BARCELONA - While the financial mayhem continues to draw the headlines, the cost of persistent biodiversity loss has yet to be established. But it is believed to be bigger than that of the meltdown, and in many cases also irreparable.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) now plans to gather incontrovertible evidence on the value of preserving biodiversity and the cost of losing it. The world's oldest and largest global environmental network will task its scientific commissions for this.
This is one eminent pillar of the immediate and strategic priorities of the IUCN as spelt out by the organisation's new president Ashok Khosla.
The idea, backed by IUCN's ten-day world conservation congress that concluded Tuesday (Oct 14) in Barcelona, is to protect the biosphere, with particular focus on the conservation of biodiversity in all its manifestations.
"This means that we must do what is necessary to bring the issue of biodiversity right into the centre stage of public awareness, media concern and decision-making at the local, national and global levels," Khosla told delegates at the closing session.
Discussions at the congress revealed that there are indeed definite lessons to learn from the debate about climate change. While many doubted the scientific basis of the connection between climate change and human activity, it was the authoritative and unambiguous view of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reflecting the combined scientific work of over 3,000 scientists that more or less put an end to the debate. Clearly, IUCN is the body that can and must do what IPCC is doing with climate change.
"The clear message coming out of this (Barcelona) meeting is that biodiversity underpins the well-being of human societies and their economies," said IUCN director-general Julia Marton-Lefèvre. "But conservation can only succeed if we attack the underlying causes of biodiversity loss, and action is taken at the same time to reduce the impacts of that loss."
The IUCN programme for 2009-2012 on 'Shaping a Sustainable Future' says the IUCN will contribute directly to targets agreed internationally by governments to reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity.
It will also add an environmental perspective to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (agreed in 2000 by 189 countries), the plan for implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (agreed in September 2002 in Johannesburg) and other relevant international commitments.
Established in 1948 in Fontainebleau (Switzerland), three years after the United Nations was founded, the IUCN with about 1,000 members from across the world, including governments and international NGOs, is indeed poised to adjust itself to the changed and fast-changing realities of the globalised world.
Not only does it face the most challenging environmental issues ever in history -- climate change and diminishing biodiversity -- but IUCN members are also asking for fundamental changes in its working.
It is against this backdrop that the election of Khosla is of vital significance. He chairs the India-based Development Alternatives Group, a non-profit organisation established in 1983 "for creating large-scale sustainable livelihoods." He is also president of the Club of Rome, a global think-tank and centre of innovation and initiative.
One of his top priorities is to set up a world commission in collaboration with WWF and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to investigate the deeper implications of 'green carbon' such as sequestration, REED (a mechanism for compensating countries for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) and biofuels.
The proposed commission would, like the World Commission on Dams, bring together people from different walks of life and of different viewpoints who are in a position to look at where the action on climate change and on biodiversity can take place in the most meaningful way.
Another important point on IUCN's agenda in the coming years is to "form new partnerships among the best institutions to bring together their different insights and to generate meaningful solutions that deal effectively with the inter-related issues of population, natural resources, environment and development."
The IUCN will also bring clarity into the basis for establishing appropriate relationships with business. Judging from the debates on several motions on this subject at the Barcelona congress, there would appear to be a considerable consensus that the IUCN must engage with corporations, large, medium and small.
However, the terms of such engagement must be such as to lead to positive conservation outcomes, and ensure that at no time is IUCN's integrity or capacity to fulfil its mission compromised in any way.
Marton-Lefèvre confirmed that perception. "My view has always been that IUCN was set up to influence, encourage and assist society in dealing with nature and natural resources in a most sustainable and socially equitable manner -- and business is a part of society, whether some of our members like it or not. So my feeling is strongly that we must engage, but we don't lose our voice in this engagement," she told IPS.
But Khosla went a step ahead, when he said in his closing remarks: "The national and regional committees will have to be mandated to perform both expert and watchdog roles at the grassroot levels."
A task force to define the terms of such engagement and the changes in function required is expected to be set up by the 32-member council that serves as the board of directors of the organisation.
The congress did some important work to promote improvements in governance on the high seas. As an area outside of national jurisdiction, these are often exploited by all and managed by none.
The rights of vulnerable and indigenous communities received high priority at the Barcelona congress as IUCN members called on governments to take into account human rights implications in all conservation-related activities.
The congress saw the beginning of an ethical framework to guide conservation activities where poverty reduction, rights-based approaches and 'do no harm' principles can be applied to help redefine relating with nature.
With an eye on the UN climate change conference in Poland in December, the IUCN called for more specific goals in line with the Bali Plan of Action -- calling for a 50 to 85 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 and keeping a rise in temperature below 2 degrees Centigrade.
Several high profile commitments were made during the congress to support the IUCN mission: the MacArthur Foundation will invest 50 million dollars in climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the Mohammed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund will invest 25 million euros for worldwide biodiversity.