UN Conference: Save Biodiversity Before It’s Too Late

Oct. 27, 2010 – By: Nick Engelfried

By the end of the week, delegates from close to 200 countries hope to agree on new measures that would dramatically reduce plant and animal extinctions by the year 2020.  At a United Nations conference in Nagoya, Japan government officials are considering issues that include protection of plant and animal habitat, restoration of degraded ecosystems, reducing pollution that contributes to biodiversity loss, and who is entitled to profit from the vast genetic riches of plant and animal species in developing countries. 

An international agreement to protect biodiversity has become increasingly important as more and more species are pushed toward the brink of extinction.  A study authored by 170 scientists warns that a fifth of the world’s vertebrates—mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish—are in imminent danger of extinction if current trends continue.  Yet previous efforts to slow the loss of species have produced mixed results at best: countries that have ratified the international Convention on Biological Diversity were supposed to have significantly slowed global extinctions by this year, and have largely failed to do so. 

Many policymakers and environmental groups now see this month’s meeting in Japan as a chance to re-energize worldwide efforts to protect biodiversity.  There have already been some promising developments: last week India announced it will become the first country to incorporate services provided by nature into economic analyses, and China has rolled out a new plan to protect species and ecosystems within its national borders.  On Wednesday Japan, the chair of this month’s discussions, said it will devote two billion dollars to help developing countries conserve their natural resources.

Yet with negotiations set to end Friday, it remains to be seen whether countries can agree on concrete and achievable targets for protecting species.  Developing countries, where much of the world’s species diversity is located, have said they need more help from industrialized nations if they are to successfully prevent loss of rainforests and other species-rich ecosystems.  So far it’s unclear whether European nations will commit to giving the same level of aid Japan has.  Meanwhile the United States, which has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, is extremely unlikely to participate in any large-scale aid program.  The United States is attending this month’s meetings only as an observer, and not an official participant in the negotiating process.

Also at issue is who should reap the economic benefits of global biodiversity.  Scientists have long pointed to the potential for finding new cures to disease as one of the principle reasons preserving genetic diversity of plants and animals is important.  Yet some developing nations, including Brazil, charge that companies based out of developed nations have been allowed to profit from discoveries that could not have been made without access to the biological riches of the tropics.  Brazil is in favor of adopting an Access and Benefits Sharing Protocol, which would require developing nations be compensated when corporations make use of their native species.

In the best case scenario, negotiations would end Friday with adoption of sweeping measures to prevent habitat loss, pollution, over-fishing, and other leading causes of species decline.  The international advocacy group Avaaz is urging that governments commit to set aside 20% of the planet’s land and water for the permanent protection of biodiversity.  Avaaz is circulating an online petition in favor of this goal, which by Wednesday had accumulated more than 300,000 signatures. 

The next three days will determine whether world governments are able to follow through on these ambitious goals.  If they are, it will be a hopeful sign for millions of threatened species for whom time is quickly running out.

Photo credit: Nick Engelfried

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