Biodiversity at the Cliff’s Edge


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By Stephen Leahy/IPS

Roseate spoonbills (Platalea ajaja), coastal birds in Sonora, Mexico.

NAGOYA, Japan, Oct 18, 2010 (Tierramérica) – What nature gives us is often taken for granted, but if its basic elements disappear, human life on Earth would not be possible. The mission of the biodiversity summit under way in Nagoya is to reverse the headlong rush towards the precipice.

The 10th Conference of Parties (COP 10) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Oct. 18-29 in this southern Japanese city, seeks to create a new set of international agreements to halve the rate of loss of natural habitat, end overfishing, achieve zero net deforestation, eliminate harmful subsidies, and ensure that agriculture is sustainable by 2020, among other goals.

Without a successful meeting in Nagoya, achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will be impossible, Janez Potočnik, of the European Union’s Commission for the Environment, told a high-level UN meeting last month in New York.

“Biodiversity” is term used to describe the wide variety of the living things that comprise the planet’s biological infrastructure and provide us with health, wealth, food, water, fuel and other vital services.

Many people fail to understand how dependent humanity is on the many natural services provided by nature, says Hal Mooney, an environmental biologist at Stanford University, in California.

“Those services are considered ‘free’ and not valued under the current economic structures,” Mooney told Tierramérica.

A forest that sequesters carbon, cleans the air, prevents floods, provides food and fuel has no economic value except when it is cut for timber. That has to change and that will be “one of the strongest messages coming out of Nagoya,” said Mooney, who just won the 200,000-dollar Volvo Environment Prize for science.

“We need to get the Ministers of Finance and Trade around the world to understand this,” he said.

That understanding didn’t happen eight years ago when the Convention member nations pledged to cut species loss “significantly” by 2010, International Year of Biodiversity. With minor exceptions, the rates of species loss increased instead of decreasing.

Nearly a quarter of plant species are threatened with extinction, corals and amphibians are in sharp decline, the abundance of all vertebrates has fallen by one-third in the past 30 years, according to the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 (GBO 3), the most current assessment of the state of the planet’s biodiversity.

The trends are almost all negative, the declines exponential and potential tipping points loom, warned Lovejoy, chief biodiversity advisor to the president of the World Bank, and head of the global scientific review.

“Now’s the time to get serious… We have to take the GBO3 as a huge wake up call,” he said in a Tierramérica interview when the report was released in May.

In Lovejoy’s view, we are experiencing the sixth great extinction event of all life on Earth.

The Nagoya COP 10 meetings will be high-pressure, “all or nothing” negotiations on extremely complex issues, but there is wide consensus on the goals for 2020, said a source at the CBD secretariat.

However, there is much less agreement on the details. A major obstacle is financing for conservation, which needs to increase 10- or even 100-fold to be able to reach the 2020 goals, said the source.

It takes money to protect, conserve and enhance biodiversity. Currently, about three billion dollars annually in overseas development aid goes to help developing countries that are rich in plants and animals but poor in financial and technical resources.

To reach the new 2020 goals, that assistance from developed nations will have to jump to at least 30 billion, and up to 300 billion dollars a year, but “it is a significant challenge for governments to provide that level of financing,” the spokesperson said.

A preparatory CBD meeting in Nairobi last May ended in a North vs. South deadlock on the issue of finance. Delegates in Nairobi left it up to the world leaders attending the Nagoya summit to make the final financing decision.

Many countries are hoping the corporate sector and private donors will become major players in providing financing through programs that pay for ecosystem services or the creation of carbon and biodiversity offset markets, like the proposed REDD+, which adds biodiversity to the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation plan.

“We cannot have the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity without the full engagement of the business community,” Ahmed Djoghlaf, CBD executive secretary, told Tierramérica in an email.

“The idea that only governments and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) can succeed in protecting biodiversity has demonstrated its limit,” Djoghlaf wrote.

During the Nagoya conference there will be a high-level dialogue between corporate leaders and the 150 environment ministers expected to attend. More than 500 business representatives confirmed their participation, and a business and biodiversity initiative will be adopted, according to Djoghlaf.

However, civil society is deeply suspicious of the involvement of business.

The CBD Alliance, a loose coalition of NGOs and civil society organisations, states in a briefing paper that these “innovative” financing approaches are a “distraction from the financial obligations of the North” and largely unproven, carrying risks to local people and the environment.

The industrialised countries can afford to increase their public financial commitment 10-fold, since they spend more than 500 billion dollars a year subsidising the fossil fuel industry, says the CBD Alliance. Moreover, during the 2008 economic crisis, some 6.9 trillion dollars was mobilised to bail out banks and other private financial institutions.

Without new and additional financial resources it will be impossible to implement the CBD’s plans or achieve its 2020 goals, states the coalition.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

Stephen Leahy is a freelance journalist. He can be contacted at Or follow him on Twitter at

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