VI. Environmental Protection and Ecological Improvement

Tibet serves as an important ecological safety barrier in China. Over the past few decades the central and regional governments have upheld scientific development, struck a balance between socio-economic development and environmental protection, and given priority to ecological conservation and environmental protection in China' s modernization drive. Vigorous efforts are being made to promote local ecological progress and build a beautiful Tibet. Being one of the areas with the best environmental quality in the world, most parts of the region have maintained their original natural states.

Ecological environment of the Tibet Plateau influenced by climate change

Scientific research findings show that the earth has entered a warming period over the past century. Due to its unique altitude, the Tibet Plateau has been influenced more strongly than surrounding areas by global warming. From 1961 to 2007 the Tibet Plateau registered an average temperature increase of over 0.3 degrees C every ten years, doubling the global average. Global warming has accelerated the retreat of glaciers. Over the past 30 years, the area of glaciers has decreased by 131 sq km annually on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the permafrost has experienced patches of degradation, manifested by reduction of the seasonal frozen depth and rising thaw depth.

In the wake of global warming, remarkable changes have taken place in the ecosystem of the Tibet Plateau. Since the 1980s the vegetation has witnessed early greening, late withering and an average increase of ten days in the growing season. The vegetation coverage has been slightly raised overall, and the NPP (net primary productivity) has grown by around 11 percent. The NPP's remarkable growth has led to an increasing carbon sink in the alpine ecosystem. From 1980 to 2002 Tibet's alpine ecosystem created an average annual net carbon sink of 23 million tons, accounting for 13 percent of the total increased carbon sinks of all the earth' s vegetation in China, of which 17.6 million tons was produced by alpine grassland ecosystems every year. The vegetation ecosystem of the Tibet Plateau acts as one of China' s important areas for carbon sinks. At present, Tibet' s vegetation is improving as a whole. However, there are differences between different regions. The ecosystem is degrading in the southern areas with reduced rainfall, while it is improving in the northern areas with increased rainfall. Following the implementation of large national ecological projects and eco-compensation policies, Tibet has effectively curbed ecological degradation in areas intensely influenced by human activities, and further enhanced its function as an ecological safety barrier.

Strengthening legislation and planning for ecological conservation and environmental protection

Over the past few decades Tibet has remained the focus within the country' s general framework of environmental protection and ecological conservation. In the National Plan for Eco-environmental Improvement and the National Program for Eco-environmental Protection formulated by the State Council in 1998 and 2000, respectively, a separate plan has been drawn up to make the freeze-thawing zone on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau one of the country's eight major areas for ecological improvement, complete with a number of explicit tasks and principles for work in this regard. According to the National Plan for Major Function-oriented Zones issued by the State Council in 2010, two of the 25 national key eco-function zones are located in Tibet, i.e., "forest zone on the edge of the plateau in southeast Tibet" and "desert zone on the Changtang Plateau in northwest Tibet." Covering areas of 97,750 sq km and 494,381 sq km, respectively, they account for nearly half of Tibet' s total area. In 2009 the State Council approved the Plan for Ecology Safety Barrier Protection and Construction in Tibet (2008-2030), aiming to basically complete the building of an ecology safety barrier by 2030 and give full play to its function. The Tibet Autonomous Region has drawn up and implemented a series of plans covering eco-environmental protection and construction, including the Eco-environmental Improvement Plan, Plan for Conservation of Water and Topsoil, Comprehensive Improvement Plan for the Environment in Farming and Pastoral Areas, Plan for Environmental Protection of Drinking Water Sources in Urban Areas, 12th Five-Year Plan for Comprehensive Prevention and Treatment of Heavy Metal Pollution, Plan for Pollution Control on the Upper Reaches of the "Five Rivers" (the Yarlung Zangbo, Lhasa, Nyangqu, Nyakchu and Nyang rivers), and Ecological Function Zoning. Meanwhile, Tibet is actively carrying out fundamental work in this field, including investigation of the status quo of the ecological environment, ecological function zoning, soil pollution investigation, ecological compensation research, basic survey of nature reserves, and investigation by remote sensing of eco-environmental changes during the period 2000-2010 and relevant evaluation, so as to provide a scientific basis for environmental protection and ecological conservation.

Tibet's work in the field of ecological improvement and environmental protection is progressing steadily and in a law-governed manner. A relatively comprehensive legal system ensuring environmental protection has taken shape. The people' s congress and people' s government of the Tibet Autonomous Region have promulgated relevant local laws, regulations and administrative decrees, including the Regulations for Environmental Protection in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Rules for the Implementation in the Tibet Autonomous Region of the Grassland Law of the People' s Republic of China, Measures for the Implementation in the Tibet Autonomous Region of the Law of the People' s Republic of China on the Protection of Wildlife, and Opinions of the People' s Government of the Tibet Autonomous Region on the Implementation of the Decision of the State Council on Implementing the Scientific Outlook on Development and Strengthening Environmental Protection.

Remarkable progress in ecological improvement

Tibet has effectively protected its biodiversity and significant eco-function zones. A total of 47 nature reserves at various levels have been established in Tibet, including nine national-level ones, 14 at the autonomous region level and 24 at the prefecture or county level. Nature reserves cover a total area of 413,700 sq km, accounting for 33.9 percent of the total land area of the region and leading all the other areas of China. All the region's 125 types of wild animals and 39 wild plants under state key protection are well preserved in the established nature reserves. For instance, red deer, generally considered by the international animal research community to have been extinct, was discovered again in Tibet in the 1990s, and their numbers are increasing. The number of Tibetan antelopes is growing year by year to reach 150,000 so far. There are about 7,000 black-necked cranes in the region. Tibet is home to 22 ecological conservation areas (one at national level), eight national forest parks, three national wetland parks, four geological parks (two at national level), and three national scenic areas. In the preface written by Jimmy Carter, former president of the United States, to the book Across the Tibetan Plateau: Ecosystems, Wildlife, and Conservation, he appraised the biological diversity protection work of Tibet, saying it was not easy to increase the population of an endangered species but the industrious Tibetan people did it.

Forest and grassland ecological protection in the autonomous region has been crowned with signal success. Tibet strictly controls the scale of tree-felling. A project for the protection of natural forest resources, with a total area of 31,000 sq km, has been implemented in the three counties of Jomda, Gonjo and Markam, putting an end to the felling of natural forest resources for commercial purposes in these areas. In addition, Tibet has carried out a project for the planting of non-commercial forests in key areas, and set up demonstration zones of desertification control in Chushur and Chanang counties, Shigatse Prefecture and Shiquanhe Town. In 28 counties along the upper reaches of the Jinsha, Lancang and Nujiang rivers and the drainage area of the Yarlung Zangbo River, where the hazards of sandstorms and soil erosion are serious, a project to reforest cultivated land is being undertaken, in the course of which the afforested area has topped 83,700 ha, 338,700 ha of mountainous areas have been sealed off to facilitate afforestation, and every year an additional 19,200 ha of cultivated land is restored to forests. The forest coverage rate has now risen to 11.91 percent. Tibet rationally utilizes and protects grassland to ensure the sound development of the grassland ecology. Emphasis has been placed on fencing and building water-conservancy projects on natural grassland, and a pasture-responsibility system has been implemented. In line with the principle of limiting the number of grazing animals by the size of the pasture, rotation grazing periods and no-grazing areas have been designated. Energetic efforts have been made to promote man-made grassland, improve deteriorated pastureland and prohibit the grazing of animals in some areas so that the grassland can be restored. By the end of 2012 there was 85.11 million ha of natural grassland in total, of which 69.1 million ha was available for grazing. Tibet has initiated a compensation scheme for non-commercial forests and a rewarding mechanism for the protection of grassland.

Tibet has also intensified its efforts in the areas of water and soil conservation, and prevention of geological disasters. It has launched the construction of a water- and soil-conservation monitoring network. In recent years, projects have been carried out to prevent disasters caused by landslides in Zham Town, Nyalam County, landslides and mud-rock flows in the county seat of Chongye, landslides threatening the Grade II power station of the Bayi Power Plant in Nyingchi Prefecture, and mud-rock flows into the Liusha River in Lhasa.

Environmental protection and ecological improvement work is progressing smoothly in the rural areas of the autonomous region. Since 2010 work covering improvement of the people' s living environment and the ecological environment has been carried out at 4,761 administrative villages in seven prefectures (prefecture-level cities) and 74 counties (county-level cities and districts) in Tibet. By the end of 2012, pilot programs in this regard had been launched in 2,500 villages. Besides, Tibet actively popularizes the use of clean energy to reduce the destruction of natural vegetation and effectively protect the ecological environment in farming and pastoral areas. It conducts energy projects to promote the use of methane gas and solar energy, and small-scale wind power generation in rural areas. Methane-generating pits have been built in 210,000 households, and 395,000 solar cookers have been put into use. Over 10,000 sets of panels for solar photovoltaic systems have been installed in dwelling houses, and a solar heating central system now covers a total area of 10,000 sq m. The total installed capacity of wind-PV complementary power generation has reached 220 kw.

Steady efforts have been made to ensure the safety of drinking water in urban areas. Tibet has finished an investigation on drinking water sources for urban residents, and built a database on drinking water sources. It has set up a special fund for the protection of drinking water sources, and carried out a project to protect the environment of water sources.

Ecological improvement work is progressing in an all-round way in Tibet. The regional government has set the goals of constructing an ecology safety barrier, preserving the eco-environment, and building a beautiful Tibet. Lhasa is working hard to turn itself into a national model city in environmental protection, while Nyingchi Prefecture is making efforts to improve its ecological environment. The prefectures of Shannan and Nagqu have put forward plans for building an "ecological model area" and "eco-friendly grassland," respectively. Meanwhile, 97 towns and 221 administrative villages in Lhasa and the prefectures of Nagqu, Nyingchi and Shannan are engaged in building ecological towns and villages. By the end of 2012 there were 22 ecological villages at the autonomous region level.

Tibet is one of the cleanest areas in the world.

At present, the Tibet Plateau is the third-cleanest area in the world in terms of its environment, after the South and North poles. It has a clean and transparent atmospheric environment, and similar contents of pollutants to the North Pole. Tibet has few types and low concentrations of pollutants, compared to other places. Its atmospheric content of heavy metals is close to the background value of such elements in the global atmosphere. In addition, the atmospheric content of heavy metals in Lhasa is much lower than that in densely populated areas and industrialized regions. The average annual mass concentration of PM2.5 is 10micrograms/m³ in the non-metropolitan areas of Tibet, and 14.58 micrograms/m³ in Lhasa, much lower than 35micrograms/m³, the standard set by the country' s Ambient Air Quality Standard (AAQS), and less than one-tenth of those of the areas with intensive human activities. The major rivers and lakes in Tibet maintain fine water quality, meeting the national standard specified in the Surface Water Environment Quality Standard (GB3838-2002). The concentration of heavy metals is near the background level of global rivers and lakes ecosystem, indicating that they have not been polluted by human activities. The content of heavy metals in Tibet' s soil inherits the parent material, with no marked change during the 30 years from 1979 to 2009.