Biodiversity loss needs an internationally agreed rescue plan

Governments have to stop thinking about biodiversity protection as loss but as an investment to ensure long-term stability

Robert Bloomfield

First printed in the Guardian Newspaper, Wednesday 29 September 2010
In some extraordinary scenes at the UN general assembly last week, where a special session began with the stark message that addressing biodiversity loss was not a luxury but a duty, secretary general Ban Ki-moon rang the alarm bells saying that the situation was an emergency, one requiring an internationally agreed rescue package akin to the global bank crisis. Governments had to stop thinking about environmental (biodiversity) protection as a loss, he said, but as an investment alongside the other measures needed to ensure long-term stability.

At the same time last week, the actor Ed Norton, the UN’s goodwill ambassador for biodiversity, urged people to use their purchasing power to influence opinion, saying that it could have a bigger impact on industry – a primary driver of biodiversity impacts – than government policy. Norton’s event ended with the ringing of a memorial bell, which was joined by bell-ringing around the world – including at Peterborough Cathedral, which tolled its bell 492 times for each species known to have become extinct in England in recent history.

Despite the star power, behind the scenes in the UN the international negotiators were not pulling in harmony. There is concern that next month’s crucial meeting in Nagoya, Japan, could end up in a cacophony as efforts to reach agreement about biodiversity for the next decade falter.

There are two primary causes for this concern. The first is that one country in particular won’t fully cooperate. The CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) has almost universal support, now with 193 countries having full status. However, as Norton highlights, the US only has observer status at the CBD. This is not only hugely politically embarrassing, it has a major impact on key decisions which need to be made in Japan.

The second, and bigger threat, is disagreement over the creation of a biodiversity equivalent to climate science’s IPCC. While Brazil, Germany and the EU all heralded the establishment of IPBES (Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) as a major breakthrough, a threat has emerged over its full implementation. This panel is seen as essential in getting better-informed responses and action at global and national levels.

But there are three components of a deal in Nagoya that could cause some countries to not support IPBES’s implementation if financial arrangements cannot be agreed for them. Brazil’s environment minister Izabella Teixeira laid them out last week:

  • A comprehensive Strategic Plan with new country targets to implement measures to protect biodiversity and ecosystems
  • An agreement on how countries with important genetic resources in their biodiversity, particular developing countries, will benefit from any commercial development of these assets
  • The creation of a new strategy and financial plan that can mobilise the resources to make a difference

While these issues are surmountable, what the CBD and the UN are saying is that global society has to change, change fast and change dramatically if the consequences of biodiversity loss are to be avoided – including major setbacks to addressing climate change and global poverty alleviation.

The message was clear: that the rate of damage caused by man in recent years, and in the next few decades, will have a monumental impact for thousands of years. And the call is for an unprecedented programme of global ecosystem restoration which has to be supported in all areas of governance – from heads of state, through all government departments.

The value of ecosystems’ natural assets has to be in our economic accounting – and this is in the red. The movement towards a green economy places biodiversity centre stage and it is the greatest challenge of the decade ahead. The representative for Japan recognised this, calling on the UN to accept a resolution that 2011 to 2020 be called the International Decade of Biodiversity.

What is dispiriting is the lack of widespread media interest to these events. The Guardian’s own reporting and initiatives Biodiversity100 and Piece by Piece are much welcome exceptions. The media could be doing so much more to engage the public and we need millions of people to understand, to ring bells, glockenspiels, mobile ring tones, maracas, bang tins and empty plastic bottles and demand that governments take heed.

I hope that Nagoya will be cause for celebration and not the knell for biodiversity actions because of short-sighted and narrow political positioning. To coin a phrase, For whom the Bell Tolls, The Bell Tolls for You, and Me, and You and You and You…

•Dr Robert Bloomfield is the coordinator of International Year of Biodiversity in the UK.

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