Restoring Sustainability to Tibet


A briefing to European Union Directorate-General on Environment, and EU Directorate-General on Climate, 4 April 2011
By Gabriel Lafitte, +613 407 840 333

Environmental impacts do not respect national boundaries; they are invariably transboundary issues. Eurasia is a single continent; Tibet is at its heart. The Tibetan Plateau is close to three per cent of the planetary land surface. Dust storms originating in the desertifying areas of Tibet affect not only downwind Beijing but also Japan and, across the North Pacific, Canada and the United States. Nuclear contamination from the Japanese Fukushima catastrophe has now reached Tibetan areas of Qinghai and Gansu provinces.

The EU response to these challenges has been modest, on a scale not commensurable with the needs of our times. Projects have been initiated, which will gradually provide valuable data about environmental dynamics in Tibet, which will better inform policy making. One example is the EU funded hydrological monitoring of Tibetan rivers and glacier melt, essential to verifying the basis of china’s perception of Tibet as “China’s Number One water Tower,” an odd imaginary since most of the Tibetan plateau is semi-arid, with only the highest peaks able to capture the small amounts of moisture in the atmosphere.

Such research may eventually tell us whether China is right in hoping for a dividend, at least throughout the 21st century, of extra runoff into its great rivers, due to glacier melt on the Tibetan plateau. That is what Chinese scientists have calculated, using computer simulation modelling, predicting much benefit to China if glacier melt continues, and also predicting that climate change will make the Tibetan plateau much more suitable for agriculture with Chinese characteristics, and greater forest coverage, well beyond what is now the natural limit of forest growth.
Such long term research has many uses, but in the shorter term China is making policy for the Tibetan plateau based on assumptions that climate change is beneficial, perhaps a reason why China is especially reluctant to follow the European lead and agree to specific pollutant discharge targets and quotas.

This in turn raises major issues, which are best understood on a regional and on a Eurasian continental scale. China is well aware that Europe and the international community are increasingly concerned at China’s emergence as the world’s biggest polluter and emitter of greenhouse gases. China’s new Five-Year Plan makes much of turning to renewable and nuclear power as alternatives to coal and oil, but the reality remains that China’s current consumption of three billion tons of coal a year will nonetheless increase to 3.8 billion tons by 2015, on China’s own figures. Similarly, China’s demand for raw materials of all kinds, from mineral ores to food, has pushed up prices globally, impoverishing tens of millions of already poor people across the developing world, cancelling out the good work of the EU and EU member states in aid projects that enhance food security in the third world.

One of China’s strategic responses to the anxiety of both the developed and developing world over the consequences of China’s voracious consumption has been to make much of the Tibetan Plateau an offset, a “green” zone, much of it designated as protected area, in the name of biodiversity conservation, watershed protection and climate change mitigation. From a Tibetan viewpoint, this is commendable, a welcome move towards fulfilling the vision the Dalai Lama announced as long ago as 1989 in Strasbourg, when he called for the Tibetan plateau to become a refuge for all sentient beings, human and animal, worldwide.

On the map, most of China’s protected areas are in Tibet, and the Chinese delegation to the EU in its April 2011 presentation on the merits of the 12th Five-year Plan went so far as to say that the conservation of Tibetan rivers, forests and grasslands does little to benefit Tibetans, that the beneficiaries are downstream, and those beneficiaries should compensate Tibet. The global concept of Payment for Environmental Services (PES) is now being heard for the first time, even if there is no mechanism or specific proposals. At least it means there is recognition that Tibetans are paying the opportunity cost of conserving their environment.

When Tibetans have a say –which is rarely- they almost always readily agree to accept this opportunity cost of not developing and industrialising the Tibetan Plateau. Almost without exception, Tibetans are deeply upset by the extraction of their resources, the widespread destruction of forests and wildlife, committed by nonTibetans in recent decades. In the many protests by Tibetans, all over the Tibetan Plateau since 2008, environmental concerns have been uppermost, with many accusations that mining and hydro damming are theft, since the beneficiaries are far distant, and the environmental costs of dam-induced earthquakes and mine tailing leaching are borne by the Tibetans.

Tibetans are also deeply concerned that China’s rhetoric of watershed protection has, as its main method (not just an unforeseen consequence) the exclusion of nomads en masse from their vast pasture lands, almost the size of Western Europe. China recently extended eastwards its biggest protected area to include the four Tibetan nomadic prefectures of Qinghai province which constitute the Sanjiangyuan, or Three River Source Area, from which nomads are to be removed, or have already been moved to concrete barrack housing far from their ancestral grazing lands. China’s use of environmental language is deeply problematic. China says the displaced nomads are “ecological migrants” who have voluntarily sold all their animals, surrendered their long-term land-use certificates and lost their livelihoods. This is factually incorrect, unless voluntary means the actions of desperately poor people, impoverished by tightly disciplinary regulation of land size, herd size, family size, compulsory and expensive fencing and housing, to sell their remaining animals in order to feed themselves tomorrow.

Many scientific research reports say climate warming in Tibet, as with the North and South Poles, is happening faster than elsewhere in the world. Permafrost is shrinking at an alarming rate, and the glaciers are melting. The early seasonal thawing of permafrost means ice in the earth turns to water and drains away too early in the growing season for plant roots to reach it. The result is death of wetland vegetation and also crops fail to thrive. Climate change is already having many negative impacts on Tibet, yet climate change simulations by Chinese scientists cheerfully predict that a rise in temperature of four degrees would make the Tibetan Plateau much more supportive of farming with Chinese characteristics.Climate change is good for China’s Tibet

These are all issues in which Europe has a natural stake. The heart of Eurasia is the planetary Third Pole, which also heats sufficiently in summer to pull deep inland the monsoons of South, Southeast and East Asia. The Tibetan Plateau is the engine of much of the northern hemispheric climate, and should be treated as a single entity, as science already does, rather than fracturing it artificially into several Chinese provinces, with only the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) considered to be Tibet, even though it is only half the plateau area.

The EU, as the western part of Eurasia, has a natural and proper interest in Eurasia’s core, a vast island in the sky of global significance. In the upcoming 7th EU EAP, this calls for a more comprehensive response. EU funded projects in Tibet, such as CEOP-AEGIS and RETPEC, the previous EU TAR Panam agricultural intensification project or the EU Qinghai potato project, make modest contributions to improving livelihoods, increasing scientific data, even attempting to persuade Chinese officials to listen, for the first time, to nomads, as RETPEC (coordinated by Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, Aberdeen) tried to do. But the time has come for a bolder approach, for the sake of our common planet.

Fortunately, it is possible to envisage an alternative approach that meets the needs of all stakeholders: the government of China, the Tibetan people, the EU and the planet. Although win/win rhetoric is common, it is not often that the core interests of all parties are in reality aligned, but right now there is a fortunate conjunction of causes and conditions which is most auspicious.

The whole of the Tibetan Plateau should be made a protected area, a global commons for protection of biodiversity, watersheds and the livelihoods of skilfully mobile pastoralists whose rangeland management practices were sustainable and productive for 9000 years. The only exception would be the Tsaidam basin of Qinghai province (Amdo Tsonub in Tibetan), where China already has a substantial oil and gas extraction base, salt harvesting, refineries and petrochemical plants, providing China with chemical fertilisers, plastics, fuels and minerals such as asbestos, magnesium, lithium and potash. But Tsaidam is the only industrialised area on the Tibetan Plateau, though China does still see industrialisation as the only path to civilisation, development and prosperity. In fact, China’s 12th Five-Year Plan in Tibet specifically calls for large scale mining and smelting of copper and gold in several locations in TAR, also extensive hydro damming for smelters and downstream users, and the settlement of nearly all the two million (or more) nomads into permanent housing, usually far from their grazing lands.

China’s policy towards Tibet remains conflicted, inconsistent, and even contradictory. China is deeply ambivalent towards Tibet, promoting both conservation, on a grand scale, and industrialisation. Tibetans in exile have often supposed China is extracting the entire mineral and water wealth of Tibet, but until now, despite frequent announcements in official Chinese media of multiple mines, actual exploitation has been limited. Soon this may no longer be so, as China begins implementation of its 2011-2015 12th Five-Year Plan. Tibet is on the cusp.

Industrialisation is seen by China as necessary, even while more and more of the plateau is set aside as protected area. China says development is the answer to all problems in Tibet, including the political problems of establishing trust between people and authority. Industrialisation and development as manifested in China’s plans, all mean intensification and concentration of people and finance into small areas best endowed with factors of production. China in its 9th Five-Year Plan for Tibet (1996-2000) explicitly announced the basic strategy is to transform Tibet from extensive to intensive development. For environmental reasons, this is a profound mistake. The third pole of the planet is suitable only for extensive land use, and cannot sustain intensification, with the whole population, including the displaced nomads, concentrated in urban centres. Tibet cannot sustain the increase in population, which is now 11 million or more, almost double the historic limit.

If China can be persuaded, through scientific evidence, that the best economic and ecological future for the Tibetan Plateau is as a conservation zone, this can build a post-productivist economy based on restoring pastoral nomadic mobility as the most skilful way of achieving conservation goals. This would return Tibet to extensive land use, which is light and soft, always moving on, before the grasslands are exhausted. The Tibetan plateau is an excellent example of the validity of Article 8 (j) of the Convention on Biodiversity, which emphasises that indigenous people have the best record in conserving biodiversity, and that their traditions should be supported by the international community.

The outcome of such a shift would benefit all concerned. China would be able to proclaim the whole Tibetan Plateau as an offset for its emissions and global impact on climate. China already does so; this is a matter of further scaling up what is already happening. Ways of calculating the environmental services provided by the Tibetan plateau, to Asian water supply and global climate, do exist. Figures can be calculated, the methodologies exist. The concept of REDD – reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation- is well established and is almost certain to be inbuilt in any post-Kyoto global agreement on effectively controlling climate change. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan for Tibet announced almost no budget for rehabilitation of degrading grasslands. The only “treatment” for degradation is the utter exclusion of the nomads. A more socially inclusive, income-generating and poverty alleviating way of protecting Tibet and rehabilitating the grasslands is to pay the pastoralists to do the labour intensive work of sowing grass seeds, tending young forests recovering from decades of Chinese logging, adopting community forestry as the method.

Even if China declared all of the Tibetan Plateau a protected area, this would hardly leave China free to accelerate its fossil fuel energy use. China’s current Five-Year plan envisages coal consumption rising by a further 800 million tons a year by 2015, above the current extraordinary coal addiction, of 3000 million tons a year. This remains unsustainable, and requires further response beyond deciding Tibet is a globally important landscape best protected.

The world would gain the planet its’ biggest protected area, which can also sustain its population of nomadic pastoralists whose livestock production has not been a net addition to carbon emissions. International finance from EU and elsewhere to restore degraded rangelands would restore the capacity of the Tibetan Plateau to capture carbon, especially if the drying and drained wetlands are rehabilitated, covering a large area now desiccating due to climate change and Chinese drainage.

The Tibetans would regain a physical and cultural space in which their traditional land use regains respect, and is understood once more as sustainable and supportive of biodiversity conservation, since wild herds traditionally mingled freely with the nomads’ herds of yak, sheep and goats. The return of extensive land use would enable an ecotourism boom, in natural and rehabilitated landscapes, a post-productivist future akin to the EU Natura 2000 program, or the post productivist economy of Scotland, Arctic Canada or monsoonal Australia. If rural Tibetans receive income from their tourism enterprises, and from payment for the environmental services they provide Asia and the planet, their security and collective right to development is assured, in a post-productivist, post-industrial economy.
China could regain moral leadership of the developing world, demonstrating in practice that it embraces the New Range Ecology, setting an example to governments of nomadic drylands on several continents. China defines its strategy in Tibet as “leap-and-bound” development. To leap:
• from pre-industrial to post-industrial,
• from unsustainable intensive land use back to sustainable extensive nomadic land use,
• from exclusion of nomads, loss of food production and food security to social inclusion of nomads as the guardians and stewards of nature.
All these would make China a world leader.

This is a chance for a win/win all round. EU DG ENVIR and CLIMA should investigate this singular opportunity to ensure there remains on this earth a substantial area, a vast plateau close to the sky, dedicated to fulfilling environmental goals and providing environmental services directly to all of Asia, through water supply and climate dynamics, and to the whole planet.

The 2011 review of the EU 6th Environmental Action Program, which ends in 2012, says: “In the international area despite efforts, only limited progress has been made towards the 6EAP objective of integrating environmental concerns in the EU’s development, trade and neighbourhood policies. Limited progress has also been made in relation to the 6EAP objectives of promoting sustainable environmental practices in foreign investment and export credits.” Nowhere has progress been so limited as in the case of China, where galloping resource consumption and accelerating pollution negate all the good efforts of European governments and citizens to reduce their environmental footprint. Hopefully the EU’s next Environmental Action Program will be more successful.

This is an opportunity for bold initiative, for a game changer, for ensuring that Europe’s hard work to reduce emissions is not wiped out by China’s industrialisation.