An Awakening to the Unravelling of the Web Life – Will Action Follow?


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Young generation will suffer from environmental degradation and biodiversity extinction of today’s inaction


Analysis by Stephen Leahy (IPS)*

NAGOYA, Japan, Nov 1, 2010

The international community has finally awoken to the other great trans-boundary challenge of our time, with a new international agreement to halt the unravelling of the web of life that sustains humanity.

The new agreement by 193 nations that are part of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity includes a commitment to reduce the rate of species loss by half by 2020, as well as the historic Nagoya Protocol on access and benefit sharing of genetic resources.

This awakening only applies to the few early risers. The vast majority remain asleep, unaware of our utter dependence on the living things that are the one and only source of oxygen, water, food and fuel. And unaware that nature is our reality while the economy is simply a complicated game we created.

Japan imports more than 60 percent of its food and most of Europe’s ecosystems have been trashed, with only 17 percent in reasonable shape, according to a first-ever assessment. The only reason those countries haven’t collapsed is they are rich enough to help themselves to nature’s ecological resources and services like food, timber, materials from the rest of the world.

Put a glass lid over Japan, Germany or England and they wouldn’t last long.

“We exploited the biological resources abroad, especially in the South. This is why we, the people of Aichi, Nagoya, must apologise…for the deterioration of the ecosystems and biodiversity we have caused,” says a public appeal by civil society from Nagoya, the host city of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for the last two weeks of October.

The Japanese government wanted no part of this apology, says Kinhide Mushakoji, one of the organisers and a professor at the Osaka University of Economics and Law. The appeal was signed by 156 organisations in Japan.

While not ready to publicly acknowledge reality, the Japanese government did push hard to make sure countries reached an agreement despite the usual North-South divide. After the big U.N. meeting in Copenhagen failed to reach a meaningful agreement to tackle climate change, the other great trans-boundary challenge, failure in Nagoya would have deflated hopes for future multilateral agreements to address common threats.

The central conflict is that countries of the North are like desperate bio-pirates, addicted to plundering the richer ecosystems of the South for food, raw materials and cheap labour. Increasingly, the South is resisting and seeking redress. Part of that redress, and the only way to end the escalating loss of species – an estimated 5,000 to 30,000 extinctions per year – is to transform the growth economy

“Japan played a central role in the growth economy. We need to move to a subsistence economy,” Mushakoji told IPS.

There was no talk of moving to a local, subsistence economy in the formal negotiations. While the causes of species loss are well known – deforestation, agricultural expansion, overfishing and climate change – their connection to a growth economy have only recently been acknowledged. The response to that understanding is a push for a green economy, one that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, extracts and uses less natural resources, creates less waste and reduces social disparities.

Perversely, the current growth economy has led countries like Japan and many in Europe to subsidise the destruction of the global marine fisheries by overfishing, says Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), which administers the convention.

“A green economy approach would invest $8 billion of the estimated $27 billion worth of subsidies in areas such as Marine Protected Areas and tradable fish quotas,” said Steiner at the opening of the conference.

UNEP studies have shown that approach would ultimately result in far higher fish catches in the future, raise the incomes of local people and ensure more fish protein was available to nearly one billion of the world’s poorest.

Ending such perverse subsidies is one of 20 strategic goals countries agreed to reach by 2020. Now collectively known as the “Aichi Target”, Target 3 is to end to subsidies harmful to biodiversity. But there is also an escape clause: “… taking into account national socio-economic conditions”. If countries continue to insist that their local economic interests trump nature’s reality, they can continue to deplete fisheries until there is little but jellyfish for everyone.

Completely stopping the loss of natural habitats – forests, corals, grasslands and wetlands – by 2020 had been Target 5 going in at the beginning of CBD 10th Convention of the Parties, but in the end parties agreed Target 5 would be to at least halve the rate of loss based on a baseline to be determined by 2012.

“It is necessary to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020. This can’t be postponed,” said Mario Tanao, a youth delegate and member of Biodiversity on the Brink, a Japanese youth organisation.

About 100 young people under the age of 30 were among the 16,000 registrants. They had no official role but were allowed to address the main plenary for two or three minutes to remind official delegates that they would have to live with the decisions made in Nagoya. Youth view the world without the usual political constraints and can unite in a common cause to end the loss biodiversity, Tanao told IPS.

“Since youth will be the most severely impacted by biodiversity loss… we have the right to participate in decision making and to share our perspectives,” she said.

Tanao and others have formed a network called the Global Youth Biodiversity Organisation, which was officially recognised by the CBD secretariat at the end of the meeting.

“We hope to have youth from more than 100 countries at the next COP (Conference of the Parties),” says Christian Schwarzer, a youth representative of the German Forum on Environment and Development.

“We are the generation that will live in 2050. We will make sure that at the next COP our voice will be heard and we will stop the loss of biodiversity by 2020 and not later,” Schwarzer said.

The Dutch government quietly released a scientific analysis on the second to last day of the COP plainly stating that halting global biodiversity loss by 2050 would be extremely difficult if not impossible. And by 2020, absolutely impossible, said the head of the study, Maarten Hajer of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

Hajer’s study looked at the main drivers of species loss – agriculture, deforestation, overfishing and climate change – and options that could be employed from now to 2050 in a world with nine billion people. Simply increasing the size of protected areas to 20 percent of the entire land area was “grossly insufficient”, he said.

The only hope was a combination of large protected areas and shifting to sustainable production and consumption. Hajer’s “aggressive” scenarios included eating 40 percent less meat per person in the developed world by 2050, boosting crop yields 30 percent, limiting climate change to two degrees C of warming, and making forestry and fisheries sustainable.

“Even then we can only reduce the rate of biodiversity loss but not stop it, according to the models,” Hajer told IPS. This analysis offers the first quantitative insight into the scope of the challenge in reducing biodiversity loss, even under a green economic approach. “The Green Economy is only a solution for those who play in the monetary economy. Billions of people don’t,” said Mushakoji. The city of Nagoya is between the cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, he said. “If you want to go to Tokyo, you can’t just slow down the train going to Kyoto. You have to change trains.”

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

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