Biodiversity: China summit leadership is lacking, says UK economist

China is set to host a major biodiversity summit in 2022, but leading economist Partha Dasgupta says it is unclear what the country wants to achieve


24 December 2021

Partha Dasgupta

Partha Dasgupta

The author of a major UK government biodiversity report says he sees no sign that China is showing serious leadership on a vital international nature summit it is hosting next April.

The meeting, which is the biodiversity equivalent of the recent COP26 climate summit, aims to agree new measures to halt alarming declines in habitats and wildlife.

But Partha Dasgupta, and economist at the University of Cambridge, who this year called on governments to consider nature to be an economic asset, says it remains unclear what China wants the COP15 summit in Kunming to achieve. “I’m hoping against hope that China’s going to take a serious lead in this. It has the clout. It has the wit,” he says. But China’s message so far remains muted, he says. “I’ve seen no signal or sign.”

That said, Dasgupta believes China has already been taking on board his recommendation for governments to look beyond traditional measures of success, such as GDP, to ones that reflect the value of the natural world. “Several countries have taken the lead: Costa Rica, China, and the UK is pretty advanced in it too,” he says.

Despite pledges at COP26 to halt deforestation, biodiversity hotspots remain under huge pressure: Amazon deforestation rates recently hit a 15-year high, largely driven by cattle ranching.

Dasgupta says that protecting what he calls “global public goods”, such as the Amazon rainforest, in national jurisdictions will require major transfers of money to countries hosting those goods. “You need to pay for ecosystem services. If we want Brazil to protect them, with the president that they’ve got [Jair Bolsonaro], you have to pay up big money, because otherwise he’s going to convert them into more cattle ranches in the name of progress,” he says.

His report, which was likened to the influential 2006 Stern review on the economic case for preventing climate change, led the UK government to enshrine in law rules meaning major infrastructure projects in England will have to show a net gain for wildlife and habitats.

Dasgupta hopes the UK government will “systemise” the way it thinks about biodiversity loss, with the issue taken as seriously by economists in the Department for Transport and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office as it is in the environment department. But he points out that worldwide solutions are needed: “England is small beer [on biodiversity]. So many of the problems are global problems.”

Covid-19 has derailed international efforts to tackle biodiversity loss, with the Kunming meeting delayed three times already. There are fears it may be postponed again after the omicron coronavirus variant led to pre-summit negotiations scheduled for Geneva, Switzerland, in January to be delayed indefinitely.

The Chinese embassy in London didn’t respond to a request for comment before publication.

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