Imagine if a country mobilized tens of thousands of people to reforest an area the size of Ireland within a year. This and other seemingly incomprehensible scenarios are a reality in China. A massively ambitious effort to become “the ecological civilization of the 21st Century” has driven the Middle Kingdom to commit more than a trillion dollars to environmental investments, limit development on nearly half of its total land area and pay 200 million people to restore landscapes, change farming practices or move out of sensitive areas.

In a step toward more accurate and efficient monitoring of the country’s sweeping conservation plans, the Chinese Academy of Sciences recently partnered with the Stanford-based Natural Capital Project, an initiative that works to integrate into major decisions the value nature provides society. The initiative works directly with scientists, resource managers and decision-makers in more than 60 countries, and its open-source decision-support software is used in all but ten countries around the world.

Through the new partnership, the Chinese Academy of Sciences will strengthen its ongoing collaboration with the Natural Capital Project, while also co-leading research, trainings in China, data acquisition, modeling of nature’s values to people and other endeavors.

“These pioneering approaches to green, inclusive growth have great relevance in developed and developing countries all around the world,” said Natural Capital Project faculty director and Stanford biologist Gretchen Daily (read more about Daily and her work). “Many are looking to China for guidance.”

“Decision-makers in China keep asking two questions: where must we protect to secure future prosperity and well-being, and where can we use for urbanization, infrastructure and other development?” said Zhiyun Ouyang, director of the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “The Natural Capital Project’s ideas, model and software platform can help answer these questions.”

A delegation of Chinese officials, including the mayors of Lishui and Fuzhou cities, representing a combined population of more than 10 million, will attend the Natural Capital Project’s annual symposium on Stanford campus March 19-22. The event convenes hundreds of international participants from over 30 countries for presentations, working groups and training sessions.

Undoing an ecological bust

As China’s economy has expanded, its natural resources have suffered. Heavy industry and manufacturing have shrouded cities in smog, tainted drinking water and created other complicated challenges.

To move in a new direction, the country has invested billions of dollars in pioneering initiatives to restore landscapes, waterways and air quality, while alleviating poverty. Key to these efforts is a project to rezone the entire country to account for services provided by natural assets. That’s where the Natural Capital Project comes in. Using the initiative’s Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs (InVEST) modeling software, Chinese scientists are identifying areas throughout the country crucial for clean water, reliable hydropower, flood control, climate stabilization and other precious services. The software is also providing insight into demographics, ecologically beneficial and harmful economic activities, and investment scenarios that could create sustainable livelihoods for rural people.

Four thousand Chinese scientists have been trained to use Natural Capital Project tools to guide land use, infrastructure investment and siting, urban planning, investment in water supplies, and other realms of decision-making. Big-picture goals for this work range from creating performance metrics, such as the “Gross Ecosystem Product” – a new way to measure the contribution of nature to human well-being – to establishing a new national park system.

“In our work together, we are able to create highly ambitious new science and policy approaches to green, inclusive growth – and we are given scope to road-test them at scale,” said Daily, who is also Bing Professor in Environmental Science.

Realizing green growth

Investments inspired by Natural Capital Project data appear to be paying off. Increased tree and plant cover are combatting a long trend of deforestation, which contributes to rural poverty and catastrophic flooding. China now has the highest rate of reforestation in the world.  Significant improvements in soil retention and flood mitigation mean that new tree and plant cover are successfully absorbing rainwater and holding onto soil, making people who live in flood-prone areas safer, securing hydropower and improving irrigation and drinking water quality.

“China is showing how funding and government leadership can restore ecosystem services, improve people’s livelihoods and create greater security for businesses,” Daily said. “This is a case study for the world.”

Daily is a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. The Natural Capital Project is a joint effort among Stanford (through the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment), the University of Minnesota, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and 250 collaborating institutions globally.