By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
Conserving biodiversity benefits humanity, says the UN
Ingredients of a new deal on protecting global biodiversity are likely to be decided this week at a London meeting.
About 55 nations are sending delegates to the meeting, which will be chaired by UK and Brazilian ministers.
A key aim is to agree what sort of targets should be set at October's UN biodiversity summit for curbing the loss of species and ecosystems.
Governments are keen to avoid the kind of fundamental divisions that dogged last month's climate summit.
Writing on the BBC News website, UK Environment Secretary Hilary Benn argues that humanity's exploitation of the natural world may be approaching a "point of no return".
"The action we take in the next couple of decades will determine whether the stable environment on which human civilisation has depended since the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago, will continue," he writes.
In 2002, governments set a target of reducing significantly the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.
There is general agreement that the target will not be met; but at this year's summit of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), held in October in Japan, it is likely that governments will adopt a new set of targets.
According to UN documents prepared following consultations with governments, these could include:
- stopping the rate of biodiversity loss by 2020
- ending subsidies that harm biodiversity
- ending destructive fishing practices
- controlling the unintentional transfer of species from place to place
- placing at least 15% of land and sea area under protection
This week's meeting will see these options narrowed down, and its conclusions will form the basis of a draft agreement for the October CBD summit.
The UK hosts believe that discussing these ideas in advance among a wide group of nations will help avoid the wide divisions and acrimony evident during last month's climate summit in Copenhagen.
Delegates will also discuss what resources will be needed to ensure that developing countries can meet new targets.
Speaking at a scientific meeting last week, CBD executive secretary Ahmed Djoghlaf acknowledged that the 2010 target had been "a mistake", partly because many governments did not have the capacity to turn them into reality.
Mr Djoghlaf also pointed to a lack of awareness and knowledge about the natural world among the public and politicians, citing a study published last September showing that nearly 40% of British children between five and 10 did not know the difference between a bee and a wasp.
The UN holds that conserving biodiversity is important not just for itself, but for the benefits nature brings to humanity.
Investing in conservation, it argues, is of vital importance to human health and wealth, particularly in poor countries.
"Restoration of our ecosystems must be seen as a sensible and cost-effective investment in this planet's economic survival and growth," writes Mr Benn.