‘A drop in the bucket’: Lukewarm response for China biodiversity fund launch

China’s launch of a biodiversity fund is a “good start” but falls short of what is needed to help developing countries meet the goals in a global nature pact, environmentalists have warned, urging all rich nations to step up ambition and funding.

About 195 countries are set to finalize a new accord to safeguard the planet’s plants, animals and ecosystems at a two-part U.N. summit that began this week and is due to finish in May next year in the Chinese city of Kunming.

Addressing the COP15 biodiversity virtual summit on Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the highly anticipated launch of a 1.5 billion yuan ($232.47 million) fund to support biodiversity protection in developing countries.

But China’s funding pledge was a “drop in the bucket” and disappointing “for such a major world power,” said Charles Barber, a senior biodiversity advisor at the World Resources Institute, a U.S.-based think tank.

“I would have hoped for at least $1 billion from a nation of China’s size and stature, a country that clearly values biodiversity within its borders and is willing to act on that,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, citing a $5 billion nature pledge made by private donors last month.

But “if it is an initial contribution, perhaps to be significantly topped up next year when COP15 resumes in person … it could be a good start,” Barber added.

U.N. biodiversity chief Elizabeth Maruma Mrema said the new fund from China, as well as a separate additional ¥1.8 billion ($16 million) announced by Tokyo toward its own Japan biodiversity fund, was “laudable” and urged other countries as well as the private sector to step up.

“What has been announced by itself is not enough, I agree, but we have to look at it in the bigger context with other resources,” she told journalists on Wednesday when asked how she planned to mobilize more money for nature.

Mrema said governments in particular must shift about $500 billion they spend each year on harmful subsidies — including to support farming — toward protecting nature.

“If these resources are repurposed and redirected … already there is over $500 billion every year” available, she said.

Improving conservation and management of natural areas, such as parks, oceans, forests and wildernesses, is seen as vital to protecting the ecosystems humans depend on for clean air and water and to limiting global warming to internationally agreed targets.

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 U.N. report said in May.

Xi said China’s contribution to the new fund would start at 1.5 billion yuan and that it would welcome contributions from other parties.

He also announced a new national parks project that would bring a land area of 230,000 square kilometers under stronger state protection.

The parks — which cover China’s panda, tiger and leopard habitats as well as key nature reserves in the northwest — are home to nearly 30% of the key land-based wildlife species found in the country, Xi said.

Barber said those were positive and encouraging steps but noted the absence of any announcements by China to reduce the “ecological footprint” from the country’s demand for commodities linked to deforestation, such as soybeans, palm oil and timber.

“There is also nothing in President Xi’s speech about controlling the biodiversity impacts of China’s vast fishing fleet, or reining in China’s consumption of wildlife,” he added.

To be effective, a new biodiversity fund would need to distribute at least $80 billion each year to help developing nations and indigenous and local communities protect nature, predicted Brian O’Donnell, director of the U.S.-based Campaign for Nature.

So far, China, the United States, Japan and other wealthy nations are not committing resources at the scale necessary to truly address the biodiversity crisis, he added.

Lim Li Ching, a researcher at the Malaysia-based Third World Network, noted that developed countries were legally obligated under current biodiversity treaties to provide financial resources for developing nations.

“China doesn’t have such obligations … yet it is taking the lead,” she said, describing the announced fund as a “modest start” that would need to be run transparently.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a policy speech last month that the European Union would double its international funding to protect nature, without specifying an amount.

In addition, G7 leaders in June stepped up pledges to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.

China’s fund announcement was a “step in the right direction” and would hopefully be the first of many such contributions, said Susan Lieberman, vice president of international policy at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

“We welcome China’s support for biodiversity domestically and now beyond its borders, and hope to see this fund and China’s commitment increase,” said Lieberman.

“Governments need to commit at least as much to biodiversity conservation as they contribute to climate change mitigation: they are two sides of the same coin,” she added.

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