What we can learn from China’s fight against environmental ruin



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Hukou Waterfall of Yellow River, China.
Leruswing /Wikimedia , CC BY-SA

Brett Bryan, Deakin University and Lei Gao, CSIRO

A good news story about China’s environment is something you don’t hear every day. But a major review published today in Nature has found that China has made significant progress in battling the environmental catastrophes of the past century.

Our team, which included 19 scientists from 16 Australian, Chinese and US institutions, reviewed China’s 16 major programs designed to improve the sustainability of its rural environment and people.




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We wanted to tell the story of China’s progress, so that other nations may learn from its experience as they strive towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

A monumental effort

From 1998, China dramatically escalated its investment in rural sustainability. Through to 2015, more than US$350 billion was invested in 16 sustainability programs, addressing more than 620 million hectares (65% of China’s land area).

This effort, while imperfect, is globally unrivalled. Its environmental objectives included:

Just as important were the socio-economic objectives of poverty reduction and economic development, particularly in western China.

Programs improved livelihoods by paying farmers to implement sustainability measures on their land. Providing housing and off-farm work in China’s booming cities also boosted household incomes and reduced pressure on land.

Click to enlarge: Investment under the 16 sustainability programs across China’s provinces from 1978 to 2015.
Author provided

An environmental emergency

China’s pivot towards sustainability in the late 1990s came as a type of emergency response to the heinous condition of its rural people and environment.

China has been farmed for more than 8,000 years, but by the mid-1900s the cumulative impacts of inefficient and unsustainable agricultural practices and the over-exploitation of natural resources caused widespread poverty and environmental degradation.

Floods, droughts, and other catastrophes ensued, including the Great Chinese Famine from 1959-61, which caused between 20 million and 45 million deaths.

Following the 1978 economic reforms, six sustainability programs were established, but with only modest investment conditions continued to deteriorate. By the 1990s natural forest cover was below 10% and around 5 billion tonnes of soil eroded annually, causing major water quality and sedimentation problems.

In the Loess Plateau, the worst-affected parts were losing 100 tonnes of soil per hectare each year to erosion, and the Yellow River that flowed through it had the dubious honour of being the world’s muddiest waterway.

Agricultural soils were exhausted and productivity was down, grasslands were overgrazed, and more than a quarter of China was desertified.

In the late 1990s, China experienced a series of natural disasters widely believed to have been caused by unsustainable land management, including the Yellow River drought in 1997, the Yangtze River floods in 1998, and the severe dust storms that repeatedly afflicted Beijing in 2000.

This sustainability emergency triggered a great acceleration in investment after 1998, including the launch of 11 new programs. The portfolio included iconic programs such as the Grain for Green Program, the Natural Forest Conservation Program, and the Three North Shelterbelt Program which aimed to slow and reverse desertification by planting a 4,500km Great Green Wall.

The result

After 20 years the results of these programs have been overwhelmingly positive. Deforestation has declined and forest cover has exceeded 22%. Grasslands have expanded and regenerated. Desertification trends have reversed in many areas, and while mostly driven by climatic change, restoration efforts have helped.

Soil erosion has waned substantially and water quality and river sedimentation have improved dramatically. Yellow River sediment loads have fallen by 90% and the Yangtze is not far behind. Agricultural productivity has increased through efficiency gains and technological advances. Rural households are generally better off and hunger has largely disappeared.

That said, there have also been significant unintended consequences. Afforestation – or planting trees where trees never grew – has dried up water resources and led to high rates of plantation failure.




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In the most degraded areas, significant cultural disruption has occurred through the migration of entire communities to less sensitive environments. More could be done to conserve biodiversity, particularly by prioritising diverse natural forest restoration and regeneration over single-species plantations.

The precise impacts of China’s sustainability programs are clouded by other influences such as the One Child Policy and Household Responsibility System, urbanisation and development, and environmental change. Detailed and comprehensive evaluations are now needed to disentangle these factors.

Lessons from China’s experience

While the context of China’s path to sustainability is unique, other countries can learn from its experience. Nations must commit to sustainability as a long-term, large-scale public investment like education, health, defence, and infrastructure.




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We do not wish to pretend that China is a global poster child of sustainability. Very serious pollution of its air, water, and soils, urban expansion, vanishing coastal wetlands and the illegal wildlife trade still dog the world’s most populous nation.

As China cleans up its domestic environment, great care needs to be taken not to simply shift problems offshore.

But to give credit where credit is due, China’s vast investment has made great strides towards improving the sustainability of rural people and nature.

The ConversationChina’s path towards sustainability is clearly charted in the 13th Five Year Plan where President Xi’s Chinese dream for an ecological civilization and a “beautiful China” is laid out.

Brett Bryan, Professor of Global Change, Environment, and Society, Deakin University and Lei Gao, Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Why Australia might be at risk of ‘overtourism’


Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, University of South Australia

Recently, some of Europe’s most-visited cities have become surprisingly inhospitable to tourists. Barcelona residents have been openly hostile to visitors and officials are now cracking down on Airbnb rentals. Venice has been overrun with daytrippers and recently instituted tourist-only diversion routes. Dubrovnik has put a cap on the number of cruise ship passengers that can enter the city at any one time.

These destinations are suffering from what people in the travel industry call “overtourism.” The numbers speak for themselves. Europe was the most frequently visited region in the world in 2016, accounting for close to half of the 1.24 billion international tourist arrivals. Spain, a nation of 46.5 million people, welcomed a remarkable 75.3 million visitors in 2016. Croatia, population 4.2 million, saw more than triple the number of tourist arrivals.

Australia hasn’t yet experienced visitor numbers quite this large – there were just 8.24 million tourist arrivals in 2016 – but overtourism is becoming a concern here, as well.

What exactly is overtourism?

The awkward term overtourism describes a situation in which a tourism destination exceeds its carrying capacity – in physical and/or psychological terms. It results in a deterioration of the tourism experience for either visitors or locals, or both. If allowed to continue unchecked, overtourism can lead to serious consequences for popular destinations.

The situation has gotten so bad in certain locales in recent years, media outlets have started publishing lists of the “travel destinations you should avoid” and new terms like “anti-tourism” and “tourismphobia” are entering the travel industry lexicon. Tourist sites have even occasionally been targeted with violence, such as the string of attacks that took place in Spain last year.


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The causes of overtourism vary according to the destination. Recently, the disruptive agents of the sharing economy, like Airbnb, have been blamed for bringing more tourists into the heart of communities instead of just tourist sites. Cheap travel and package holidays are enabling more people to take short city breaks and cruises, particularly in Europe. Social media also plays a role in popularising places like Myanmar, which go from being off-the-grid to “must-see” destinations overnight.

The shifting focus of governmental tourism agencies play a role in overtourism, as well. Many agencies are now almost exclusively marketing-focused and their singular goal is promoting growth. For instance, Tourism Australia’s “Tourism 2020” strategy is clearly growth-focused. Its goal is stated simply on the website – to achieve more than AU$115 billion in overnight spending by 2020 (up from AU$70 billion in 2009).

Sustainable tourism strategies, once heavily promoted in the 1990s and early 2000s, no longer seem to be as high a priority.

Is Australia really in danger of overtourism?

Australian tourism sites like Kangaroo Island aren’t seeing visitor numbers anywhere close to Venice and Barcelona just yet. However, poor tourism policies may still lead to a form of overtourism if locals perceive their quality of life is being damaged by tourists.

For instance, the 2011 Kangaroo Island Pro-Surf and Music Festival faced considerable community opposition for its proposal to bring 5,000 visitors to the small hamlet of Vivonne Bay (population 400). Recently published research examining the policy process indicated it was a push by tourism authorities to boost tourism on the island that led to the event being imposed on the community. The backlash was so severe, organisers abandoned plans to host the event again in subsequent years.




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However, this hasn’t stopped other tourism development schemes from being proposed. And the state Economic Development Board has recommended doubling the numbers of tourists on the island by 2020.

Tasmania, too, has experienced a tourist backlash in recent years. Most recently, thousands came out to protest a proposed cable car for Mount Wellington near Hobart. With claims by critics that the cable car would draw upwards of 1 million tourists per year, one can readily see the seeds for overtourism.

Another site that could be in danger is the Great Barrier Reef. Agricultural run-off, climate change and a crown-of-thorns starfish outbreak are currently posing grave threats to the reef, which could spark a phenomenon known as “last-chance tourism”, – a rush to experience a place before it’s gone for good.

What can be done?

Most experts agree government regulations are key to addressing the threats from overtourism. Many cities, for instance, are following Barcelona’s lead to tighten restrictions on Airbnb. The Thai government is closing popular Maya Beach on Phi Phi Island for four months every year to allow the sea life to recover. Creatively, Copenhagen is promoting a tourism policy based on “localhood”:

A long-term vision that supports the inclusive co-creation of our future destination. A future destination where human relations are the focal point. Where locals and visitors not only co-exist, but interact around shared experiences of localhood. Where our global competitiveness is underpinned by our very own localhood. And where tourism growth is co-created responsibly across industries and geographies, between new and existing stakeholders, with localhood as our shared identity and common starting point.




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And in New Zealand, the tourism board is actively promoting tourism visits outside of peak season. This is a good example of how government agencies can use “demarketing” strategies, or deflecting interest in places, to address rising tensions over tourism. Similarly, Majorca’s authorities have tried to rebrand it as a winter destination in an effort to reduce overcrowding in the peak season.

The ConversationWith its “Tourism 2020” strategy, Australia is focused instead on growing its visitor numbers. The national and local tourism bodies should take a more sustainable and holistic approach to their tourism planning to reflect the values and desires of local communities. That will ensure visitor numbers remain in check and tourism remains an enjoyable experience – for tourists and residents alike.

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management, University of South Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Warming oceans are changing Australia’s fishing industry



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Ocean fish are changing where they live due to climate change.
Annie spratt/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Alistair Hobday, CSIRO; Beth Fulton, CSIRO, and Gretta Pecl, University of Tasmania

A new United Nations report on fisheries and climate change shows that Australian marine systems are undergoing rapid environmental change, with some of the largest climate-driven changes in the Southern Hemisphere.

Reports from around the world have found that many fish species are changing their distribution. This movement threatens to disrupt fishing as we know it.

While rapid change is predicted to continue, researchers and managers are working with fishers to ensure a sustainable industry.




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Lessons from across the world

Large climate-driven changes in species distribution and abundance are evident around the world. While some species will increase, global models project declining seafood stocks in tropical regions, where people can least afford alternative foods.

The global concern for seafood changes led the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to commission a new report on the impacts of climate change on fisheries and aquaculture. More than 90 experts from some 20 countries contributed, including us.

The report describes many examples of climate-related change. For instance, the northern movement of European mackerel into Icelandic waters has led to conflict with more southerly fishing states, and apparently contributed to Iceland’s exit from negotiations over its prospective European Union membership.




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Changes in fish abundance and behaviour can lead to conflicts in harvesting, as occurred in the Maine lobster fishery. Indirect effects of climate change, such as disease outbreaks and algal blooms, have already temporarily closed fisheries in several countries, including the United States and Australia.

All these changes in turn impact the people who depend on fish for food and livelihoods.

Climate change and fisheries in Australia

The Australian chapter summarises the rapid ocean change in our region. Waters off southeastern and southwestern Australia are particular warming hotspots. Even our tropical oceans are warming almost twice as fast as the global average.




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More than 100 Australian marine species have already begun to shift their distributions southwards. Marine heatwaves and other extreme events have harmed Australia’s seagrass, kelp forests, mangroves and coral reefs. Australia’s marine ecosystems and commercial fisheries are clearly already being affected by climate change.

Summary of recent climate-related marine impacts in Australia. Warming on both coasts is also moving species southwards.
Author provided

In the Australian FAO chapter, we present information from climate sensitivity analysis and ecosystem models to help managers and fishers prepare for change.

We need to preparing climate-ready fisheries, to minimise negative impacts and to make the most of new opportunities that arise.

Experts from around Australia have rated the sensitivity of more than 100 fished species to climate change, based on their life-history traits. They found that 70% of assessed species have moderate to high sensitivity. As a group, invertebrates are the most sensitive, and pelagic fishes (that live in the open ocean sea) the least.

A range of ecosystem models have also been used to explore how future climate change will impact Australia’s fisheries over the next 40 years. While results varied around Australia, a common projection was that ecosystem production will become more variable.

As fish abundance and distribution changes, predation and competition within food webs will be affected. New food webs may form, changing ecosystems in unexpected ways. In some regions (such as southeastern Australia) the ecosystem may eventually shift into a new state that is quite different to today.

How can Australian fisheries respond?

Our ecosystem models indicate that sustainable fisheries are possible, if we’re prepared to make some changes. This finding builds on Australia’s strong record in fisheries management, supported by robust science, which positions it well to cope with the impacts of climate change. Fortunately, less than 15% of Australia’s assessed fisheries are overfished, with an improving trend.

We have identified several actions that can help fisheries adapt to climate change:

  • Management plans need to prioritise the most sensitive species and fisheries, and take the easiest actions first, such as changing the timing or location of operations to match changing conditions.



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  • As ecosystem changes span state and national boundaries, greater coordination is needed across all Australian jurisdictions, and between all the users of the marine environment. For example, policy must be developed to deal with fixed fishing zones when species distribution changes.

  • Fisheries policy, management and assessment methods need to prepare for both long-term changes and extreme events. Australian fisheries have already shifted to more conservative targets which have provided for increased ecological resilience. Additional quota changes may be needed if stock productivity changes.

  • In areas where climate is changing rapidly, agile management responses will be required so that action can be taken quickly and adjusted when new information becomes available.

  • Ultimately, we may need to target new species. This means that Australians will have to adapt to buying (and cooking) new types of fish.




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The ConversationResearchers from a range of organisations and agencies around Australia are now tackling these issues, in partnership with the fishing industry, to ensure that coastal towns with vibrant commercial fishing and aquaculture businesses continue to provide sustainable seafood.

Alistair Hobday, Senior Principal Research Scientist – Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Beth Fulton, CSIRO Research Group Leader Ecosystem Modelling and Risk Assessment, CSIRO, and Gretta Pecl, Professor, ARC Future Fellow & Editor in Chief (Reviews in Fish Biology & Fisheries), University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.