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Life guards by law


Legal protection of biodiversity has made significant achievements in China in recent years

The 15th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity aims to promote the building of an ecological civilization and strive to realize the sustainable use and benefit sharing of biodiversity and "harmonious coexistence between man and nature" by 2050, as proposed by the convention.

The meeting, whose theme is "Ecological Civilization: Building a Community for Life on Earth", will review the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and set new targets for global biodiversity by 2030.

That China is hosting the COP 15 for the first time not only reflects the importance it attaches to biodiversity conservation and its sustainable use in recent years, but is recognition of the important achievements it has made in biodiversity conservation.

Given its vast territory, complex landforms such as forests, grasslands, lakes, wetlands, deserts and other types of ecosystems, diverse climate types and abundant species and genetic resources, China is one of the 12 countries with the richest biodiversity. While that is valuable wealth, it also substantially increases the difficulty of conservation.

Past political preference for economic development over environmental protection has seriously damaged China's biodiversity resources. Also, the melting glaciers, rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather events and other problems brought by global warming have further aggravated the destruction of its ecosystems, and caused a major hindrance to biodiversity conservation. China is one of the countries where biodiversity is threatened most seriously.

The China National Biodiversity Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (2011-30) talks of degradation of some ecosystem functions in China, the aggravation of species endangerment and the loss of genetic resources. There is need to increase the country's protection of its biodiversity and maintain its ecological balance. How to strengthen the protection and sustainable use of biodiversity is a test of our wisdom.

Since becoming a party to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, China has introduced a number of policies to promote biodiversity conservation. China's Action Plan for Biodiversity Conservation, issued in 1994, is the first program document on biodiversity conservation in the country. Then there is the National Plan for Developing Functional Zones, the China Action Plan for the International Year of Biodiversity, the China Biodiversity Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (2011-30), and the Master Plan for Major Projects to Protect and Restore Major Ecosystems Nationwide (2021-35).

The China National Committee for Biodiversity Conservation was established in 2011 to coordinate biodiversity conservation work among various departments and strengthen the top-level design for biodiversity conservation and its sustainable use.

Meanwhile, in order to integrate the functions of existing institutions and departments, the Action Plan on Deeper Reform of the Party and State Institutions, released in 2018, proposed the establishment of a series of institutions, including the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the Ministry of Natural Resources, and the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, to adapt to the new development of the building of an ecological civilization.

In recent years, China has also tried to perfect its legal system with regard to biodiversity conservation. It has changed its status from being a "follower" to an "important participant", and then a "positive contributor", in keeping with the Convention's requirements. This is deemed as a historic leap, marking the preliminary establishment of a biodiversity protection system of law.

China's biodiversity protection laws and system of regulations include both comprehensive legislation, such as the Environmental Protection Law, which includes biodiversity protection provisions, and a number of separate laws, administrative regulations, departmental rules and local regulations, such as the Biosecurity Law and Wildlife Protection Law, as well as judicial interpretations related to biodiversity protection formulated by the Supreme People's Court.

At the same time, many positive explorations have also been made on a special legislation for biodiversity protection, leading to the successful formulation of the Yunnan Regulations on Biodiversity Protection and other special local laws and regulations.

Access to justice is the most powerful tool for biodiversity conservation. Judicial protection of biodiversity in China has made significant achievements. First, environmental justice specialization enhances biodiversity conservation. Environmental justice specialization includes specialization of judicial institutions, specialization of adjudicators, and integration of trial mode, etc. China has set up environmental and resources tribunals, which accept cases pertaining to the protection of biodiversity. Also, as an important means to protect the environment and realize the environmental rights and interests, the environmental public interest litigation mechanism has been established.

In 2015, the Supreme People's Court issued the Interpretation on Several Issues concerning the Application of Laws to the Trial of Environmental Civil Public Interest Litigation Cases, marking the establishment of environmental public interest litigation at the legislative level.

The development and improvement of environmental public interest litigation in China has promoted the protection of biodiversity. According to recent report of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, in judicial practice, there have been many public interest litigation cases related to biodiversity, such as wetlands, woodlands and endangered animals and plants.

China's Criminal Law and Wildlife Protection Law, as well as many other laws, include the provision of imposing criminal penalty on those harming the conservation of biodiversity. The Interpretation of Several Issues on The Specific Application of Law in the Trial of Criminal Cases of Destruction of Wildlife Resources, issued by the Supreme People's Court, further strengthened the applicability of the punishment means. The use of penal means reflects the State's seriousness about cracking down on those destroying biodiversity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a global rethink on the relationship between man and nature, and increased attention toward the conservation of biodiversity. The COP 15 is a platform for exchanges and cooperation. We should seize this opportunity to promote international cooperation on biodiversity conservation and achieve the goals of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The author is a distinguished professor of law and serves as director of the Research Institute of Environmental Law at Wuhan University, and vice-president and secretary-general of the Chinese Society of Environment and Resources Law. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn