5.6% of Mongolia’s gross domestic product.
To address this issue, the government adopted the National Program for Reducing Air and Environmental Pollution in March 2017, with the ultimate target of 80% air pollution reduction by 2025.
Cleaning up the Air
In support of the national program, the Ulaanbaatar Air Quality Improvement Program of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) was implemented in two phases from March 2018 to December 2020 to improve air quality in the capital city.
The project’s aims were to boost the government’s National Program and the regulatory framework on air quality management; implement urgent measures to reduce air pollution and protect human health in Ulaanbaatar; and establish new mechanisms for environmentally sound and integrated urban, energy, and transport systems.
Under the first phase of the program, ADB provided a policy-based loan of $130 million. Phase 1 was instrumental in supporting the ban on raw coal burning by piloting of coal briquettes and establishing technical standards for vehicle pollution.
Phase 2 then embedded the strategies developed under Phase 1 into Mongolia’s legal and regulatory framework, supported by a policy-based program loan of $160 million approved in December 2019. According to ADB Senior Economist Annabelle Giorgetti, urban air pollution was reduced with the help of the project.
“There was a notable reduction in average levels of particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) and particulate matter less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) during the winter months between November 2019 and February 2020 compared to the same period in 2018–2019,” she says. The average ambient PM2.5 concentrations in the winter of 2019–2020 were 51% lower compared to the winter levels of 2016–2017, 46% compared 2017–2018, and 40% compared to 2018–2019, exceeding the targeted 30% reduction compared with 2016 levels.
The project helped generate political consensus on the need for cleaner coal, with the government announcing a ban on raw coal and preparing for its replacement with cleaner coal. With ADB’s help, the implementation plan action efficiency and air pollution control regulatory framework in Ulaanbaatar was improved. An Air, Environmental Pollution Reduction Equipment, Technology and Information Center was also established at a shopping center.
The Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) meanwhile developed and implemented an education and outreach program, targeting at least 50% female participation to increase awareness on air pollution. MET approved a strategy to upgrade Ulaanbaatar’s air quality and emission compliance monitoring networks, including the required financing. It also developed a strategy to upgrade its monitoring capacity.
In August 2020, an Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies (EDGE) system was adopted through the Building Code for the Thermal Performance of Buildings. The new building code mandates the application of thermal protection requirements to new buildings, renovation of apartment buildings, and public, industrial, and warehouse buildings.
Key measures on air pollution reduction and health protection were implemented under the project. The government adopted resolutions to disband 68 heating boilers and connect consumers to the central heating system.
The Ministry of Energy (MOE) procured 80,000 tons of semi-coke briquettes, or lower-emitting fuel, for distribution to households in Ulaanbaatar ger areas, targeting the poor and households headed by women.
The program supported other development partners’ initiatives, including promotion of energy efficiency and awareness raising on indoor air pollution, health impacts and mitigation measures. It also complemented other ADB investment in the urban sector aimed at promoting better urbanization for improved air quality outcomes.
Environment and Health
The government allocated budget to ensure pneumococcal conjugate vaccine for about 40,000 children in Ulaanbaatar. The PCV13 vaccine was administered nationwide in three doses to children under the age of 1. “As vaccination was conducted nationwide for children, pregnant women, and elders, the coverage well exceeds the target of 60% of all children and pregnant women,” says ADB Senior Urban Development Specialist Maria Pia Ancora. “Nationwide immunization was particularly important to help protect the public against COVID-19.”
Through the project, mechanisms for environmentally sound and integrated urban and energy systems were also implemented. On January 2018, the State Secretary of MOE submitted a work plan to carry out urban planning, energy policy coordination, and energy saving programs aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Two new credit guarantee products to small and medium-sized enterprises undertaking green and energy-efficient projects were also created in February 2018.
The National Committee and MET operationalized the green financing mechanism, subsidizing loans to eligible low-income households and entities to promote the use of electric heaters, insulation materials, clean heating solutions, improved stoves, and other clean and green solutions to reduce air pollution and improve living and working conditions in ger areas. Preferential access was given to women.
“Through continuous implementation of all policy actions, the program has achieved improved air quality, cost savings, and socio-economic and health benefits,” says ADB Country Director for Mongolia Pavit Ramachandran. “By cleaning the air quality in Ulaanbaatar, public health and living standards were improved. Other secondary cities in Mongolia facing similar air pollution issues are going to benefit from this successful approach in Ulaanbaatar.”
Ten years ago, online food delivery services barely existed in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In 2020, it grew to become a $51.5 billion industry representing half of the global market share. The PRC is not alone. The Southeast Asian market tripled in 2020 accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Although the booming industry has powered economic activity and brought unparalleled convenience to hundreds of millions of consumers, it has also generated a significant amount of waste that litters cities, chokes rivers, and threatens wildlife.
Figure 1: Ecosystem Services of Nature-Based Solutions.
In the PRC, we estimated that 37 billion plastic containers were discarded in 2020, based on the 17.12 billion online food orders made. 1 If we were to line up each piece, this would be equivalent to about 37 times the distance between north to south pole. As disturbingly, the containers take centuries to biodegrade, but about an hour to use.
In response, companies in the PRC have adopted innovative ways to combat environmental and health issues created by plastic waste.
In 2017, Meituan, the PRC’s leading food delivery giant with 628 million active users and 7.7 million merchants, became the first company to launch the “opt-out for disposable cutlery” feature on its app. Users who choose this option are given points that can be donated to a green initiative fund.
Other food delivery platforms have since followed suit. And the feature has received widespread acceptance. For example, more than 70% of the average 1.2 million daily orders received by Meituan in Shanghai use this feature.
Ele.me, another food delivery platform, has experimented with edible cutlery (Figure 2). The chopsticks are made of flour, sugar, milk, and butter, which customers can eat as desserts. And they come in three tasty flavors: matcha, wheat, and taro. Each pair is covered by recycled paper.
Figure 2. Ele.me’s Edible Chopsticks.
In addition to the reduction efforts, businesses have experimented with reusable containers. ShuangTi, a startup based in Shenzhen, created an intelligent “shared lunchbox” business model. It employs reusable containers made of highly durable polypropylene with a microchip inserted to track location and usage time.
After an order is placed on the app, the food is delivered to a heat-insulated smart locker (Figure 3) for collection. When it is finished, customers return the containers to the locker. The containers are then gathered, sanitized, and reused for another delivery.
Figure 3. ShuangTi’s Heat-Insulated Lockers.
Since 2017, ShuangTi has delivered over 30 million orders mostly to university students. They estimate that if the project is introduced to 500 campuses, around 5,000 ton of plastic waste could be eliminated each year.
YIKO Eats, a community kitchen startup in Beijing, takes a similar approach by reusing ceramic containers (Figure 4). Customers select a timeslot to return the containers when they place an order. YIKO Eats’ popularity has grown among busy young professionals, who enjoy the coziness of dining in fine china, but dislike the hassle of cooking and cleaning up.
Figure 4. YIKO Eats’ Meals in Reusable Containers.
Recycle and Beyond—Long-Term Solutions
Worldwide, only 1% of polypropylene (the plastic mainly used in delivery containers) is recycled. Oily stains and food residue make the process difficult and costly as the material must be separated and cleaned. As such, containers placed in the recycling bin often end up in landfills or incinerators, representing a major source of pollution.
To address this, Meituan and top chain restaurants have established 350 recycling sites close to customers, typically near office buildings, communities, and campuses, where most orders are placed. The most successful site has a 74% recycling rate.
To turn the waste collected into other useful products, Meituan works with factories to make bicycle baffles (Figure 5), handbags (Figure 6), and cups.
Figure 5. Bicycle Raffles Made from Recycled Containers.
Figure 6. Handbags Made from Recycled Plastic Cups.
Companies have also raced to find a substitute for plastic. Much of this has followed after the government announced to ban the use of disposable plastic in e-commerce, express delivery, and takeaway food by end 2022.
Figure 7. Packaging Film for Cornstarch Containers.
Cornstarch container is biodegradable and a popular substitute, but it is not leak and less oil resistant—less suitable for Chinese food. A smart solution offered by Hualong Packing Materials Co. is to insert a film, made of polyethylene and done by a machine, onto the containers (Figure 7). After a meal is finished, customers can easily remove the film and clean it. Both the film and container can be recycled.
Meanwhile, other companies have also innovated using paper-based materials. Zhongshan Dongyu New Materials Co. has worked with BASF to launch specially designed paper containers (Figure 8).
Figure 8. Zhongshan Dongyu-BASF’s Paper Food Containers.
Moving forward, the end of takeaway plastic containers in the PRC is near even amid rising demand for food delivery. More new ideas and products will surely surface as the country strives toward achieving the goal of greener and higher quality development. As in other areas of e-commerce, the PRC’s rich experience provides useful lessons for other developing countries facing similar challenges.
During the last few decades, the Chinese people’s well-being and quality of life have significantly improved on the back of rapid economic growth. However, before higher-quality green development found its way into national policies that success came at a high cost to the environment.
The PRC has urbanized and industrialized at an extraordinary pace and scale to become a commendable development success story. In February 2021, the Chinese government officially announced that absolute poverty had been eradicated by the end of 2020.
Recognizing the environmental challenges, including pollution to air, water and soil, the PRC has over the past decade pivoted and is prioritizing greener, more environmentally sustainable development. Now heeding the government’s call for a “green recovery” from the novel coronavirus pandemic, the country is pursuing an integrated approach that protects the environment, transforms its rural economies, and greens its cities, all while actively adapting and mitigating the effects of climate change.
One example of such an integrated approach is the Yangtze River Economic Belt, a basin management effort that replaces “big development with big protection”. Launched in 2016, it introduced the geographic concept of a “belt” that encompasses economic, social and ecological linkages around the Yangtze River. The plan’s centrepiece balances socioeconomic growth and environmental sustainability, with the intent of restoring and safeguarding the Yangtze River’s ecosystems.
The Yangtze River Economic Belt is just one example. Across the PRC, other green development projects have been activated over the last decade. A key example is the Yellow River Ecological Corridor, with a geographic focus in the country’s second-largest river basin. Basin-wide approaches such as those being put forward for the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers can distil useful lessons for wider application.
First, strengthening institutional capacity, collaboration and coordination is a prerequisite for success across projects. Governments must develop the capacity to formulate and implement innovative policies and instruments. Local and regional governments must foster collaboration, both vertically and horizontally.
Second, governments must actively engage with a wide set of stakeholders early on and continuously throughout a project to foster acceptance, mitigate concerns and monitor social and environmental progress. Systemic planning may also include leveraging green development as an opportunity for education and training in rural areas to create the scope to improve livelihoods that benefit the economy, society and nature.
Third, providing adequate, flexible, and long-term financing is necessary. Many green development projects require support for several years before they reach maturity and can gain profits off the natural capital that has been (re-) built. Developing tailored financing approaches is key to unlocking and scaling up investments in green development projects. And since projects in rural areas can be particularly difficult to finance, agriculture and forestry restoration activities, from a financial sustainability perspective, should be part of carbon credit markets to provide incentives for conservation practices.
Embracing high-quality green development will mark a shift from mere economic growth to sustainability-oriented development that focuses on improving people’s lives and livelihoods within healthy environments.
Sharing the PRC’s progress in greening development can spread and deepen awareness and knowledge about the challenges, innovations and best practices in pursuing a more environmentally sustainable future. Lessons learned are important not only for the PRC, but also for other developing countries pursuing greener development pathways in Asia and the Pacific.
The 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15) held in Kunming in October took a step toward reaching a global deal for nature－known as the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. The PRC, as host nation, is ushering the convention forward as a road map for biodiversity conservation for the coming decade and beyond.
So more broadly, the greening-of-development approach offers opportunities for global learning and knowledge sharing that can help the global community reach its goals coming out of COP 15. This can set the scene for a future that banks upon global green development, while protecting biodiversity and safeguarding its ecosystems and people.
The Yangtze River Economic Belt (YREB) holds a key place in the economy of the PRC. It accounts for more than 40% of the country’s population, 40% of its freshwater resources, and about 45% of its economic output. This resource, though, is under threat. Increasing pollution, degraded natural resources, and limited transport connectivity are constraining the growth of the YREB.
Pollution, in particular, is a threat to the Xin’an River, a river system within the YREB. Running from Huangshan city in Anhui province through Hangzhou municipality, the capital of Zhejiang province, the Xin’an River is life to the residents living along its banks—about 10 million people rely on it for water supply.
“The Xin’an River is an important source of drinking water and a strategic reserve water source for the whole Yangtze River Delta,” says Principal Water Resources Specialist for East Asia Mingyuan Fan. “Without a clean-up in and around the Xin’an River, water security in Huangshan and Hangzhou will be but a distant dream.”
Huangshan’s urban wastewater and sanitation facilities and sewage collection infrastructure is unable to control the pollution seeping into the river. Sewerage and stormwater overflow go directly to the river and its streams and waterways. Because of the sewer’s poor quality, groundwater likewise infiltrates the wastewater treatment systems. Rural wastewater also contaminates the river. About 75% of Huangshan’s 889 administrative villages lack wastewater treatment facilities. Thus, pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus from agriculture activities are discharged into the river, contaminating the water supply.
Cleaning up the Xin’an River
“The Xin’an River needs to be protected and conserved,” says Mr. Fan. “Without intervention, its deterioration would deprive millions of people of quality water supply.”
ADB, along with KfW, has embarked on a project that would ensure the YREB’s sustainable growth by promoting the ecological protection and green development of the Xin’an River. Through the Anhui Huangshan Xin’an River Ecological Protection and Green Development Project, ADB and KfW will be assisting the PRC in cleaning up the Xin’an River by addressing its major sources of pollution: insufficient urban sewerage systems and unsustainable agricultural practices.
To address pollution coming from urban sources, the project is upgrading sewage and stormwater facilities. It aims to repair wastewater sewers in Huangshan’s central district as well as in its other four county urban areas. It will also install stormwater drainage pipes. To complement this work, the project will be constructing river embankments to control floods. For rural areas, the project will be building decentralized wastewater treatment systems that can treat a minimum of 2 cubic meters per day. Moreover, it will install and repair rural water supply pipes to provide tap water to rural residences.
The Anhui Huangshan Xin’an River Ecological Protection and Green Development Project will introduce innovative, and sustainable approaches to manage water pollution. These include helping farmers switch to improved organic fertilizers and biological pesticides. New green financing mechanisms will provide farmers financial incentives whenever they achieve pollution control targets using sustainable farming practices. It will also establish a green incentive fund to help small and medium-sized enterprises engaged in green businesses such as ecotourism and ecological agriculture.
By 2026, the project would have installed 176 kilometers (km) of water sewers and 71 km of stormwater drainage pipes in Huangshan’s urban areas. By project completion, it is also expected to construct 10 km of river embankments to mitigate floods. During their construction, about 465 jobs would be created, while 226 more jobs will be available during their operation. By the end of the project, the rural areas should see 85 decentralized wastewater treatment systems completed and connected to about 14,700 households. The project will also construct and repair a total of 100 km of rural water supply pipes that will be connected to about 3,250 households. As in urban areas, these activities will also generate jobs in rural areas—about 288 during construction and 140 during their operation.
The project is envisioned to infuse innovation into the protection and management of the Xin’an River by piloting green financing mechanisms. When completed, the project aims to provide green incentive mechanisms via cash grants to tea farmers who have achieved pollution control targets through the adoption of sustainable farming practices, and a green incentive fund to support small- and medium-sized enterprises involved in green business development that would give them further impetus to venture into and expand to ecological agriculture, eco-tourism, and pollution control.
Cleaning up the Xin’an River is a daunting but necessary task. This initiative would mean a reliable water supply for millions of people for years to come, a green development that ensures public health, and a robust economy for the PRC.