China’s land-use policies could threaten biodiversity, study claims

large birds fly out of grassland area

A new study suggests that, unless China changes its land-use planning institutions and governance, urban expansion in the country will significantly impinge on habitats critical for biodiversity, according to researchers from Texas A&M University, Virginia Tech, and Yale University. Their work is published online first in Ambio, A Journal of Human Environment.

The researchers predict that by 2030, urban land in China will reach about 162,000 square miles, or 420,000 square km. This is about the size of Iraq and corresponds to a 400 percent increase in urban land over 30 years.

“The growth in urban areas will increase pressure on the already stressed protected areas and the biodiversity hotspots in the country,” says Burak Güneralp, lead author of the study and a research assistant professor in geography at Texas A&M.

Protected areas, whose boundaries are under legal protection, are designated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values. Biodiversity hotspots refer to regions that have many endemic species under continuing habitat loss or degradation and they lack official designation.

“Our analysis shows that most provinces are expected to experience urban expansion either near their protected areas or in biodiversity hotspots.  In a few provinces such as Guangdong in the south, urban expansion is likely to encroach upon both protected areas and biodiversity hotspots. Such encroachment leads to fragmentation or complete loss of habitats, reduces native species richness, and impedes their dispersal. It can also facilitate colonization by introduced species often at the cost of native species,” says Güneralp.

The researchers examined historical patterns of urban population growth and expansion, and used forecasts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on gross domestic product and projections by the United Nations on urban population growth for their analysis.

“China’s urbanization patterns present a formidable challenge to the goal of biodiversity conservation, one that requires more effective land use planning and regulation, especially at the regional and provincial level,” says Andrew Perlstein, second author of the study and assistant director at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability at Virginia Tech.

“China’s entire planning system, encompassing various government agencies that formulate and approve land use plans, will need to place a much greater emphasis on conservation in order for biodiversity hotspots and designated protected areas to stand a chance of fulfilling their intended purpose.”

The land and fiscal policy reforms in the 1980s and 1990s created an institutional environment in which local governments increasingly came to rely on land leasing to raise revenue, the study says. This resulted in rapid expansion of urban areas which, despite further reforms to stem the trend, continues almost unabated.

“There is clearly a need for China to integrate the goal of well-functioning cities with that of well-functioning ecosystems,” says Perlstein. “Regional and provincial-level plans and decisions could do more to incorporate ecological considerations and then effectively regulate development decisions at the municipal level. These are two, very challenging steps to achieve, as Chinese municipal governments have for decades turned to rapid urban development as a key source of revenue.”

China’s recently unveiled urbanization plan recognizes the over-reliance of local governments on land leasing as a source of revenue. However, despite its lofty goals, it is uncertain if the plan will lead to any significant changes in the planning practices, the researchers note.

“China needs to reform its land use planning system in order to protect the country’s rich biological and ecological resources,” says Karen Seto, third author of the study and professor at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

“However, the window of opportunity to do so is quickly closing as cities and their infrastructures continue to expand.”

The full paper can be viewed at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13280-015-0625-0 .

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