The American University of Beirut took part in the ninth annual Ecosystem Services Partnership (ESP) conference held in Shenzhen, China between 11 and 15 December. This article presents both some thoughts on city development and climate change, as well as an overview of the conference and its relevance.
Having the opportunity to attend an international conference 4,300 kilometers away from home is not how I ever would have imagined spending the holidays. Coming from a place where absurdity and randomness reigns, China looks like it knows exactly what it is doing. The trip offered a packed experience of ‘wow’ moments in a country where people and services are plentiful and ridiculously organized, facilitating far commuting distances and enabling a feeling of safety.
Thoughts on the city of Shenzhen,China
“I hadn’t understood how it is stated that only 50 percent of the world is urbanized, meaning that another 50 percent is still to be turned into cities. Well, until I came here,” said a speaker at ESP.
Shenzhen was given the city status in the 1980s when being categorized as a Special Economic Zone, embracing capitalist ideology. The then-market town located in the southern area of the Guangdong province was populated by 30,000 individuals in the 80s, ultimately becoming one of the fastest growing cities in the world with a total population count of 10,357,989 in 2010 (of which millions of internal migrant workers live in factory housings).
Shenzhen is a flagrant applied example of the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKZ), the hypothesis which suggests that pollution increases in the early stages of industrialization and economic development, but decreases afterwards. The area was once a space for economic input, and environmental degradation was prominent from natural resource extraction to high levels of air pollution and water pollution from industrial activities. As the city’s population and income increased, and as technology progressed, scientific interventions coupled with landscape planning allowed for the ongoing environmental rehabilitation of the new city.
As the economy grew, the government saw an opportunity to transform Shenzhen into the new Hong Kong, which shares the city’s southern border.
Development includes environmental management systems like wastewater treatment plants, ecological restoration sites like the Oct Wetland Park and Shenzhen Bay Park’s mangrove,and thorough landscaping with huge parks for sports and leisure like the International Garden and Flower Expo Park.
Technology has well-served the cause on both the local and global level, as for example, public transportation is based on electricity instead of fossil fuels.
Although such measures are taken, Shenzhen was still visibly polluted with the high particle pollution concentration in the air causing a feel of respiratory congestion, and stagnant waters looking turbid or green. Landscape beautification is significant, with workers all over the city doing maintenance work on trees and shrubs in streets and in parks. Nature looks clean and structured and to a certain degree, overdone and fake.
What comes to mind is frightening: All over the world, the norm is to strip lands of what is needed, abuse the given spaces, and then come up with new landscaping projects that stink with layers that have “human” prints all over them. What is the morale from this city’s influential transformation?
With such efforts being done, will new cities be a chance to rehabilitate the natural environment, be environmentally responsible and finally mitigate climate change? Or will technology advances justify further land cover changes?
ESP Conference of 2017, Shenzhen China
The ESP conference tackled environmental solutions based on ecosystem services under the theme of “Ecosystem Services for Eco-civilization: Restoring connections between people and landscapes through nature-based solutions.” The conference, held between 11 and 15 December, included a number of keynote speakers such as H.R.H. Princess Basma Bint Ali of Jordan, Professor Bai-Lian Li from the University of California, and ESP founders Rudolf Degroot and Robert Costanza. Parallel sessions covered a series of academic discussions that ESP categorizes in working, sectoral, and thematic groups.
Attended by over 400 individuals, the lectures revolved around the theory, policy, and practice of ecosystem services. The talks also introduced a variety of geographically specific problems, and assessment methods that can be generalized. They were also quite technical, with research-based assessments and solution-oriented discussions mainly reaching an audience of scientific scholars and “how to explain ecosystem services and environmental problems for people who need this information in simple terms” being recognized as a main challenge during the opening session.
The conference talks and the commonly-attended sessions felt like the pre-Brundtland report period, as words and discussions mostly focused on the technical perspective on environmental sustainability. Numbers and figures were meant to explain and monetize nature and its relation to humans, without recognizing the effect of humans on nature and environmental changes.
As a contemporary research subject that is progressing at a fast pace, ecosystem services should put a bigger emphasis on social sustainability, including the coverage of public health issues and the recognition of the interrelationship between problems and solutions on different social levels.
For a more social approach, ecosystem services would embrace notions of anthropology, and recognize community-based struggles when considering this field of studies. ‘Ecosystem services’ should be used to advocate for shared responsibility of global environmental problems, with conferences such as the one hosted by ESP having the ability to promote and educate on nature’s public goods and climate change.
Currently, the ESP is planning the first regional conference for the Middle East and North African countries. The 2018 ESP MENA Conference would be hosted in Aprilat the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar in Jordan, Dead Sea, at the lowest point on earth. The conference is being organized in cooperation with Jordan’s Royal Botanic Garden and Professor Salma Talhouk from AUB, and offers a chance for academics around the region to share knowledge and shape the fate of how the ‘ecosystem services’ concept is applied in our countries.