We've Been Conned. The Deal to Save the Natural World Never Happened

The so-called summit in Japan won't stop anyone trashing the planet. Only economic risks seem to make governments act

'Countries join forces to save life on Earth", the front page of the Independent
told us. "Historic", "a landmark", a "much-needed morale booster", the
other papers chorused. The declaration agreed last week at the summit in Japan
to protect the world's wild species and places was proclaimed by almost
everyone a great success. There is one problem: none of the journalists
who made these claims has seen it.

I checked with as many of them
as I could reach by phone: all they had read was a press release which,
though three pages long, is almost content-free. The reporters can't be
blamed for this - it was approved on Friday but the declaration has
still not been published. I've pursued people on three continents to try
to obtain it, without success. Having secured the headlines it wanted,
the entire senior staff of the convention on biological diversity
has gone to ground, and my calls and emails remain unanswered. The
British government, which lavishly praised the declaration, tells me it
has no printed copies. I've never seen this situation before. Every
other international agreement I've followed was published as soon as it
was approved.

The evidence suggests that we've been conned. The
draft agreement, published a month ago, contained no binding
obligations. Nothing I've heard from Japan suggests that this has
changed. The draft saw the targets for 2020 that governments were asked
to adopt as nothing more than "aspirations for achievement at the global
level" and a "flexible framework", within which countries can do as
they wish. No government, if the draft has been approved, is obliged to
change its policies.

In 2002 the signatories to the convention
agreed something similar, a splendid-sounding declaration that imposed
no legal commitments. They announced they would "achieve by 2010 a
significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss". Mission
accomplished, the press proclaimed, and everyone went home to
congratulate themselves. Earlier this year the UN admitted the 2002
agreement was fruitless: "The pressures on biodiversity remain constant
or increase in intensity."

Even the cheery press release suggests
all was not well. The meeting in Japan was supposed to be a summit,
bringing together heads of government or state. It mustered five: the
release boasts of corralling the president of Gabon, the president of
Guinea-Bissau, the prime minister of Yemen and Prince Albert of Monaco.
(It fails to identify the fifth country - Liechtenstein? Pimlico?) A
third of the countries represented couldn't even be bothered to send a
minister. This is how much they value the world's living systems.

strikes me that governments are determined to protect not the marvels
of our world but the world-eating system to which they are being
sacrificed; not life, but the ephemeral junk with which it is being
replaced. They fight viciously and at the highest level for the right to
turn rainforests into pulp, or marine ecosystems into fishmeal. Then
they send a middle-ranking civil servant to approve a meaningless and so
far unwritten promise to protect the natural world.

Japan was
praised for its slick management of the meeting, but still insists on
completing its mission to turn the last bluefin tuna into fancy fast
food. Russia signed a new agreement in September to protect its tigers
(the world's largest remaining population), but an unrepealed law in
effect renders poachers immune from prosecution, even when they're
caught with a gun and a dead tiger. The US, despite proclaiming a new
commitment to multilateralism, refuses to ratify the convention on
biological diversity.

It suits governments to let us trash the
planet. It's not just that big business gains more than it loses from
converting natural wealth into money. A continued expansion into the
biosphere permits states to avoid addressing issues of distribution and
social justice: the promise of perpetual growth dulls our anger about
widening inequality. By trampling over nature we avoid treading on the
toes of the powerful.

A massive accounting exercise, whose results were presented at the meeting in Japan, has sought to change this calculation. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity
(TEEB) attempts to price the ecosystems we are destroying. It shows
that the economic benefit of protecting habitats and species often
greatly outweighs the money to be made by trashing them. A study in
Thailand, for instance, suggests that turning a hectare of mangrove
forest into shrimp farms makes $1,220 a year but inflicts $12,400 of
damage every year on local livelihoods, fisheries and coastal
protection. The catchment protected by one nature reserve in New Zealand
saves local people NZ$136m a year in water bills. Three quarters of the
US haddock catch now comes from within 5km of a marine reserve off the
New England coast: by protecting the ecosystem, the reserve has boosted
the value of the fishery.

I understand why this approach is felt
to be necessary. I understand that if something can't be measured,
governments and businesses don't value it. I accept TEEB's reasoning
that the rural poor, many of whom survive exclusively on what the
ecosystem has to offer, are treated harshly by an economic system which
doesn't recognise its value. Even so, this exercise disturbs me.

soon as something is measurable it becomes negotiable. Subject the
natural world to cost-benefit analysis and accountants and statisticians
will decide which parts of it we can do without. All that now needs to
be done to demonstrate that an ecosystem can be junked is to show that
the money to be made from trashing it exceeds the money to be made from
preserving it. That, in the weird world of environmental economics,
isn't hard: ask the right statistician and he'll give you any number you

This approach reduces the biosphere to a subsidiary of the
economy. In reality it's the other way round. The economy, like all
other human affairs, hangs from the world's living systems. You can see
this diminution in the language TEEB reports use: they talk of "natural
capital stock", of "underperforming natural assets" and "ecosystem
services". Nature is turned into a business plan, and we are reduced to
its customers. The market now owns the world.

But I also recognise
this: that if governments had met in Japan to try to save the banks, or
the airline companies, they would have sent more senior
representatives, their task would have seemed more urgent, and every dot
and comma of their agreement would have been checked by hungry

When they meet to consider the gradual collapse of
the natural world they send their office cleaners and defer the hard
choices for another 10 years, while the media doesn't even notice they
have failed to produce a written agreement. So, much as I'm revolted by
the way in which nature is being squeezed into a column of figures in an
accountant's ledger, I am forced to agree that it may be necessary.
What else will induce the blinkered, frightened people who hold power
today to take the issue seriously?

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