Chinese business leader Elion spearheading the economic opportunities of desertification

Clare Saxon Ghauri
Reading time: 8 minutes
2 December 2015

PARIS: A pioneering wealth-generating model to adapt to climate change and recover degraded desert land in China was showcased by Elion Resources Group at COP21 in Paris today.

Introducing the event, Mark Kenber, CEO, The Climate Group, called desertification “one of biggest and most important impacts we will see aggravated as a result of climate change.” Because of this, he suggests "we should treat natural resources as ecological capital and a basis for future sustainable growth.”

Desertification is the long-term degradation of dryland by changes in climate. To counteract its impacts, some countries have attempted to transform desert back to natural landscapes that ecosystems and communities can thrive in, called land restoration or recovery.

According to UNCCD, if we recover the 500 million hectares of degraded agricultural land that exists in the world, we could sequester one third of total carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning – and that’s before we even account for the multiple economic development benefits of desertification.


While the problem impacts many countries, China has suffered most in the last few decades. This event – jointly supported by UNCCD Secretariat, UNEP, IUCN and The Climate Group – highlighted the economic potential of desertification in China, and took place one day after China President Xi Jinping addressed the opening ceremony of the COP21 in front of an unprecedented gathering of world leaders.

In his keynote address, Xie Zhenhua, China’s Special Representative on Climate Change reiterated yesterday’s speech by President Xi about the fact China will continue to support the south-south development fund, as well as the country’s new five-year plan to ingrain low carbon activities in its growth strategy. He said: "China is now entering a new normal of economic growth, and a more harmonious development between man and nature."

Also addressing the Chinese business leaders and global experts at the event today was Shamshad Akhtar, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP. She explained that land degradation is “both a cause and consequence of climate change” and that the land-use sector represents around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Improving the sector would also help fulfill the global demand for 70-100% more food production by 2050 due to population growth, which needs land that is “not yet ready” for cultivation. “Adopting sustainable land management can deliver up to US$1.4 trillion in increased crop production,” she affirmed.

Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the UNCCD Secretariat agreed, stating that "restoring 75% of world's degraded land will ensure we can feed 9 billion people by 2050 and store up to 30% of global emissions." She added: “We must turn degraded land into productive assets.”


A report launched today by the College of Environmental Sciences and Technologies of Peking University and UNEP called Ecologically-driven Wealth Creation Report, revealed that in economic valuation terms more than 400 billion RMB Yuan (about US$67 billion) of ecological capital has already been created in Inner Mongolia and northwestern China by leading Chinese company Elion Resources Group, which has restored around 6,000 square kilometers of China’s 7th largest desert, Kubuqi.

This model is welcomed by Monique Barbut: “Examples from around the world show us that when communities adopt sustainable land management, their standard of living improves. Kubuqi is an innovative example which achieved a harmonization between ecosystems, the economy and the people.”

The Chinese government recently issued a statement that by 2020, the country will lift 50 million people out of poverty through support for industry, education, employment and healthcare. The Kubuqi model has already lifted more than 100,000 local residents out of poverty and created over 1 million job opportunities. 

Rachel Kyte, Vice President of the World Bank applauded the Kubuqi model’s success, stating: “It is increasingly clear that there exists huge synergy in all kinds of climate challenges. The Elion Resources Group’s efforts in the last three decades have grabbed these synergies and have delivered the outcomes of sustainable development."

Pierre Ducret, Chairman and CEO of CDC Climat SA also pointed out: “Land use is a major issue for the transition toward a low carbon economy but few assets are already available for investment at market-based conditions. China’s Elion Resources Group-led Kubuqi model is an excellent example which provides us a great opportunity to discuss how to finance scale up of solutions with a sound business model, within a single project.”


Talking at the event about the potential scale-up of desertification models such as Kubuqi were Alfredo Sirkis, executive director Brazil climate center, as well as Ayumi Konishi, Asian Development Bank, who said: “ADB has always been leading in financing low carbon development in Asia. Successful projects such as China’s Kubuqi case which seeks solutions for addressing land, energy, water, and climate change is the most reasonable target to invest in. ADB will always keep great interests in exploring the synergy and partnership of key players to scale up such solutions in Asia.”

Today’s event was critical in raising awareness of the importance of desertification at the international climate talks. “It is expected that global consensus will be reached that climate change is a top priority after the [COP21] conference. China’s experiences give an insight into the interconnectivity of such critical issues as land degradation and desertification, climate change and poverty, and offer an applicable and scalable model for countries and regions that are hit most seriously by desertification,” added Shamshad Akhtar.

Summarizing the economic and development opportunities available in desertification, Malik Amin Aslam Khan IUCN stated poignantly: “The economy grows by growing trees: through green jobs, social enterprises and economic development."

Wenbiao Wang, Chairman, Elion Resources Group, who delivered animated closing remarks in Paris that covered his work on the issue that began in 1988, stated: “The practice in the Kubuqi Desert helps the whole world see that the desert is one of the most important strategic resources of mankind; and desertification control plays a significant role in curbing climate change and is of equivalent importance as greenhouse gas emission reduction.”

By Jing Wang and Clare Saxon Ghauri

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