How a Golden Opportunity Became a Zero-Sum Game

BONN - Self-interest and petty politicking largely paralysed efforts to solve the urgent problem of the widespread extinction of species, with few concrete achievements after nearly two weeks of 14-hour meetings at the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in Bonn that concluded last Friday.

Why? Mainly because a few rich and powerful countries like Japan, Canada, Australia, Brazil and China fought tooth and nail to boost their own self-interest regardless of the environmental and human costs.

Six years ago, more than 160 countries at the April 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg agreed on a target of achieving a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. In May 2008, virtually everyone here acknowledged the target will not be met.

Some countries, like Germany and most of the developing world, do understand that species extinction is undermining the vital ecosystem services that nature provides, such as food, fibre, clean water and air. Others, such as Canada, express altruistic sentiments that are belied by their actions. Since decisions at U.N. meetings are by consensus, any country can block decisions on a whim. Or, as is more often the case, countries will block agreement on something they have no connection to simply so they can force concessions on other issues.

"You listen to them debate over every comma and realise they could be arguing over anything," said Helena Paul of EcoNexus, a British-based environmental group that participated in the CBD meetings. NGOs can observe but are not participants except for the occasional opportunity to express their views.

"Many countries have lost the sense of why we are here -- instead it's about playing political games," Paul told IPS in Bonn. "There is no real commitment to protecting biodiversity."

Global environmental challenges like biodiversity and climate change are borderless issues, but many countries endlessly manoeuvre and fight for their own self-interest using the same competitive thinking as if it were some kind of trade deal. However, scientists and environmentalists have long stressed that the problems humanity faces cannot be solved by trade-offs or insincere promises.

In Bonn, Canada was king of political gamesmanship, torpedoing consensus on many issues, according to NGOs and many developing countries. Ironically, the CBD is based in Montreal because Canada was the prime mover nearly 20 years ago behind the creation of the international treaty.

However, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 18-month-old government, Canada has obstructed consensus on any decisions to slow biodiversity loss. Harper was one of three national leaders to attend the meeting in Bonn and told delegates from 190 nations that the world "was losing wildlife species at an alarming rate". Then Canada's negotiators, acting on orders from the prime minister's office, did whatever they could to keep the global community from taking any action.

One of Canada's favourite ploys was to add the phrase "consistent with international obligations" -- which meant World Trade Organisation rules would trump any CBD decision. What then would be the point of making any decision at the CBD or on any international agreement, a delegate from Norway asked during one negotiation session.

"Canadians are known to protect the environment, I cannot understand why they are pushing policies that are clearly unsustainable," said Mamadou Mana Diakite, regional director of USC-SoS Afrique de l'Ouest, a Canadian-sponsored NGO based in Mali.

Canada and Canadian organisations have done and continue to do a great deal to help developing countries. It was "mind-boggling" that Canada opposed anything that might help developing countries at the conference, Diakite told IPS. "It's just plain wrong what they are doing here," he said.

Like many others, Diakite said Canada was behaving exactly like the United States' George W Bush administration in steadfastly opposing any international commitments to solve environmental problems, instead pushing "voluntary" solutions. The U.S. did not ratify the CBD, and cannot vote on decisions.

Last December, Canada was also accused of acting as a U.S. proxy by obstructing negotiations at the last international climate change conference in Bali. Canada is a major oil producer and the Harper government is neo-conservative very much in the mould of the Bush administration, despite the latter's numerous policy disasters, alienation of the international community and pushing the U.S. economy to the edge of bankruptcy. However, most people, including most Canadians, are unaware that Canada's long progressive tradition of assisting those in need is over.

"I have travelled to Canada," Diakite said in exasperation. "Do Canadians know what their government is doing here? You must tell them."

The Arab delegation led by Qatar was no less cynical than Canada in its sudden and passionate opposition to biofuels. Qatar is one of the oil-rich Gulf States whose capital Doha is known for its other-worldly extravagance. It urged the CBD to curb biofuel production to help alleviate the food crisis, which they said was one of the main causes.

"Qatar and other oil states never cared about the hungry in other countries before. They're only worried about biofuel competition with their oil," said Diakite.

This kind of attitude is exactly what Manfred Milinski's experiments predicted and what he believes will doom any hope of international cooperation on the climate and biodiversity crisis.

Milinski is a researcher at the Max Planck Institute Evolutionary Biology in Plon, Germany who conducted a simple set of experiments to determine whether self-interest would trump collective action to solve a global problem like climate change. In an IPS story last April, he explained that small groups of university students were instructed in the seriousness of the climate problem and were given money and a collective, voluntary donation target to save the climate. However, only half of the groups could manage to put short term self-interest aside to achieve it.

Not achieving the goal meant everyone lost. Despite those dire consequences, some participants didn't contribute their share, attempting to "free ride" on the backs of others, prompting others to stop participating until disaster was imminent. But then it was too late.

Humanity is in deep trouble, Milinski predicted at the time. "As groups get larger, cooperation goes down. And many people do not know the full extent of the climate problem," he said.

Fewer still understand the serious implications of the accelerating decline in biodiversity.

"You think countries like Canada come here with the right attitude, cooperating to preserve our common interest, but instead they are here to defend their countries' interest even at the expense of hurting others," said Diakite. "Canada's stand doesn't make sense -- we're here to preserve biodiversity."

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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