Can putting a dollar value on ecosystems save them?

Countries need to do more to protect areas that may not be important for biodiversity, but provide key ecosystem services such flood mitigation and water and soil retention, says environmentalist Zhiyun Ouyang.

Yellow Mountain China
Yellow Mountain, Huangshan, Anhui, China. The country seeks to establish fully-fledged 'ecological civilisations' by 2020. Image: Pixabay

If noted environmentalist Zhiyun Ouyang had his way, more than a third of China’s vast territory would be marked as protected areas where human development is not allowed. 

In February 2017, China’s government announced that it would require all of its provinces and regions to draw up “ecological red lines” by 2020 to demarcate such protected zones in their territories, as part of an ongoing effort to protect the country’s natural environment and improve its people’s quality of life.

Zhiyun Ouyang: GDP does not account for the value that ecosystems provide for mankind

As deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Research Centre for Eco-Environmental Sciences, Ouyang is helping local governments to determine these red lines.

“We are helping them to assess their ecosystems’ services and sensitivity, and providing data and maps of China’s most important areas for ecosystem services,” he told Eco-Business in a recent interview.

Based on his research, 35 percent of the country’s land holds its most important wildlife habitats and provides people with key ecosystem services, including water and soil retention, flood mitigation and sandstorm prevention. “Protecting this 35 per cent would maintain the most important areas for biodiversity and ecosystem services,” he said. 

An expert in ecosystem assessment and restoration, as well as biodiversity conservation, Ouyang has published 10 books, more than 140 peer-reviewed papers in international science journals and 370 peer-reviewed papers in Chinese journals. He is also the vice-president of both the Ecological Society of China and the Ecological-Economic Society of China. 

In recent years, he has turned his attention to promoting ecosystem service assessment – including putting a monetary value on ecosystems’ benefits for people – and its application in public policy related to land management, conservation and restoration in China.

Ahead of this week’s Macau International Environment Co-operation Forum & Exhibition (MIECF) from March 30 to April 4, where he is giving a presentation on the ecosystems found along China’s coastline, he told Eco-Business why more countries should follow China’s example in setting up protected zones for the environment.

You’ve been a strong advocate of “gross ecosystem product”. What is that and why is it important?

Ecosystems provide people with many services, for example water retention, flood mitigation and sandstorm prevention. But most national evaluation and appraisal systems, such as gross domestic product, do not capture those services, even though they are essential to human wellbeing. That may be the main reason that ecosystems are not adequately protected now.

Changes to the coastline have not only reduced wildlife habitats and services provided by natural ecosystems, but have increased risk for people who use them

Professor Zhiyun Ouyang, deputy director, Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Research Centre for Eco-Environmental Sciences

Gross Ecosystem Product (GEP) puts a monetary value on those services so that decision-makers will pay more attention to ecosystems and their services for mankind.

China, for example, is working on developing and implementing GEP. My research centre is partnering the National Development and Reform Commission to develop GEP accounting methods for the evaluation of ecological compensation programmes (where people such as farmers are paid to convert their used land into natural ecosystems). We are also working on the GEP accounting of Shenzhen, Sichuan, the Aershan country in Inner Mongolia and other regions.

You recently helped to author a scientific paper that called for the establishment of a new national park system in China with different types of protected areas. Why is this needed?

Nature reserves make up most of the protected areas in China, but previous national assessments of them have focused only on their ecological diversity. Our paper looked at the distribution of wildlife habitats and ecosystem services throughout China, and their representation in the nature reserves.

We found that the reserves make up only 10.2 to 12.5 percent of the areas in China that provide four key ecosystem services to people: water retention, soil retention, sandstorm prevention and carbon sequestration (the capture and storage of carbon).

Under our recommended new national park system, existing nature reserves would be expanded or new ones established, but more importantly a new category of protected areas would be created specifically to protect areas that provide key ecosystem services. Human activities would be permitted in these new protected areas as long as they do not compromise the provision of ecosystem services.

We believe that such a national park system is a politically feasible way to improve the protection of both biodiversity and key ecosystem services. After the Qinling Mountains were recognised as a critical source area for China’s South-to-North Water Transfer Project, for example, local governments invested more funds in their conservation and restoration.

To give other examples, the Loess and Mongolia Ordos Plateaus, Eastern Qinling and middle and south Chongqing are relatively unimportant for biodiversity conservation, but crucial for soil retention, sandstorm prevention and water retention, respectively. Our new system would recognise their importance.

While our recommendations are for China, we think that they are also relevant for other countries. In fact, our paper recommends establishing a category of protected areas for ecosystem services within the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Protected Areas classification system.

Your MIECF presentation focuses on the decline of the ecosystems along China’s coastline. Why is this important? 

The natural ecosystems in coastal areas provide many services, including carbon sequestration, habitats for wildlife and mitigation of the harm caused by tidal waves. These ecosystems, however, are very sensitive to urban development and climate change, including sea level rises.

China, in particular, has 17,000 kilometres of coastline that provide unique habitats for diverse species, including millions of migratory birds. Since 2000, however, the coastal ecosystems have changed rapidly due to urbanisation. The proportion of natural to developed coastline has declined from 54.6 percent to 44.1 percent, and we’ve also lost about 15 percent of coastal natural wetlands.

These changes to the coastline have not only reduced wildlife habitats and services provided by natural ecosystems, but have increased risk for people who use them. These are ecological issues that we have to resolve, not just in China but everywhere that urbanisation is encroaching on the natural world.

This year’s MIECF features Ouyang and other experts as speakers. To hear more from them, register for the Macao International Environmental Co-operation Forum & Exhibition (MIECF) held from 30 March - 1 April 2017 here. 

With an exciting lineup of an international conference, exhibition, business matching and networking activities, MIECF offers access to opportunities from the Pan-Pearl River Delta Region of China (PPRD Region), Asia-Pacific and Portuguese-speaking countries and beyond. At the Green Forum, speakers will discuss energy efficiency, green buildings, sustainable tourism, manufacturing best practice and environmental policies. 

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