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Sunday, April 25, 2010

OUR PLANET EARTH

Will arrogance and ignorance doom our biosphere?


This year, 2010, is the United Nations' International Year of Biodiversity — which is a very good thing. But why this critically important global concern gets just one year is seriously worth debating.

For now, however, the easier story for the media is that the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, or the CBD COP-10, will be held in Nagoya, Japan, from Oct. 18 to 29.

Nagoya won't be the circus that the Copenhagen climate conference was last November, but it will get heated as delegates wrangle with a range of issues from protecting species to alleviating poverty.

The greatest danger is that, in the media glare, nations could lose this chance to raise people's awareness that biological diversity is about much more than just saving whales, polar bears or forests.

Biological diversity encompasses all life on our planet. It includes every animal and plant species, the genetic diversity within and among these species, and the myriad ecosystems that provide habitat for species — from tropical forests and coral reefs to deserts and the high seas.

Humans, too, are part of the planet's biodiversity, and whether we like it or not our existence wholly depends upon the complex web of life that makes up Earth's biosphere and provides most everything that feeds, shelters and heals us.

Admittedly, there are species, and perhaps many, that humans can live without, but we simply have no idea which, or how many, are expendable.

Nevertheless we are bent on finding out. With equal parts arrogance and ignorance, human society is on the verge of discovering our planet's bio-tipping point.

This bio-tipping point is the threshold at which human activities compromise the functioning of Earth's ecosystems to such a great extent that we cross the line between thriving on Earth and simply surviving.

With our population nearing 7 billion and heading for 9 billion, human development and consumption habits are now undermining ecosystems worldwide, wiping out thousands of species annually, both known and unknown.

In short, we're taking a grand gamble with our future.

Ironically, we still hear the argument that economic growth must come before environmental stewardship; we are told by some that nations must develop a vibrant economy before they can afford to protect the environment.

In other words, first we must degrade the environment through resource exploitation and human consumption and waste before people demand that governments commit to cleaning up and protecting whatever is left of the natural environment.

Unfortunately, though, human activities are now compromising the entire biosphere, meaning we no longer have the luxury of cleaning up our messes later. And even if we did have time, economically it makes no sense to wait.

In 1991, the Environment Agency of Japan (now the Ministry of Environment) issued a report confirming that, based on Japan's own experience, prevention is far more cost-effective than remediation.

"The amount of money expended on damages brought about by lack of proper pollution-control measures is much greater than the cost related to implementing measures that would have prevented such damages from occurring in the first place," states the report, titled "Pollution in Japan — Our Tragic Experiences."

China has learned this lesson the hard way. Having encouraged feverish production and consumption to placate its citizens, it is now racing against time and wilting ecosystems to save rivers, stop encroaching deserts, conserve fresh water resources, and reduce pollution that stains its skies.

Even basic levels of rural development reflect a similar dynamic of economic boom and environmental bust.

A 2006 report by researchers from Cambridge University and Imperial College London found that Amazon forest-clearing for timber and farming temporarily increases wealth and the quality of life for Brazilian villagers, but the improvements are short-lived and development levels drop back to below the national average once loggers and large-scale farmers move on.

Working to reverse this cycle of destruction is particularly important in nations where priceless terrestrial and marine biodiversity is being wiped out by opportunistic development.

"The current boom-and-bust trajectory of Amazonian development is undesirable in human terms as well as potentially disastrous for other species, and for the world's climate. Reversing this pattern will hinge on capturing the values of intact forests to people outside the Amazon so that local people's livelihoods are better when the forest is left standing than when it is cleared," according to Andrew Balmford, a Cambridge University professor of conservation science and co-author of the study.

With biologists and economists now going head to head, scientists find themselves at the center of public-policy debates and being asked which species and ecosystems are absolutely essential for the planet, and which are not. Not surprisingly, most scientists are not ready to play god.

As Emma Marris, in a 2007 piece for Nature magazine titled "Conservation Priorities: What to Let Go," reported, "The majority opinion among conservation biologists today is that they still understand too little about ecosystem functions to say for sure which species are the 'load-bearing' ones whose presence keeps a complex, multi-tiered ecosystem from collapsing into some worst-case dull scenario of rats, roaches and invasive grass. 'We are so fundamentally ignorant, we cannot afford, by a long, long way, to say which species are dispensable,' " she quotes Norman Myers, a fellow of Oxford University who is an adjunct professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, as saying.

Another scientist told Marris we can make choices, but he is not willing to be the one who does so.

"Our big problem is that we have been raised to believe that unless you have complete information you cannot make recommendations, and I think that is something we are going to be put on trial for by our children. It's baloney. (But) I don't care if something is redundant, I want to save it for other reasons," Kent Redford, head scientist at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, told Marris.

To reverse the cycle of development, production and consumption that is destroying our ecosystems and causing widespread extinction of species, we have to change the way we do business, according to Lester Brown of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute.

"One way to correct market failures is tax-shifting — raising taxes on activities that harm the environment so that their prices begin to reflect their true cost and offsetting this with a reduction in income taxes. A complimentary way to achieve this goal is subsidy-shifting. Each year the world's taxpayers provide at least $700 billion in subsidies for environmentally destructive activities, such as fossil-fuel burning, overpumping aquifers, clearcutting forests, and overfishing.

"As the Earth Council study titled 'Subsidizing Unsustainable Development' observes, 'There is something unbelievable about the world spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually to subsidize its own destruction,' " writes Brown this month in a commentary titled "Lowering Income Taxes While Raising Pollution Taxes Reaps Great Returns."

As the Earth Council report notes, subsidies can work both ways.

"There is nothing inherently bad about subsidies. They can encourage the development of solar power, accelerate the adoption of less-polluting technologies by industry, and direct money efficiently to society's poorest.

"They could, in effect, play a crucial role in helping development around the globe become more sustainable. But largely they don't.

"Many of today's subsidies encourage practices that are economically perverse, trade distorting, ecologically destructive or socially inequitable. Sometimes several of these harmful things at once," explains the 1997 report.

Brown cites the fishing industry as an example of destructive subsidies.

"The perverse nature of harmful subsidies is especially apparent in the case of oceanic fisheries. Partly as a result of these subsidies, there are now so many fishing trawlers that their catch potential is nearly double the sustainable fish catch. Three-fourths of ocean fisheries are now being fished at, or beyond, capacity, or are recovering from overexploitation.

"If we continue with business as usual, many of these fisheries will collapse. The cod fishery off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada is a prime example of what can happen. Long one of the world's most productive fisheries, it collapsed in the early 1990s and may never recover," warns Brown.

As Fred Pearce, the senior environment correspondent for NewScientist.com, points out in a recent online piece, what we don't know could be our downfall.

"The demands of nearly 7 billion humans are stretching Earth to breaking point. We know about climate change, but what about other threats? To what extent do pollution, acidifying oceans, mass extinctions, dead zones in the sea and other environmental problems really matter?" Pearce asks.

All of these threats are of critical importance because they impact biodiversity. Conserving the complex web of ecosystems and species that make up our marine and terrestrial biosphere is simply a matter of life and death — not just for whales, polar bears and forests, but for humans.

So forget about pensions and health insurance protecting us in retirement. Without a healthy biosphere, our cash, credit and investments are worthless.

Biodiversity is our first, and final, safety net.

Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Chuo University Law Faculty and Director of the Chuo International Center. He can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com


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