Biodiversity and Small Mercies

30 October 2010

Biodiversity and Small Mercies

By Gwynne Dyer

Sometimes we have to be grateful for small mercies. The deal on biodiversity that more than 190 countries agreed in Nagoya, Japan last Friday was, as these things usually are, “a day late and a dollar short,” but it’s a lot better than nothing. It’s even better than most people expected.

Technically, it was only the 10th biennial “Conference of the Parties” who signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) eighteen years ago, but it was not just another meeting. It was a serious effort to move past rhetoric and come to grips with how to stop the slow-motion catastrophe of species extinction. (The current rate of extinction is at least a hundred times higher than the historical rate, perhaps as much as ten thousand times higher.)

The negotiations went right down to the wire, but after three weeks of haggling they got a deal on Friday night. The most important target set by the Strategic Plan 2011-2020 will increase the area of protected land in the world – no farming or grazing, no forestry – from 12.5 percent to 17 percent.

That’s almost half the land that should really remain untouched if nature is to go on producing the “ecosystem services” that keep our environment relatively stable. It’s a dollar short, of course: we will ultimately have to give forty percent of the land surface of the planet back to nature if we really want long-term stability. But it’s a good start.

Even more importantly, the Strategic Plan will increase the protected area of the oceans from only one percent to ten percent by 2020. If that is done in the right places, it would create no-fishing-allowed marine reserves big enough to allow the many endangered fish populations, some of them down to ten percent or less of their former numbers, time and space to recover. (Fish multiply pretty rapidly if you give them time to mature and breed.)

The other big achievement of the conference is a deal that promises governments in the developing world, and also indigenous peoples in those countries, fair payment for genetic material that ends up in highly profitable first-world crops and drugs. There are also useful measures to protect life in wetlands, forests, freshwater systems and coastal zones – and the financing to pay for it.

This is particularly encouraging after the climate change conference in Copenhagen last December ended in a complete train-wreck, for the Climate Change Convention is the long-lost twin of the biodiversity treaty. Maintaining the stable, benign climate of the past 10,000 years is critical to the well-being of a global civilisation that now numbers almost seven billion human beings – but so is preserving the web of life that underpins that climate.

Both treaties were born at the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, an event that was extraordinary in its ambition. The Cold War had just ended, the notion of a single global civilisation was gaining ground, and the realisation was dawning that the sheer scale and heedless economic style of that civilisation were starting to devastate the environment that supported it. The summit was an attempt to stop the destruction before it went too far.

The climate change treaty was intended to tackle the key issue of global warming, but scientists and even lay people were beginning to understand that everything joins up. About forty percent of human greenhouse gas emissions, for example, come from forestry and agriculture, and those same activities are decimating or destroying the living species, many of them microscopic, whose interactions maintain the environment we live in.

But nothing much happened after the signature of the biodiversity convention. The rain-forests of the Amazon, the Congo and Indonesia continued to be cut down, the world’s fisheries drifted closer to collapse, and though many deplored the neglect, no government did anything about it. After a good start in the 1990s, the climate change accord also stalled after the United States began actively sabotaging the talks under President George W. Bush.

Now the world is emerging from that wasted decade, and all sorts of things that were put on hold at the height of the terrorist panic, or just postponed because the United States wouldn’t play, are back on the agenda. Not always with instant success, as the Copenhagen shambles amply demonstrated – but real progress is possible again, and last week in Nagoya is the proof of that.

Of course, you probably expected me to write about the two little explosive packets found aboard cargo aircraft last week, because that’s so much more exciting than the fate of the planet. But everybody else is doing that, and there really isn’t much new to say about it anyway. Apart from the observation that a civilisation that thinks the biggest threat it faces is terrorism is a dangerously deluded civilisation.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“Both…far”)