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Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010
Biodiversity meet needs to chart course for next decade
Agreements reached in Nagoya could alter negotiations at climate change conference
From Oct. 18 to 29, Nagoya will be the scene of what is being called by environmentalists and the United Nations as one of the most important, and urgent, conferences since the Kyoto Protocol — the historic climate change pact that set binding goals for greenhouse gas reductions — was adopted on Dec. 11, 1997.
However, in Nagoya, the issue under discussion is not melting glaciers or brutally hot summers that extend long into autumn due to global warming, but life itself.
The 10th Conference of the Parties (COP10) to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will bring together representatives from more than 190 countries to discuss how biodiversity systems have changed during the past decade and to forge a strategic plan for the next 10 years.
COP10 will be preceded by the fifth meeting of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (COP-MOP5), which runs from Oct. 11 to 15. The protocol, a part of the CBD, seeks to address concerns over biotechnology having adverse effects on biodiversity and human health. Delegates to MOP5 are expected to adopt a supplementary agreement to the protocol to establish international rules for liability and redress in case of damage to biodiversity resulting from living modified organisms.
In addition, the U.N. hopes COP10 will reach agreement on ensuring that economic benefits that nations, corporations, research institutes, or individuals derive from genetic resources are fairly distributed to those whose knowledge made such benefits possible.
COP10 is, therefore, a milestone in the nearly two-decade effort to address biodiversity loss.
The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro gave birth to not only the U.N. climate change convention but also the CBD, which has three main objectives: (1) to conserve biological diversity; (2) to use biological diversity in a sustainable way; and (3) to share the benefits of biological diversity fairly and equitably.
Conservation efforts, including the question of whether to set aside specific percentages of land and ocean for preservation over the coming decade, will be one of the key areas of discussion at Nagoya.
But before that, delegates will review what has taken place since 2002, when the CBD agreed to "a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth."
Unfortunately, scientific studies over the past few years have concluded that the situation for biodiversity systems around the world is getting worse, not better.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature believes we are witnessing the greatest extinction crisis "since dinosaurs disappeared from our planet 65 million years ago."
Recent data on the state of the world's biodiversity systems reveals a bleak picture. The abundance of all species declined by 40 percent between 1970 and 2000.
Over the past decade alone, nearly 60 million hectares of primary forest (including old-growth trees that provide the basis of many forest ecosystems) have been lost.
In the North Atlantic Ocean, fish stocks are believed to have declined 66 percent over the past half-century. In the Caribbean, hard coral cover, which protects ocean biodiversity systems, has drastically declined.
In other parts of the world, especially in tropical regions, mangroves, which not only protect biodiversity but help protect human populations near the coast from damage due to floods and typhoons, have declined 35 percent over the past two decades.
"We humans continue to drive species extinct at up to 1,000 times the natural rate, which is undermining the stability of ecosystems across the planet and thereby threatening our own well-being," said Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the CBD, at a COP10 preparatory meeting in Spain in mid-September.
"Thirteen million hectares of the world's forests are lost due to deforestation each year. Meanwhile, 300 million people worldwide, the majority poor, are estimated to depend substantially on forest biodiversity for their survival and livelihood," Djoghlaf said.
"In addition, 80 percent of examined world marine stocks are fully exploited or overexploited. And yet 1 billion people depend on fish as their sole or main source of animal protein, while fish provide more than 2.6 billion people with at least 20 percent of their average per capita animal protein intake," he added.
Five main threats to biodiversity have been identified. They include habitat loss and degradation, often due to rapid urbanization but also because of an increased demand worldwide for forest and fishery products.
Habitat loss affects 86 percent of all birds and mammals classified as being threatened with extinction, and 88 percent of all threatened amphibians.
Other threats are the introduction of invasive alien species, the overexploitation of natural resources through large-scale commercial fishing and unregulated hunting, the introduction of pollutants and diseases into biodiversity systems (such as by using excessive fertilizers, which leads to excessive levels of nutrients in the soil and water) and, last but not least, climate change, which is altering migratory species patterns and increasing coral bleaching.
In order to halt biodiversity loss, COP10 has agreed to set out a strategic plan of action for the coming decade that will likely include, for the first time, numerical targets.
To reduce the direct pressures on biodiversity and promote sustainable use, the draft text that will be discussed at Nagoya includes the goal of either halving or bringing close to zero the rate of loss, degradation and fragmentation of natural habitats.
In addition, there is a line in the current draft text that calls for either 15 or 20 percent of terrestrial areas and an undetermined percentage of the world's oceans to be conserved through "comprehensive, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of effectively managed protected areas and other means, and integrated into the wider land and seascape."
Not only how but by how much to conserve biodiversity systems will likely be one, perhaps the most, contentious issue between the COP10 delegates. At any U.N. conference, the most difficult decisions usually if not always come down to what numbers, scientific and financial, everyone can agree to.
During the last three days of the conference, the delegates will be joined by environmental and other high-ranking ministers, who will likely face the task of making these decisions.
The final numbers that everyone agrees to on Oct. 29 may or may not be the same as those mentioned above, but whatever numbers end up in the final agreement will be the result of hard bargaining by the ministers.
One important thing to keep in mind is that it is not the purpose of COP10 to forge a treaty that aims to protect designated species. Rather, the goal is to protect the biological systems within which those species live.
Due to official, as well as nongovernmental organization and media, attention on the plight of individual species such as polar bears, snow leopards, whales and tuna, it's natural to wonder if COP10 will be aiming to take specific measures to protect endangered species as part of an overall effort to conserve biodiversity.
However, under the structure of the U.N., the CBD deals with biodiversity as a whole, while outside organizations, or other conventions within the U.N., deal with the conservation of individual species.
If agreeing to a strategic plan of action for conserving biodiversity over the next decade were the only item on the COP10 agenda, the conference would still be quite busy.
But in addition to saving biodiversity, COP10 delegates will also attempt to reach agreement on how biodiversity resources can be used sustainably, and how to ensure that the benefits from the use of genetic resources are shared equitably.
For example, many modern medicines developed by pharmaceutical companies in the industrialized world are derived from plants and wildlife found in rain forests and other places with indigenous populations, who have long known about and used such flora and fauna for their own remedies, knowledge that often forms the basis of patented medicines.
The question then becomes, once the drug based on such knowledge is patented, how much should the indigenous people benefit financially?
A separate but equally pressing question that will be in the air at COP10 is whether the convention's goal of sharing biodiversity benefits fairly and equitably also means that such medicines derived from indigenous people's knowledge should be made available to those who cannot afford them.
Not surprisingly, indigenous people's groups, developing nations and industrialized nations all have very different views on these matters. The details of the access and benefit-sharing agreement that COP10 is supposed to conclude will, like biodiversity preservation targets, be fought over by all sides down to the wire.
Setting a strategic plan for 2020 and concluding an agreement on access and benefit-sharing of genetic resources are likely to dominate headlines during the COP10 period.
But there are other issues that are just as important.
For example, unlike with climate change, there is no one body of official biodiversity experts advising the U.N. with the international political and scientific clout, and the international public recognition, of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
However, a new scientific body that will make it easier for the U.N. and policymakers around the world to make decisions based on the latest scientific data and expert recommendations is likely to be, if not created, then at least given extremely strong support at the Nagoya meeting.
However, a new scientific body may be one of the few things COP10 delegates can agree to with relative ease.
On the other hand, nations with large populations that rely on commercial fishing for food or those that have powerful fishing and logging industries are likely to oppose strong, specific conservation measures, while industrialized countries have already voiced strong opposition to an access and benefits agreement that sends profits from patented medicines, which cost huge sums to research and develop, to anybody other than their stockholders.
Then there is the issue of the relatively low public profile of the CBD.
Compared to last year's COP15 of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, COP10 of the CBD — briefly billed last year as the conference that would forge a "Kyoto Protocol for all living things" — is not nearly as visible on the world's political and media radar.
A recent survey by the Natural History Museum in London showed that people in the United Kingdom are worried about the drastic loss of native species.
But 85 percent of those surveyed did not know that COP10 was taking place in Nagoya, and that was among those who, presumably, are more up to date and interested in biodiversity than most.
It is the relative lack of high-level political attention, though, that prompted U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to host a special leaders' meeting on biodiversity on Sept. 22 at U.N. headquarters in New York, where leaders touched upon what needed to be done in both Nagoya and in the coming decade for biodiversity.
At the same time, attention is focused on the leadership of the Japanese government as the host nation, and pressure is growing on Tokyo to show that it can forge consensus among nations with vastly different views on how to best preserve and protect biodiversity, or on what the definition is of a fair and equitable benefit-sharing agreement with indigenous people or developing nations.
In addition to hosting the conference, Japan will also introduce its own method of preserving biodiversity via the Satoyama Initiative (see related story on page 3).
This ancient method of preserving agricultural land is the subject of a modern push by the Environment Ministry in particular to introduce traditional "satoyama" techniques to other parts of the world, especially regions that have long been traditional farming regions but are now undergoing rapid economic development and urbanization.
Finally, the Nagoya conference will also be closely watched by many people involved with climate change issues. COP10 is the last major U.N. environmental conference taking place before the next UNFCCC conference COP16 in Mexico in December, where delegates will try to rebuild the international momentum for a climate change treaty that was lost following last year's Copenhagen debacle.
Delegates at the conference in Copenhagen even called it a disaster for its lack of an agreement to specific greenhouse gas reduction targets over the coming decade by developed countries.
Senior climate change officials are likely to be in Nagoya, perhaps watching nervously on the sidelines.
Given how closely climate change and biodiversity are linked, a strong agreement at COP10 could help reinvigorate the climate change debate and provide a much-needed political boost to U.N. delegates and NGOs as they head to Mexico to once again discuss a new global warming agreement for the coming years.
So in conclusion, despite its relatively low political and media profile, despite the fact that it will be Cabinet ministers rather than presidents and prime ministers who make the final decisions, and despite the fact that the number of attendees will be far less than the Copenhagen conference, COP10 just might be one of the most historic environmental gatherings in very long time.
As the recent scientific evidence indicates, it is certainly one of the most urgent.