2022 Beijing Winter Olympics: Biodiversity On A Slippery Slope?

On 31 July there were celebrations in Beijing when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that China’s capital city would host the 2022 Winter Olympics.  After the hugely successful 2008 Summer Games, the decision meant that Beijing would become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics.  That is most certainly something of which Beijingers should be proud.

However, it soon became apparent that the proposed downhill ski site falls within one of only two national nature reserves in Beijing – Songshan.  The Songshan reserve comprises two peaks – Da (Big) Haituo and Xiao (Little) Haituo, and official bid documents show that one of the slopes below the 2,198-metre high Xiao Haituo is the preferred site for the downhill skiing event.

The slopes below this peak contain many rare species, including Beijing’s only Shanxi orchids (Cypripedium shanxiense), not to mention the breeding habitat of several endangered and range restricted birds including Grey-sided Thrush (Turdus feae), Chinese (Green-backed) Flycatcher (Ficedula elisae), Chinese Thrush (Turdus mupinensis) and “Gansu” Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus).  And it was in late May this year that I enjoyed a fantastic afternoon’s birding at this site with visiting Dick Newell, Rob Joliffe and Lyndon and Hilde Kearsley (here for the Swift project), during which time we encountered 7 species of phylloscopus warbler – Chinese Leaf, Claudia’s Leaf, Eastern Crowned, Hume’s Leaf, Pallas’s Leaf, Yellow-browed and Yellow-streaked as well as brief views of Grey-sided Thrush and ‘heard only’ Slaty-backed Flycatcher and White-throated Rock Thrush.

Source: Wang Xi/Songshan Natl Nature Reserve/2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games Committee
http://www.nature.com  Source: Wang Xi/Songshan Natl Nature Reserve/2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games Committee

After the announcement, online protests began with opposition being voiced on hugely popular social media sites such as WeChat and Weibo (“Chinese Twitter”).

And it soon attracted the attention of specialist media.  According to an online article on the Nature website:

“On 1 August Wang Xi, who recently received his PhD and works at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, overlaid maps from the International Olympic Committee’s evaluation report with those from the reserve’s website and posted the result on his Weibo account: both the start and end of the alpine runs fall within the reserve, he found.

Xi told Nature’s news team that his main motivation was to spread news of the possible ecological impact on plants there, including three orchid species that are classified at the highest protection level under Beijing’s conservation system. “It’s a chance for the government to connect with the people and talk to each other to solve this problem,” he says. “I am not against the Olympic Games, but they should be carried out in an environmentally friendly way.”

Chinese (Green-backed) Flycatcher, one of the species that could be adversely affected by the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Chinese (Green-backed) Flycatcher, one of the species that could be adversely affected by the 2022 Winter Olympics.

The response by government officials has been to declare that, under the current plans, the boundaries of the national nature reserve at Songshan will be “adjusted” and that the “new” reserve will be 30% larger than the area currently under protection.

Conservationists were quick to point out that, despite being larger, the proposed new reserve will lose arguably its most biodiverse part.  More importantly, the proposed site would violate environmental protection laws recently lauded by the government and could create a dangerous precedent that could give license to local governments to adjust the boundaries of other nature reserves, hampering already strenuous efforts to conserve other, in many cases more significant, sites.

According to 2013 government regulations, those who wish to change nature-reserve boundaries must submit an application that includes a public comment, an ecological assessment and four other documents. There is no evidence that this has happened.  And it was only in 2013 that President Xi Jinping said:

“We are going to punish, with an iron hand, any violators who destroy ecology or environment, with no exceptions.”

Indeed, the International Olympic Committee has its own rules.  Its “factsheet” on environment and sustainable development (updated in 2014) says:

“Recognising its responsibility to promote sustainable development, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) considers the environment as an integral dimension of Olympism, alongside sport and culture. The IOC ensures that the Olympic Games take place in conditions that take into account the environment in a responsible way, and collaborates with the relevant public or private authorities, with the aim of placing sport at the service of humanity, thus contributing to achieving UN Millennium Development Goal 7”

What is Millennium Development Goal 7?  To “Ensure Environmental Sustainability”.  This goal has 4 targets, including:

  1.  Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources
  2.  Reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss

It is very difficult to see how the “adjustment” of nature reserve boundaries, sacrificing some of the most biodiverse parts, is consistent with these commitments.

Perhaps significantly, the posts by concerned citizens on social media are no longer visible or accessible.

In an exchange on Twitter, Birding Beijing raised the issue with the official Twitter account of Beijing2022 (@GoBeijing2022).  Birding Beijing was told that:

“boundary shift in the interests of region’s ‘sustainable dev.’ & ‘ecological preservation’, making protected area 1/3 bigger”

When challenged that the size was less important than the contents, the same Twitter feed said that plans were not final and that there would be further consultations.  And when asked about how people could contribute to the consultations, Birding Beijing was told that “affected local villagers” could make their views known via their local Peoples Congress.

It remains to be seen whether the views of biologists and conservationists (most of whom don’t live in the immediate vicinity) will be taken into account in the final decision on the location of the downhill ski slope.  I hope they are.  Failure to do so could be hugely damaging for Beijing’s incredibly rich, but threatened, biodiversity, paving the way for local governments in other parts of the country to adjust the boundaries of their own reserves in the name of “development”.  And it makes something of a mockery of the IOC’s environmental principles.

However, if the government listens to the conservationists and adjust its plans, it would be a hugely positive signal about the status of national nature reserves and the decision would, rightly, be lauded by conservationists both within and outside China, strengthening China’s international reputation and providing substance to underpin the high-level rhetoric about the need to protect the environment.

I think every reasonable person recognises that there will be some impact on biodiversity as countries seek to develop and increase the prosperity of its citizens.  However, with the growing stresses faced by our natural environment, we desperately need enlightened decision-making so that, where possible and at reasonably low cost, development takes place whilst minimising the impact on the environment.  With several less biodiverse mountains close by that could host the downhill ski slope, the decision should be straightforward.

UPDATE: On Friday 21 August the IOC responded to my email about the environmental concerns:

“Dear Terry,

Many thanks for your email. We have taken note of your concerns and we will follow up with the relevant people.

Please take note that our teams are currently travelling, but we will do our best to get back to you as soon as possible.

Best regards,

IOC Media Relations Team

INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC COMMITTEE

Château de Vidy

1007 Lausanne, Switzerland

Tel:  +41 (0)21 621 6000″

Looking forward to the response from “the relevant people”…