Chinese President Xi announces new $315 million fund to protect biodiversity

Media staff members watch a live image of Mr Xi Jinping speaking at the media centre of the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Kunming, Yunnan on Oct 12, 2021.
Media staff members watch a live image of Mr Xi Jinping speaking at the media centre of the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Kunming, Yunnan on Oct 12, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - China will set up a 1.5 billion yuan (S$315 million) fund to finance efforts to protect biodiversity, a move experts say will help address gaps in funding such efforts.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced this on Tuesday (Oct 12) during the leaders' summit of the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity, also known as COP15, in Kunming.

Mr Xi, who addressed the summit virtually, said the fund would go towards developing nations, and called for contributions from other countries.

The two-part conference, which has been delayed twice because of Covid-19, is largely being held online this week owing to pandemic-related restrictions in China. The second part of the conference will be held next year in person, also in Kunming.

The goal is for the first part of the conference to generate momentum towards formulating an ambitious framework to guide post-2020 efforts to protect biodiversity at the conference.

While it is the world's second-largest polluter, Beijing has been moving towards playing a bigger role as a leader on environmental issues. The latest commitment comes ahead of the global climate summit - COP26 - due to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, next month.

Experts say protecting biodiversity is increasingly critical, with animal and plant species going extinct at an accelerating rate, largely due to climate change, overfishing, pollution and habitat loss.

Countries have already missed the 2020 biodiversity targets that were set a decade ago in Aichi, Japan.

The UN wants all countries to set aside 30 per cent of their land and oceans as protected areas by 2030. About 70 countries, including the United States, have committed to this target.

Mr Xi did not sign on to these targets but, in his speech on Tuesday, outlined China's efforts to protect biodiversity and the environment. Among other things, he referred to the fact that the country has designated its first group of five national parks, spanning 230,000 sq km and covering 30 per cent of "key terrestrial species in China".

It also recently started construction of wind and solar power projects, generating up to 100 million kilowatts, in its desert areas, he said.

He added that China has made remarkable progress in building an "ecological civilisation", pointing out that the environment was not just "a natural asset, but also an economic asset".

The term "ecological civilisation" is a political slogan that refers to building a sustainable China.

"When we take care to protect nature, nature rewards us generously. When we exploit nature ruthlessly, it punishes us without mercy," said Mr Xi.

Environmental group Greenpeace said the new biodiversity fund should "jump-start an urgently needed conversation on biodiversity finance".

That said, some experts such as Beijing-based conservationist Terry Townshend questioned how the new Kunming Biodiversity Fund would be different from the UN Global Environment Facility, an existing fund that already helps developing nations finance green projects.

But Mr Townshend, a fellow at the Paulson Institute, said it was significant that the Chinese leader had highlighted the economic benefits of environmental protection.

"I think this philosophy of an ecological civilisation, it has the potential to make a big difference if it can be implemented authentically across the economy," he said.

Greenpeace East Asia's forest and oceans project manager Pan Wenjing also called China's nascent national park system a "good first step" towards addressing habitat loss.

"But there are still challenges that China will face, including the fragmentation of species' habitats," she said.