KUALA LUMPUR (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - Securing an ambitious new global pact to protect nature at a United Nations (UN) biodiversity summit later this year will require stronger political leadership from host nation China, officials and observers have warned.
Nearly 200 countries are expected to agree the text of a new treaty to safeguard the planet's plants, animals and ecosystems, similar to the Paris climate accord, at UN talks scheduled for October in the southern Chinese city of Kunming.
But the prospects of sealing a deal at the COP15 summit - already postponed twice due to the Covid-19 pandemic - are dwindling unless in-person talks can happen, UN officials say.
As virtual talks between nations continue, China must step up its efforts to help steer the process, said Mr Basile van Havre, co-chair of the group developing the deal for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
"On the political and negotiation front, there is plenty of room for leadership and we are looking forward to seeing China playing this role," Mr van Havre said, adding that the host country had not yet taken a strong position during negotiations.
"I am not sure China realises that now... the community is looking at them as a leader and their declarations carry significant weight," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Better conservation and management of natural areas, such as parks, oceans, forests and wildernesses, are regarded as key to protecting the ecosystems on which humans depend and for meeting targets to meet international climate change goals.
But forests are still being cut down - often to produce commodities such as palm oil - destroying biodiversity and threatening climate goals, as trees absorb about a third of planet-warming emissions produced worldwide.
Last year, a UN report showed governments had largely failed to achieve global targets set in 2010 to protect biodiversity, though conservation cases suggested the destruction of nature can be slowed and even reversed.
Hosting a major UN environment conference for the first time in China is seen by green groups as an important step for the country towards playing a more prominent role both domestically and internationally on biodiversity.
"China... (has) the opportunity to convince the global community of its desire for a better future," Mr van Havre said.
"This opportunity is open over the next few months and won't come back soon," he added, noting that Beijing had volunteered to work on the most "important COP at the most difficult time of the decade" but had the resources to meet such a challenge.
Chinese government officials working on COP15 did not respond to requests for comment.
China - the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases - has increasingly pushed a green agenda in recent years, and in 2020 pledged to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.
It has also championed the use of "nature-based solutions", such as the expansion of forests, grasslands and wetlands, as well as the use of biomass energy.
Three years ago, China pledged to keep a quarter of its land off-limits for development and increase forest cover, under its "ecological red line" scheme.
Its Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure plan to link Asia to Europe and beyond, has been criticised by environmentalists for weak green credentials.
But President Xi Jinping said in 2019 that environmental protection must underpin the ambitious scheme.
This year, China launched a new five-year development plan looking at ways to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels, advance green technologies, and offer more corporate income tax credits to support environmental protection and conservation.
"China has been strengthening its environmental standards domestically in recent years," said Ms Morgan Gillespy, a director at the Food and Land Use Coalition, a global alliance of economists and scientists.
But like other major economies, China generates major "international environmental spillovers" that need to be addressed, such as deforestation in other countries linked to high demand for food commodities, she added.
Mr Li Shuo, a policy advisor at Greenpeace China, said China's rapid economic and political ascent disguises the fact that it is still a beginner when it comes to global diplomacy.
He urged China to focus on strengthening implementation of new biodiversity targets to be agreed at COP15.
"The Kunming COP will not only be evaluated on the targets we adopt, but most importantly how they are actually delivered - that's where China's legacy lies," he said.
Ahead of November's COP26 UN climate talks in Scotland, British officials have launched a big diplomatic push to clear potential roadblocks and win new commitments to climate action.
US President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has made climate action central to policy in his first six months in office, while G7 leaders in June made more substantial pledges to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.
The United States is not part of the CBD, although it has joined a global push to safeguard nature by pledging to protect at least 30 per cent of the planet's land and oceans by 2030 (30x30).
The 30x30 goal is backed by a coalition of more than 60 countries and is included in the first official draft of the new Global Biodiversity Framework, released on Monday (July 12).
Ms Li Lin, director of global policy and advocacy at WWF International, said the biodiversity talks had lacked ambition and urgency, and the slow progress was concerning.
But China is uniquely placed to play a leadership role in securing a good deal, she said, adding "the expectation from many countries for China to step into this role is very high".
China initiated some ministerial dialogues in May in an effort to build consensus, but a bigger political push will be needed in the lead up to and at the UN summit, activists said.
"With significant domestic efforts underway, China can and should play a key role in global governance processes linking action on climate and nature," Ms Li said.