Page last updated at 09:17 GMT, Friday, 22 January 2010

Governments 'must tackle' roots of nature crisis

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Fishing boat being pushed out to sea
Balinese fishing grounds have just been protected to safeguard stocks

Governments must tackle the underlying causes of biodiversity loss if they are to stem the rate at which ecosystems and species are disappearing.

That was one of the conclusions of an inter-governmental workshop in London held in preparation for October's UN biodiversity summit in Nagoya, Japan.

Delegates agreed that protecting nature would bring economic benefits to nations and their citizens.

Representatives of 54 countries attended the UK-hosted meeting.

The organisers hope that securing agreement on fundamental issues now will keep the October summit of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) free from the kind of divisions that dogged last month's climate change summit in Copenhagen.

If our ecosystem services get to a state where we won't have them anymore - the pollinators, for example - this is going to be disastrous
Maria Cecilia Wey de Brito
Brazilian environment ministry

The UK's Marine and Natural Environment Minister Huw Irranca-Davies said that despite the weak Copenhagen outcome, there had been general agreement on the need for strong international action on biodiversity.

"One of the most important things was a strong feeling that we need to come out of Nagoya with something concrete on the table - something that works all the way down the local and community levels as well," he told BBC News.

"People are really focused on trying to stem the tide [of biodiversity loss] and reverse it."

The UN calculates that species are currently going extinct at about 1,000 times the "natural" rate; and economic analyses being prepared for the UN Environment Programme (Unep) show that ecosystems, such as coral reefs and rainforests, are worth far more intact than depleted.

Species at risk

In 2002, governments set a target of significantly reducing the rate of global biodiversity loss by 2010 - a target that is not going to be met.

Many observers now argue that it was not really achievable; global ambitions did not translate into local and regional action, and not enough attention was paid to the underlying factors causing depletion of the natural world.

New targets are likely to be set at the Nagoya meeting that are designed to be more scientifically valid and achievable.

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But according to Simon Stuart, chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Species Survival Commission, setting targets is not the most important task facing governments.

"We have a chance of a much tougher target for 2020 than we had for 2010, which would be about having no net biodiversity loss," he said.

"I think the key thing is whether we'll see over the next few years concerted action on the drivers of biodiversity loss - if we don't see that in the next few years, then we certainly won't see good results by 2020."

All of those drivers, he noted, were related to the expansion of the human footprint - among them population growth, loss of habitat, climate change, ocean acidification, and growing demand for food.

Maria Cecilia Wey de Brito, secretary for biodiversity and forests with the Brazilian government, who co-chaired the meeting with Mr Irranca-Davies, acknowledged that these issues would be difficult to tackle, but said it could be done.

"Of course it's not easy; but it's possible, because what is at risk is our maintenance as a species on the planet," she said.

"We think that people will understand very well that if our ecosystem services get to a state where we won't have them anymore - the pollinators, for example - this is going to be disastrous.

"So I think this is something that is going to be possible, because it's totally necessary."

Richer harvests

Eighteen years after the biodiversity convention came into existence, one of its key aims - to agree a mechanism for fairly and sustainably profiting from nature exploitation - remains unrealised.

The UN would like to conclude an agreement on it this year; and Mr Irranca-Davis noted there had been some progress during the London talks. Delegates from developing countries - that have historically been suspicious of the notion - have been speaking of its potential benefits.

He said that some developing countries with rich biodiversity assets had expressed an interest establishing an agreement for good, sustainable exploitation of their own natural resources.

"[Some] developing nations expressed the view that, if we get those sort of agreements right, there is more potential to harvest from biodiversity," he said.

"So it's in our interests not only to protect, but to identify where those biodiversity riches are and to exploit them further, but in the right way, and making sure that these benefits are not just to developed countries, but to developing nations as well."

The meeting also discussed whether an expert panel should be set up to collate research on biodiversity - analogous to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - but there is as yet no consensus.

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