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China, COVID-19 & COPs ; By Raakhee Suryaprakash

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Article 58/2021

Even as we weather the pandemic, business continued online. Many conference of parties (COPs) to environmental summits such as on biodiversity, climate change, wetlands, combatting desertification that was to happen went online with subpar results. While we believe that we’ve come through the worst in-person conferences are resuming with the Glasgow Climate Summit – the COP26 being the most prominent. Vaccine inequality and inefficient vaccines are a major barriers to relevant actors meeting and negotiating face-to face. In our backyard, our neighbour China with the chairmanship of the Biodiversity Summit – COP15 (15th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity) faced challenges:

“The difficulty of meeting face to face because of the Covid-19 pandemic meant the summit was postponed three times and then split into two, with the first virtual session scheduled for October [2021]. … culminat[ing] in May next year in the southern Chinese city of Kunming.”

Starting in 2017 it was decided that Chinese Authorities would demarcate and protect millions of square kilometres of land and sea. This ambitious “Red Line” strategy and the push for a Global Biodiversity Fund are projects that China seeks to highlight as it prepares to play host to the ambitious two-part Biodiversity COP15. At the start of the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), this “Red Line” ecological innovation and policy is welcomed even as strong implementation of this green guideline is called for. As reported by the CrossBorder Environment Concern Association 104 publicly funded projects, two-thirds in the field of transport and even a few clean energy projects “approved by national and provincial governments between February 2018 and July 2020 violated … Environmental red lines drawn in 15 provinces and municipalities, including Beijing and areas along the Yangtze River, and covering more than 2.4 million sq km.”

A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, as we sheltered in place, the narrative that “nature was healing” offered a silver lining amid the mass doomscrolling. Yet while citizens stayed indoors during the global shutdown and lockdowns and most of the world’s polluting transport systems ground to a halt, instead of nature healing the world’s crucial carbon sink the Amazon become a net carbon emitter. The climate catastrophe has since revealed itself across the planet in property-destroying forest fires, floods, and storms and health-destroying droughts, famines, extreme heat waves, as well as infectious and lifestyle disease outbreaks, symptoms of our overconsumption and biodiversity-destroying preferences.

Vital biodiversity and climate hotspots such as the Amazon rain forests are under attack from interests to farm and mine the lands and gorge on its wood and forest products. Many of the agricultural enterprises that follow the deforestation of the Amazon are palm and soya plantations and ranches running beef both mainly for Asian markets and predominantly Chinese consumers. The Xi-Bolsonaro ties run deep.

Multinational corporations and overseas interests prioritize the monetization of the resources of ecological hotspots instead of preserving them to ensure their and our sustainability like the indigenous people who were the original and responsible stakeholders. The pandemics are a symptom of our encroachment of nature and pillaging of biodiversity and ecological reserves from COVID19 to Ebola, SARS, Nipah virus and even AIDS.

Ecological and climate action is needed beyond geostrategic red lines, One Belt One Road (OBOR), and “dash lines” that prove to be contentious in international relations and flashpoints in the extended Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean neighbourhoods. The adverse environmental impact with the whiff of coal dust and oil in OBOR infrastructure projects are counter to China’s projection of itself as a global environmental and climate leader. A role it made its own during the Trump presidency that suffered only in the post-COVID era despite its many investments in coal power, mining and securing of global oil routes to ensure its energy security in the guise of OBOR.

Yet, when they put their mind and might to it, the Chinese have demonstrated many ecological success stories – from the greening of their desert to using a regiment of People’s Liberation Army to reforest regions by having 600,000 soldiers plant trees! Thus as Chi-yeung Choi, research assistant professor at Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science and Technology put it the Red Line plan to preserve and restore “a quarter of China’s land and sea areas and reversing some of the air and water pollution brought about by breakneck growth … is a new idea globally. If China can implement it well, it’s also meaningful for other countries.”

Like China’s “diplomatic wins in countering the resistance by some countries to holding virtual negotiations as the coronavirus pandemic has continued,” it leading the call for a multi-billion-dollar global biodiversity fund to help developing countries meet goals agreed to protect nature is something environmentalists and developing nations will welcome in the credit-crunched COVID era.

“Global annual spending to protect and restore nature on land needs to triple this decade to about $350 billion by 2030 and rise to $536 billion by 2050, a UN report said in May. [And] … Beijing submitted a draft “Kunming Declaration” to the United Nations for consideration at COP15, urging countries to recognise the importance of biodiversity in human health and to endorse Chinese Communist Party slogans about protecting ecosystems.”

As the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at a pre-COP, August 2021 meeting of Latin American leaders calling on governments, business and citizens to act, act now and act fast as ““Biodiversity is collapsing – and we are the losers.”

(Raakhee Suryaprakash is the founder of Sunshine Millennium and curates content for her RE. Plastic blog & Facebook page. She has been part of Climate Tracker since 2016 and the Gender Security Project since its inception.  Raakhee is an Associate Member of the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S). The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and does not reflect the views of C3S)

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