China’s innovative NBS way forward – beyond planting trees

While China’s climate challenges and solutions have been heavily focused on energy production and consumption, more recently and gradually nature-based solutions (NBS) are getting more traction at both the policy level and in climate...

While China’s climate challenges and solutions have been heavily focused on energy production and consumption, more recently and gradually nature-based solutions (NBS) are getting more traction at both the policy level and in climate mitigation and adaptation actions on the ground. Innovative NBS are not only enlarging the scope of China’s climate actions, but also shedding new lights on a harmonious co-existence between humans and nature.         

NBS and China – International engagement and domestic actions

Given the large-scale and urgent needs for both mitigation and adaptation as well as an increasing focus on an integrated approach to addressing the links between climate change and biodiversity, NBS has already become an important element of China’s international engagement and domestic actions.   

China is the largest agricultural economy globally, consuming and supplying more than 50% of the world’s pork, as well as supplying more than 30% of horticultural products, rice and cotton, and close to 20% of the world’s wheat, maize and poultry[1]. The Chinese agriculture sector is using almost 60 million tonnes of chemical fertilisers a year, i.e. more than 30 % of the global total.[2]  GHG emissions from the agricultural sector has been increasing and the major sources are rice paddies, livestock production, manure management as well as Nitrogen fertilization.[3]

NBS in agriculture for climate, biodiversity and health

Given the projected significant increases of methane emission from livestock and nitrous oxide emissions from cropland, efficient and innovative NBS applications in the agricultural sectors are of great importance for China’s climate actions, in terms of both mitigation and adaptation. For instance, the Chinese government has set a goal of achieving zero growth of chemical fertiliser use, which has already been achieved. Overuse of chemical pesticides in the farming sector reduce the biodiversity, potentially harming important ecosystem services and human health. According to the IUCN Red List, over 1000 plants and animal species are threatened in China. The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture is now promoting the use of biological pest control methods and stress that the usage of chemical insecticides should be for emergency use only.[5]

Figure. GHG Emissions from Agriculture Section in China[4]

As another interesting example of NBS-oriented food production, in 2015, China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO), China’s largest food manufacturer, launched a high-tech vertical farm in a suburban area of Beijing to demonstrate modern urban agriculture. It plans to build at least 300 organic indoor farms in Chinese cities, starting from metropolitan hubs such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Sweden has also been piloting vertical farming in cities, thus creating local and energy-efficient food close to cities.

“Sweden is already considered having one of the world’s most sustainable agriculture sectors. The production of diary, beef and egg in Sweden has among the lowest greenhouse gas emissions within the EU. One way of using NBS in agriculture is increasing carbon sink from farmed land by circulating crop with other greens, through which carbon sink can be increased by up to 1.5 million ton CO2 equivalents on an annual basis by 2045, while reducing excessive leaching of nutrients at the same time..”

Magnus Carnwall, Counsellor for Agriculture and Forestry,  Embassy of Sweden, Beijing

NBS and urban development – innovative approaches in Europe and in China

China’s urbanization is set to continue at a swift pace. It’s estimated that by 2025 around 350 million people will become urban residents in China.[6] Innovative ways of addressing challenges of urban areas and enhancing the living environment and health of the urban residents, can in many ways be derived from nature. From a research and innovation perspective, EU Member States, including Sweden have already some knowledge- and innovation intensive good practices to share.    

The EU Research and Innovation policy agenda on Nature-Based Solutions and Re-Naturing Cities aims to position the EU as leader in ‘Innovating with nature’ for more sustainable and resilient societies. In this context, nature- based solutions to societal challenges is defined as “as solutions that are inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience.

Figure: Overview of NBS-related projects in Horizon 2020. Source: Nature-based solutions handbook, ThinkNature Project (H2020-SC5-2016-2017)

Nature4Cities is one of the research programs in the Horizon 2020 to build a common ground for “NBS & Re-Naturing Cities”. The Swedish city of Malmö is one of the EU cities involved in the NBS & Re-Naturing Cities. By introducing NBS in the city area, biodiversity increased by 50% and the impact on the environment decreased by 20 percent.[7]

In China, the State Forestry Administration launched the National Forest City initiative in 2004. By 2025, there will be 300 state-level forest cities in China with the aim of raising public awareness and creating strong citizen engagement in climate actions and ecological protection.   

Interestingly, some Chinese cities are already involved in EU-China research and innovation cooperation on NBS for urban development.

R&D and Demonstration projects on NBS funded by the EU with Chinese participation[8]

Green finance and natural capital account– innovative financing for NBS

One of the key, but also hard, lessons learned from implementation of climate- and environment-related actions and measures is no money, no action. At the same time, a growing trend is that economic thinking and market-based mechanisms are integrated into policy mixes and action plans in a more innovative way and in an earlier stage – rather than only relying on and waiting for public investments and subsidies. This trend is, encouragingly, also emerging in China’s green finance development and macroeconomic  policy thinking. For instance:

  • Green agriculture, sustainable forestry and natural resource protection and environmental restoration have already been included in China’s Green Credit Definition and standard, set by China Banking Regulatory Commission.
  • In line with both European and international taxonomies, sustainable agriculture and forestry are also included in China’s green bond standards.   
  • Resource-efficient and organic farming as well as climate-friendly protein/meat substitutes are encouraged and expected to be new and attractive green investment options.  

Even more interestingly, natural capital accounting and evaluation has become a new focus of macroeconomic policy research. For instance, some of China’s top-level policy researchers and advisors are currently carrying out research on evaluation and “monetization” of ecosystem services of air, water, forest and soil and incorporating it into a green national accounts system.  Results from this type of research could be a starting point for, not only partially greening, but truly mainstreaming macroeconomic frameworks as well as fiscal and monetary policy tools for an NBS-based green transformation!    

China’s and the global climate- and environment challenges require innovative and diversified solutions. In the coming years, climate actions will, more and more, become an integrated part of a “co-benefits creation process”, to align with other main environmental and ecological improvements.  Climate actions will also, more and more, become a “co-existence harmonization process” to bring human and nature closer together.  In this context, NBS will be an inspiring source for the sustainable transformation and a paradigmatic shift of our view on our future and the planet’s future.

Nannan Lundin, Matilde Eng and Linnea Yang


[1] https://www.businesswire.com/

[2] https://chinadialogue.net/

[3] https://www.globalmethane.org/

[4] https://www.globalmethane.org/

[5] http://www.moa.gov.cn/

[6] https://www.mckinsey.com/

[7] Final Report of the Horizon 2020 Expert Group on ‘Nature-Based Solutions and Re-Naturing Cities’. https://op.europa.eu/

[8] https://ec.europa.eu/

Theme image: iucn.org