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China’s response to a national land-system sustainability emergency


China has responded to a national land-system sustainability emergency via an integrated portfolio of large-scale programmes. Here we review 16 sustainability programmes, which invested US$378.5 billion (in 2015 US$), covered 623.9 million hectares of land and involved over 500 million people, mostly since 1998. We find overwhelmingly that the interventions improved the sustainability of China’s rural land systems, but the impacts are nuanced and adverse outcomes have occurred. We identify some key characteristics of programme success, potential risks to their durability, and future research needs. We suggest directions for China and other nations as they progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations’ Agenda 2030.

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Fig. 1: Timeline of events.
Fig. 2: Investment and area of interventions.
Fig. 3: Governance, administration and implementation of China’s sustainability programmes.
Fig. 4: Mapping investment against the SDGs.


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This work was supported by a Climate Change Engagement Grant from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as well as by our own institutions, in particular Deakin University. We thank M. Klaassen, D. Driscoll, J. G. Canadell and B. Huang for comments on the manuscript. This work contributes to both the Future Earth and Global Land Programme research agendas.

Reviewer information

Nature thanks R. Costanza, F. Zhang and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information




B.A.B. designed the study and wrote the paper. L.G., Y.Y., and X.S. contributed to the writing, assembled the data and photographs, prepared the graphs, and assembled the Supplementary Information. All authors made substantive intellectual contributions to the paper and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Brett A. Bryan.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file includes Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Tables 1 – 21 and Supplementary Figure 1. The Supplementary Tables document the details of each of the 16 major sustainability programmes reviewed (Tables 1–16), data sources for programme review (Table 17) and the rationale for mapping programme investment to SDGs (Table 18), as well as investment (Table 19) and area (Table 20) data and graphs including a breakdown by province, and area data and graphs including a breakdown by on-ground action (Table 21). Also included are additional references not cited in the main text.

Supplementary Data 1

This file contains investment data and graphs including a breakdown by Province.

Supplementary Data 2

This file contains area data and graphs including a breakdown by Province.

Supplementary Data 3

This file contains area data and graphs including a breakdown by on-ground action.

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Bryan, B.A., Gao, L., Ye, Y. et al. China’s response to a national land-system sustainability emergency. Nature 559, 193–204 (2018).

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