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UN Conference Confronts Dramatic Loss Of Biodiversity

by Antoine Blua

Delegates from 193 nations have opened a UN meeting in Japan to discuss how to address Earth's dramatic loss of animal and plant species.

The Panay monitor lizard is listed as 'endangered' because both it is both hunted by man and its habitat, in forestland on Panay Island in the Phillipines, is declining. Biologists warn that species are disappearing at up to 1,000 times the natural rate of wildlife loss. More than one-fifth of the world's plant species and terrestrial vertebrates are threatened with extinction.(AP / IUCN / Tim Laman) The two-week Nagoya conference brings together parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

At its opening, Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Program, told delegates the meeting is "part of the world's efforts to address a very simple fact -- we are destroying life on Earth."

A key task facing the 8,000 delegates is to hammer out a set of strategic goals to prevent the further loss of species over the next 10 years.

Experts, such as Jonathan Bailie, director of conservation programs at the Zoological Society of London, doubt the discussions will result in an ambitious, comprehensive international agreement featuring binding targets. But Bailie tells RFE/RL that he expects the talks to reveal a growing agreement among governments about the need to place a price on the goods and services that nature provides.

"Traditionally conservationists have focused on moral or ethical reasons as to why we want to save biodiversity," Bailie says. "But it's becoming increasingly apparent that if we don't put a value on things, then often the wrong market decisions are made. For example, if trees are worth less standing than they are [worth] cut down, they will be cut down."

Disappearing Species

The UN says the world has failed to reach the goal, set in 2002, of a "significant reduction" in species losses by 2010 -- named as the International Year of Biodiversity.

Biologists warn that species are disappearing at up to 1,000 times the natural rate of wildlife loss. More than one-fifth of the world's plant species and terrestrial vertebrates are threatened with extinction. The threat concerns one-third of freshwater fish species. This is mainly due to habitat destruction; expansion of agriculture; deforestation; overexploitation of biological resources such as fish; invasive species; and, on top of that, climate change.

The annual economic cost of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss is estimated at trillions of dollars -- equivalent to as much as 10 percent of global gross domestic product.

Speaking on September 22 at a summit in New York on the species crisis, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cautioned that biological diversity is closely linked to the world economy.

"Maintaining and restoring our natural infrastructure," Ban said, "can provide economic gains worth trillions of dollars each year. Allowing it to decline is like throwing money out of the window."

Direct Effect

Unless steps are taken to reverse the loss of biological diversity, scientists warn that natural habitats will be degraded and eventually destroyed, threatening a wide range of benefits such as clean water, pure air, healthy soil, adequate food, fuel, and protection from extreme weather events.

This loss will most directly affect the well-being of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people.

In Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the destruction of forests due to the cutting of trees for fuel, cattle grazing, and land cultivation is affecting the lives of residents -- causing land degradation and erosion that lead to mudslides, landslides, and flooding.

In an effort to break the vicious circle, Bailie says policy makers are to investigate mechanisms designed to ensure governments value ecosystem services that have previously been regarded as free.

Meanwhile, stronger pressure is to be put on businesses to measure the financial costs associated with their impact on the environment.

"With the toxic sludge [in Hungary] and the recent oil spills and so on," Bailie says, "people are realizing that business is having a serious impact on biodiversity, and that business needs to be more accountable and business needs to maintain the resources that they are custodians of sustainably."

Businesses Must Act

"The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity" survey, to be released at the Nagoya conference, is expected to show that there is a strong case for businesses to take action to limit activities that harm biological diversity and to incorporate environmental impacts into their risk management.

Ahead of the meeting, Richard Burrett, co-chair of the UN Environment Program's Finance Initiative and a partner at the investment advisory firm Earth Capital Partners, told Reuters that accounting systems need to fully integrate environmental degradation caused by economic development.

He said that failure to do so meant companies were not measuring their balance sheet and profit and loss accurately.

Ignoring The Threat

Speaking last week at a roundtable hosted by consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, Jon Williams, partner at PWC's sustainability and climate change team, said that besides physical risks to operations and supply chains, such as soil degradation and water shortages, businesses were facing investor risks.

Such risks were highlighted by the recent experience of BP, which has seen its share price halved as a result of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Williams and Burrett said increasing numbers of institutional investors are starting to call on firms to report on the biodiversity threats they face and to change their investment practices with new environmental and social standards.

But PWC this year released a report warning that the vast majority of the world's largest companies are ignoring environmental threats.

The report found that only six of the world's largest 100 companies had measures in place to reduce their impact on biodiversity and environmental habitats and just two had identified biodiversity as a strategic risk.

Bailie says he expects this to change, adding that the companies which manage their ecological footprint will be better positioned.

"I believe that over the next five years or so, there's going to be more public pressure for companies to comply and to better manage the biodiversity," Bailie says. "The pioneers, those that are at the front, will actually benefit in the longer term."

 

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