Balancing the books to advance nature in urban development


“Ecological Civilization”, or living in harmony with nature, is now a driving tenant of national development in China. Many Chinese cities are now pioneering and promoting the "greening" of urban spaces and using nature-based solutions (NbS) to urban challenges, for example, to mitigate the effects of urban heating, improve air quality and create pleasant environments for people to enjoy. 
NbS like creating green areas around the city, urban forests and street trees, green roofs, and rain gardens can be more cost-effective and deliver a wider range of benefits, compared to investing in grey infrastructure solutions. Urban nature also serves to enhance the physical and mental well-being of those living in cities. However, for urban planners and policy makers to effectively integrate nature into their decision-making processes, they require regular and consistent information on the local state of nature and the benefits of pursuing NbS. This need is closely related to urban climate change adaptation and mitigation. 
Urban ecosystem accounting, a system used to assess the status of urban nature and track the benefit it can bring to urban settings, is one of the innovative methods tested in many Chinese cities to provide this information. However, urban NbS are new to many, and capacity needs to be developed across municipal governments to incorporate nature into cities and understand how urban ecosystem accounts can help. 

For these reasons, in support of the Sino-German Biodiversity Component implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) partnered with Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences, Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences and Foreign Environmental Cooperation Center under China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment. This partnership delivered a targeted training project to build capacity in using urban ecosystem accounting, to better integrate nature into cities.  

The project aimed to:  

  1. Build understanding among professionals and practitioners from local governments’ environment, natural resources and statistics departments, academia, financial institutions, private sector and civil society about using nature to address urban development challenges 
  1. Increase capacity across urban planners, financers, and development decision makers to understand concepts related to NbS, natural capital and ecosystem services in the context of overcoming urban development challenges 
  1. Demonstrate the potential of urban ecosystem accounting to provide consistent and regular information on the state of urban nature, and the benefits it provides that decision-makers need to integrate it into their planning processes.    

This was achieved through the creation of two handbooks and the delivery of six associated workshop sessions under the handbook topics.  These were aimed at decision makers and stakeholders in the natural resource management domain, ranging from municipal government departments, planning departments, budgetary offices to private sector and civil society actors who may use urban ecosystem accounts.  It was also aimed at those in government offices, research institutes and other organisations likely to be involved in producing urban ecosystem accounts.  
The first handbook, “Urban Ecosystem Accounting: Concepts and implementation”, explained why we need more nature in cities, described what urban ecosystem accounting is and how it should be implemented. The second handbook, “Urban Ecosystem Accounting: Application”, provides state of the art applications of urban ecosystem accounting in China and from across the world, and included methods, resources, and real-world examples. These included case studies applying urban ecosystem accounting to integrate nature into urban planning in Beijing and Shenzhen in China, as well Oslo, Norway and urban areas in the UK  

The handbooks and workshops highlight these international experiences in order to develop a shared understanding of urban ecosystem accounting concepts, structures, and applications, and the different possibilities of applying generated accounts to address key urban development challenges and goals, like developing green spaces and water purification in urban areas. 

The project ran between September 2019 and April 2022, during the course of which more than 500 people joined the workshops from total of 61 cities across China. Participants were from a diverse range of background, including government departments and affiliated agencies, businesses and industry associations, academia, international organisations and NGOs, and financial institutions. 

“The long-term goal of urban ecosystem accounting is to reveal that urban nature conservation and restoration is an investment opportunity, rather than a cost – thereby demonstrating the case to redirect financing towards urban nature conservation, NbS and green infrastructure, away from grey infrastructure and activities that damage urban nature. As such, urban ecosystem accounting is key information tool for achieving sustainable cities, living in harmony with nature.” Steven King, Senior Environmental Economist, UNEP-WCMC; Technical Lead for Urban Ecosystem Accounting Sub-project under the Sino-German Biodiversity Component.  

”It was fantastic to see such a high-level of enthusiasm from cities across China to join our workshop sessions. The interactions during and after these sessions certainly indicate a strong need from policy makers, practitioners, investors and civil society for exploring how urban ecosystem accounting could be used as a tool for sustainable planning and developments within cities. We look forward to further disseminate this work and help more cities across China and beyond to be able to use ecosystem accounting for better integrate nature and people into their decision making.” Han Meng, UNEP-WCMC China Officer; Principal Advisor for the Sino-German Biodiversity Component. 

“The cooperation between China and Germany on biodiversity comes at a critical time. Despite national and international efforts, the loss of biodiversity is progressing faster than ever before, and it is increasingly jeopardizing human livelihoods. Since 2013, the Sino-German Environmental Partnership (SGEP) has supported the bilateral dialogue between the German and Chinese environmental protection ministries and its affiliated institutions. The Sino-German Biodiversity Component (SGBC) became a key focus of the cooperation and has gained great partners. The outstanding competence of the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) partnered with the Chinese expertise of the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences (NIES), the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences (CRAES) and the Foreign Environmental Cooperation Center (FECO) under China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) has generated great results and will help to implement the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. We are very proud of the successful project on which fruitful cooperation can be continued in the future.” Christian Stärz, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH; Project Director of the Sino-German Environmental Partnership (SGEP). 

The Sino-German Biodiversity Component (SGBC) under the Sino-German Environmental Partnership (SGEP) Phase II is funded through the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV) of the Federal Republic of Germany and implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. Urban Ecosystem Accounting is one of the three sub-projects under SGBC.  

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