The Chinese government will be reopening the nation’s domestic rhino horn trade, overturning a ban that has stood since 1993. An outcry since the announcement has led to the postponement of the lifting of the ban, which currently remains in place.
The case for introducing rhinos to Australia
The directive, if instituted, would require that rhino horn be sourced sustainably from farmed animals and that its use is limited to traditional Chinese medicine, scientific and medical research, preserving antique cultural artefacts, and as educational materials.
The announcement has been widely condemned. The United Nations Environmental Program called it “alarming”. But done carefully and correctly, and with necessary international consultation, it doesn’t have to add to the threat to rhinos. Indeed, it could even support rhino conservation.
Rhino horns regrow and can be sustainably and humanely harvested from live animals. Those arguing for legalisation say that a well-regulated trade could be a source of funding for expensive rhino conservation. It could also help reduce poverty and support development around protected areas.
A legal trade could also provide an alternative supply of horns, where income goes to legitimate conservation and development efforts, rather than to criminals, which is currently the case.
Rhino horn for medicinal use
The directive from Beijing stipulates that rhino horn for medicinal use must come from rhinos bred specifically outside of zoos (such as at dedicated horn-farming facilities). The ground-up horn powder would then be certified under a scheme developed by a coalition of Chinese regulatory agencies.
These agencies should draw from China’s experience regulating the medicinal use of pangolin scales to make sure poached horn does not infiltrate the legal marketplace. Though strictly controlled since 2008, illegal pangolin products continue to be seized frequently throughout China.
According to the directive, the medicinal use of rhino horn will be restricted to treating urgent, serious and rare diseases. This is consistent with what traditional Chinese medicine practitioners see as the appropriate application of rhino horn. Strict guides for clinical application will be needed to prevent misuse and overuse, particularly given the length of time that rhino horn has been unavailable to law-abiding clinicians.
Existing rhino horn stocks
Beyond medicine, the directive stipulates that people who already own horns will be able to declare their stocks. The government will then issue identification and certification records. After this, the horns must be sealed and stored safely, and not traded under any circumstances, barring gift-giving and inheritance.
This part of the directive is particularly concerning, as such a scheme will be complex, potentially giving owners of poached rhino horns smuggled into China a get-out-of-jail-free card. Lessons should be learned from the ivory trade in Hong Kong, where poached ivory has been laundered into legal stocks thanks to inadequate record-keeping and lax enforcement.
This section of the directive also raises concerns about the development of a socially accepted practice of gifting rhino horn akin to that of Vietnam. There, rhino horn has been found to be given as a gift for terminally ill family members and in business settings, where horns are offered as bribes to government officials. Strict enforcement will essential if China is to make sure illegal trading under the guise of gifts is not to spread.
Working with China
China will have to work with countries where rhinos live, including range states in both Asia and in Africa, as well as other rhino conservation stakeholders around the world. Swaziland and South Africa have previously proposed legalising the international trade in horn as a mechanism to fund and bolster conservation efforts.
Domestic trade in horn is legal in South Africa, and China and South Africa will have to coordinate to make sure their domestic marketplaces support rhino conservation and don’t enable transnational laundering and trade.
Beijing’s decision has certainly attracted immediate and fierce criticism from some conservation and animal welfare organisations. This criticism is exacerbated by different moral perspectives. Some people see the sale and consumption of rhino horn to fund conservation as morally repulsive. For others, it is legitimate and pragmatic.
Whichever side of the debate you stand on, the priority should be conservation outcomes and making sure that China’s newly legalised domestic horn trade strengthens rather than dangerously undermines rhino protection efforts. Rhino conservationists will need to find common ground with Beijing. This requires an appreciation of different cultural and moral values, and the use of evidence on how to minimise risks to rhino under the directive.
Responding to the widespread criticism, Chinese officials clarified that the implementation of the directive will be postponed. The government has also launched a short-term enforcement drive against illegal trading of rhino horn, which will run until the end of the year.
While heightened enforcement actions are welcome, it indicates that China can do much more to tackle illegal wildlife trade. China must strictly enforce its own regulations once its domestic horn trade has been opened.
Postponing implementation gives Beijing time to develop a detailed and robust set of regulations. Now is the time for rhino range states, conservation scientists and concerned groups around the world to work with Beijing so that the impending domestic horn trade in China can be a positive for rhino conservation.
Hubert Cheung, PhD Candidate in Conservation Biology, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Senior Research Fellow Social-Ecological Systems & Resilience, Griffith University, and Yifu Wang, PhD Candidate, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
When the Pacific Islands Forum is held in Nauru from September 1, one of the main objectives will be signing a wide-ranging security agreement that covers everything from defence and law and order concerns to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
The key question heading into the forum is: can the agreement find a balance between the security priorities of Australia and New Zealand and the needs of the Pacific Island nations?
Even though new Prime Minister Scott Morrison is not attending the forum, sending Foreign Minister Marise Payne instead, the Biketawa Plus security agreement remains a key aim for Canberra.
The original Biketawa Declaration was developed as a response to the 2000 coup in Fiji. It has served Australia and the region well, providing a framework for collective action when political tensions and crises occur. However, in the face of rapid change, it looks narrow and dated.
Why act now? The rationale is clear. Much has happened to alter the security landscape in the Pacific since 2000. But despite the commentary in Australia, security in the Pacific is not all about geopolitics. While Australia may be most worried about China’s rising influence in the region, it would be a mistake to think this is the primary preoccupation of Pacific leaders, too.
A focus on climate change as a security issue
One key reason for updating Biketawa is to realign Australia’s security interests with those of Pacific Island countries that have grown more aware of their shared interests and confident in expressing them in international relations. This growing confidence is clear in the lobbying of Pacific nations for climate change action at the United Nations and in Fiji’s role as president of the UN’s COP23 climate talks.
In the absence of direct military threats, the Pacific Island nations are most concerned about security of a different kind. Key issues for the region are sustainable growth along a “blue-green” model, climate change (especially the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters and rising sea levels), illegal fishing and over-fishing, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), transnational crime, money laundering and human trafficking.
Some of these security issues can be addressed by redirecting more Australian military forces to the region. Indeed, “disaster diplomacy” has been an effective method of connecting Australia’s security interests with those of Pacific Island nations in the past.
However, other priorities for the Pacific seem to run counter to Australia’s current policies toward the region. For example, the Pacific’s sustainable “blue-green” development agenda seems incompatible with an export-oriented growth model that is often touted by Australia as an “aid for trade” solution to Pacific “problems”.
Climate change adaptation and mitigation must also be elevated to the top of the agenda in Australia’s relations with the region. It is the most pressing problem in the Pacific, but for political and economic reasons, it hasn’t resonated to the same extent with Canberra.
In fact, Australia has recently been identified as the worst-performing country in the world on climate action. This has not gone unnoticed in the Pacific. Fiji’s prime minister, in particular, has been clear in highlighting that Australia’s “selfish” stance on climate change undermines its credibility in the region.
These shifting priorities in the Pacific present a greater challenge for Australia, especially now that there are more players in the region, such as China, Russia and Indonesia. Australia may see these “outsiders” as potential threats, but Pacific nations are just as likely to view them as alternative development partners able to provide opportunities.
New Coalition team on the Pacific
Making matters even trickier is the leadership shake-up in Canberra. What’s perhaps most problematic is Julie Bishop’s departure as foreign minister. Bishop did more to engage with Pacific countries than any foreign minister in recent memory. The [2017 Foreign Policy White Paper], for example, prioritised increased Pacific engagement and led to the region receiving the lion’s share of Australia’s latest aid budget.
Payne will attend the Pacific Islands Forum on her first overseas visit as foreign minister. As the former defence minister, she lobbied for Australia to be seen as a “security partner of choice” in the Pacific. What remains to be seen is whether she can maintain the momentum on Biketawa Plus.
So the challenge for the new Coalition leadership is to find a way to push through a new Pacific security agreement that caters to both Australia’s security concerns about Chinese influence in the region and the Pacific Island countries’ focus on climate change and sustainable growth.
There are lessons that can be drawn from the decade-long negotiations between Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island nations over the Pacer Plus free-trade agreement, which was finally signed last year (without the region’s two largest economies, Papua New Guinea and Fiji). Australia must not underestimate the diplomatic skills of Pacific leaders or offer benefits that are perceived as being more attractive to it than the Pacific states.
Australia must also avoid allowing the leadership spill to impact its Pacific agenda at this sensitive time. Bishop’s focus on labour mobility between the Pacific islands and Australia has been most welcome, but there can be no authentic engagement with the region without addressing climate insecurity as well.
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.
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:
- reducing erosion, sedimentation, and flooding in the Yangtze and Yellow rivers
- conserving forests in the north-east
- mitigating desertification in the dry north and rocky south
- reducing the impact of dust storms on the capital Beijing
- increasing agricultural productivity in China’s centre and east.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chinese and Indian competition on their shared Himalayan border is more likely to create a slow-moving environmental catastrophe than a quick military or nuclear disaster.
The Himalayan plateau plays a crucial role in Asia. It generates the monsoonal rains and seasonal ice-melts that feed rivers and deliver nutrients to South, Southeast and East Asia. Almost half the world’s population and 20% of its economy depend on these rivers, and they are already threatened by climate change. China and India’s competition for their headwaters increases this threat.
Until the mid-20th century, the Himalaya’s high altitude prevented its large-scale development and conserved its environment. But after the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China were created in the late 1940s, these two new states began competing for high ground in the western and eastern Himalayas. They fought a war over their unresolved border in 1962, and have scuffled ever since. The most recent clash was in 2017, when China built a road into Doklam, an area claimed by Bhutan and protected by India.
Tensions rose again last week when China unveiled a new mine in Lhunze, near the de facto border with India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, east of Bhutan. The mine sits on a deposit of gold, silver and other precious metals worth up to US$60 billion.
Most analysis of the Sino-Indian border dispute has focused on the potential for another war between these two nuclear-armed neighbours. The environmental impacts of their continued entrenchment are rarely mentioned, despite the fact that they are significant and growing.
All of this development along the border is built on the world’s third-largest ice-pack or in biodiversity hotspots. The region was militarised during the 1962 war, and has since been inundated by troops, roads, airports, barracks and hospitals. These have caused deforestation, landslides, and – if a study on troop movements on other glaciers is any guide – possibly even glacial retreat.
The buildup of troops on the border has displaced local ethnic groups, and they have been encouraged to give up their land to make way for intensive farming. Animal habitats have decreased and clashes with tigers and snow leopards have increased. Population transfers and agricultural intensification have even heightened the risk that antibiotic-resistant superbugs and other toxic pollutants will seep into the world’s most diffused watershed.
During the past 20 years, first China and then India have increased this degradation by building large-scale mines and hydroelectric dams in this sensitive region. These projects have not been profitable or environmentally sound, but they have solidified state control by entrenching populations, upgrading transport networks, and integrating these fringes into national economies. The tightening of state control along the border has been further complicated by calls from the Tibetans and other ethnic groups for greater autonomy.
Many of the projects have been developed within the transnational Brahmaputra River basin. This river’s headwaters are in China, but most of its catchment is in Arunachal Pradesh, which is controlled by India but claimed by China. It then flows through Assam and Bangladesh, where it joins the Ganges River. Some 630 million people live in the Ganges-Brahmaputra River catchment.
China and India’s geopolitical resources rush threatens the safety of this entire river system. The new Lhunze mine’s position among the Brahmaputra’s headwaters is so precarious that its owner, Hua Yu Mining, was only allowed to mine there under strict environmental conditions. To its credit, Hua Yu has agreed to be a “green” miner, limiting emissions, water use and minimising “grassland disturbance”. But even if the company does not inadvertently leak acid and arsenic into the environment like other mines in Tibet, the mine is still liable to be damaged by the region’s frequent earthquakes. Any toxic leak from Lhunze will flow straight into the Brahmaputra and then into the lower Ganges.
On its side of the border, India has concentrated on dams rather than mines. Between 2000 and 2016, the Arunachal Pradesh government approved the construction of 153 dams, before realising that it had overextended itself.
So far only one dam is complete, and all the other projects have stalled. One of these stalled dams is on the Subansiri River, the same river from which the Lhunze mine draws water. India is racing to build these dams without community consultation or environmental studies because it sees itself as competing with China for the region’s water. China has already built four dams in the upper Brahmaputra River basin.
Indian strategists argue that they can stop China building more dams by building hydroelectric projects whose need for water will be recognised under international law. Given China’s dismissal of previous rulings by the International Court of Justice, and its recent refusal to share water-flow data with India after the Doklam incident (data that India needs to plan flood controls), this strategy seems unlikely to succeed.
Even if it does, it is hard to see how building large hydropower projects in an earthquake-probne region will ultimately help India. It won’t stop China developing the borderland, and it could cause more problems than it solves.
To keep Asia’s major rivers flowing and relatively non-toxic, both nations need to stop competing and start collaborating. Their leaders understand that neither nation would win a nuclear war. Now they need to realise that no one will benefit from destroying a shared watershed.
Australia’s recycling industry is in crisis, with China having effectively closed its borders to foreign recycling. Emergency measures have included stockpiling, landfilling, and trying to find other international destinations for our recycling – but none of these are sustainable long-term solutions.
To manage this problem sustainably, we need a mix of short and longer-term planning. That means taking a broader approach than the strategies agreed by state and federal environment ministers at last month’s emergency summit.
There is a wide range of potential strategies to address the crisis, shown in the diagram below. We have highlighted those that were endorsed at the ministers’ meeting, but there are many other options we could be considering too.
Waste management is planned around “the waste hierarchy”. This sets out our options for dealing with waste, in order from most to least preferable for sustainability. To be effective, the government’s strategies need to follow this established hierarchy.
This means that waste strategies should prioritise avoiding, reducing, and reusing, before recycling, energy recovery, and finally disposal to landfill as a last resort. So how do the ministers’ strategies stack up?
Top of the pile
The ministers agreed to reduce waste through consumer education and industry initiatives. These types of initiatives are important and sit at the top of the waste hierarchy, but the announcement is so far lacking in detail and targets.
Local councils have been running recycling education initiatives for a long time, with mixed success. Going beyond this to waste reduction is even harder and there are few successful examples. To do this well would require substantial investment of time and resources to identify and trial effective approaches to waste reduction. Education alone, without incentives and regulations, is unlikely to deliver sufficient change.
The ministers also endorsed a new target of making 100% of packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. While this target is commendable, we should be prioritising reduction and reuse over recycling and composting when designing packaging.
The industry-led Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) has already adopted “closing the loop” (improved recovery) as a performance criterion in its new Packaging Sustainability Framework, but incentives to prioritise reusable packaging are still needed. Refillable returnable glass bottles are common in Europe. Support from government and businesses for local pilots of these and similar schemes would help overcome barriers to implementation.
These “top of the hierarchy” approaches are all long-term and need serious attention to reduce the amount of waste we create in the first place.
Bottom of the heap
While we’re working on avoidance and reuse, we need to improve our domestic recycling system.
There are several ways to do this:
Increase domestic recycling capacity
The ministers also agreed to work together on expanding and developing our recycling industry. To do this, we need to focus on improving sorting, and reprocessing recyclables into materials that can be used for manufacturing. The recycling industry is advocating for new reprocessing facilities, but we need to develop local markets for recycled material at the same time to make sure we depend less on export markets.
Develop local markets
For recycling to happen, there needs to be a market for recycled content. The ministers agreed to advocate for more recycled materials in government procurement, such as recycled paper, road base, and construction materials. Procurement guidelines will be needed to ensure this goes ahead. Governments could take this a step further, and incentivise businesses to use recycled content in their products too.
Labelling products to indicate recycled content would also help generate demand from consumers.
Improve the quality of collected recyclables
This is an ongoing challenge, but will be essential for any future recycling pathways. Initiatives to achieve this were not detailed in the meeting. This will require upgrading our sorting facilities, and potentially improving our kerbside collection systems too.
Industry reports have suggested that re-introducing separate bins at the kerbside – or at least separating paper from glass – would greatly improve the quality of mixed paper compared with current co-mingled recycling. It would eliminate glass shards, which make re-milling paper much more difficult.
Container deposit schemes also provide an excellent opportunity to collect better-value recycling streams. South Australia developed its scheme way back in 1977 and similar schemes are finally being rolled out in New South Wales (“return and earn”), and will soon be followed by Queensland and Western Australia.
Labelling products with recycling instructions may also help with collection quality. Industry organisations APCO, Planet Ark and PREP Design recently launched a labelling scheme to help packaging designers increase the recyclability of their packaging, and to give consumers information on how to recycle it.
Waste to energy?
Finally, the ministers also identified the potential to develop “waste to energy projects” through existing energy funding channels. This strategy falls lower down the hierarchy than recycling, as materials are no longer available to recirculate in the economy.
Waste to energy projects can be complementary to recycling in processing genuine residual waste (contaminants separated from recyclables at sorting centres), to achieve very high levels of diversion. This is already required under the NSW EPA energy from waste policy. However, waste to energy is not a solution to a recycling crisis and should not be used to deal with recyclables that can no longer be exported to China. It is not a short-term option either, because Australia does not have a mature waste to energy sector, and investment needs to happen at the right scale to ensure that it is complementary to recycling.
Most of the strategies currently being pursued are sound in principle, although many of them need clearer plans for their funding and implementation, as well as ambitious targets.
We need a comprehensive range of short- and longer-term strategies if we are truly to get to grips with the recycling crisis. We should be wary of “silver bullets” such as waste to energy, or new export contracts that could undermine more sustainable long-term solutions.
The environment ministers agreed to update the National Waste Policy this year, incorporating circular economy principles, which is encouraging. This will be their opportunity to coordinate a nationally consistent response that promotes the development of resilient markets for recycled content, and reusable and re-manufactured products.
This will need to go beyond the current strong focus on recycling, and embrace the upper levels of the waste hierarchy. The next step will be to develop properly funded plans for implementing these changes.
Monique Retamal, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Jenni Downes, Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney