Wildlife & Biodiversity

Taking stock of biodiversity

The Convention on Biological Diversity, 20 years on, is still struggling to stem the precipitous decline in biodiversity. After missing the 2010 target of reducing biodiversity loss, it is now pulling out all stops to meet the Aichi Targets, named after the Japanese prefecture where new goals for protection were set two years ago. As time runs out to protect the world’s ‘natural capital’, the forthcoming CBD conference in Hyderabad will discuss innovative ways of financing biodiversity from partnerships with business to payments for ecosystem services. Will this save the planet, asks Latha Jishnu

By Latha Jishnu
Last Updated: Wednesday 08 July 2015

Taking stock of biodiversity


Protect & profit

Mention biodiversity and almost reflexively we think green. We visualise the green of forest and grassland, the verdant stretches of farmland and the myriad hues of plant and animal life. But we also need to be fixed upon blue because the oceans and seas that cover more than two-thirds of our planet are home to critical ecosystems, the biggest of our global commons. And the blue biodiversity is the one we have devastated more than any other.

Persistent pollution from chemicals, overfishing—80 per cent of fish stocks are said to be fully or overexploited—and higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have degraded coastal and marine biodiversity to unprecedented levels, threatening the livelihoods of 500 million people who depend on the seas and the health of over a billion people who get their main source of protein from the oceans and seas. This vast expanse of blue also harbours ecosystems such as coral reefs that nourish as much life as our richest rainforests.

But it’s not as if the world does not understand the importance of biodiversity for human well-being. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which grew out of the epochal Rio Earth Summit of 1992, was established as a legally binding pact to arrest a precipitous decline in biodiversity. CBD brings together 193 signatories or Parties as they are called (192 nations and the European Union) and in 2002 it undertook to “significantly reduce” biodiversity loss in a decade. However, a 2010 review tracking progress on this target showed the deterioration was accelerating. The study published in Science in May 2010 reported that most indicators of the state of biodiversity (covering trends in species population, extinction risk, habitat extent and condition) showed decline while indicators of pressures on biodiversity (resource consumption, invasive alien species, nitrogen pollution, overexploitation) had risen.

A branch of the Rio Sucio (or Dirty River) carrying volcanic minerals and mixing with clear water filtered by rainforest in San Jose

As a response, the last Conference of Parties—it meets biannually—in Nagoya, Japan, decided on a set of new targets, known as the Aichi Targets (see ‘Mission sustainability’) framed under the Strategic Goals (2011-2020), to arrest further decline. There are five such goals, the primary one being to “address the underlying causes of loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society”. But none of these targets are binding. Countries are allowed wide latitude to frame their own policies and options under “flexible frameworks”. CBD does not have the power to pull up countries much less impose penalties for not complying with their commitments. Although CoP is expected to review implementation of the Convention, analysts point out that any breach of it is never brought up.

For the parties, the stock-taking this month will underscore yet again the urgency of meeting their commitments. There isn’t much time left. Three of the Aichi Targets kick in 2015 and at least one of these on reducing the anthropogenic pressure on coral reefs is intended to meet in part the strategic goal of reducing the direct pressures on biodiversity. The slogan for the Hyderabad meetings—Prakruthi: Rakshathi Rakshitha which is Sanskrit for “nature protects if she is protected”— is a reinforcing message that governments have to shake off their policy paralysis which was clearly evident at the Rio+20 UN conference on sustainable development in June this year.

Blue agenda

Top on the agenda of the Hyderabad conference is saving coastal and marine ecosystems. Twenty years ago, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio had set 2012 as the target year for a number of critical marine commitments: elimination of destructive fishing practices, setting up marine protection areas, time/area closures to safeguard nursery grounds, proper planning of coastal land use and integration of marine and coastal areas management into key sectors.

India is one of the 17 megadiverse countries. With only 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area, it accounts for 7-8 per cent of the recorded species of the world: 45,500 plants species and 91,000 animal species, and thousands of algae, lichen and fungi. In 2002, 14 countries decided to set up a group of Like-Minded Megadiverse Countries to promote their interests. They were joined by three countries later

These commitments are far from being met. Marine protected areas account for just over one per cent of the ocean surface compared with nearly 15 per cent on land. Instead, as CBD notes, “fisheries that have fed communities for centuries have been depleted in a few years by huge, sonar-guided ships using nets big enough to swallow a dozen jumbo jets at a time”.

The emphasis as such will be on protection of habitats of importance for threatened, endangered or declining species, and on factors that may change the biological or ecological processes affecting such species. Proposals on the table include revised (voluntary) guidelines for considering biodiversity in strategic environmental assessments in marine and coastal areas and suggest building on the FAO guidelines for the management of deep-sea fisheries in the high seas. Even for the scientific criteria for identifying “ecologically or biologically significant areas” it says the FAO criteria for “vulnerable marine ecosystems” may be relevant. The main challenge is the lack of data on this sector.

Therefore, “to increase the very limited knowledge available on the impacts of a particular activity,” the agenda paper suggests that countries allow activity on a very small scale with stringent conditions for monitoring and surveillance, so that these provide better information for a more complete assessment of the impact at larger scales. But activists fighting for the protection of biodiversity in the world’s largest commons of the high seas know that the biodiversity convention has words but no bite. It can at best suggest guiding principles for assessment of damage to marine biodiversity and urge governments to declare more ocean areas as protected. At the Rio+20 conference, held not so long ago, commercial interests in exploiting the high seas, defeated the proposed international convention for safeguarding and regulating the high seas. At CBD they hope moral pressure and the some promise of money could do some trick, small as it may be.

Access and benefits to whom?

Marine, however, is just one of the pressing issues before CoP-11. Meeting two years after the parties agreed in Japan on the landmark Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits arising from their Utilisation, CBD has to find ways of hastening implementation of this protocol which is yet to come into force. So far, 92 countries have signed the protocol but just five have ratified it; at least 50 instruments of ratification are necessary before it can be made operational.


The Nagoya Protocol sets in place the third pillar of CBD whose main goals are conservation of biodiversity, its sustainable use and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources or access and benefit sharing (ABS) for short. The ABS protocol has been hard fought by indigeous and farmer right activists. They want the benefits of biodiversity to go to the rightful owners of knowledge and resource. But getting the protocol is just one small step. Its ratification is another. More importantly, the protocol demands that countries must take enabling national action to implement the provisions of the protocol.

Salt marshes, natural storm barriers are vanishing at an annual rate of 1-2 per cent, finds Global Biodiversity Outlook- 3. Earth has already lost 25 per cent of her salt marshes, which are key ecosystems that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the US, they account for more than a fifth of the carbon absorbed by all ecosystems, despite covering a relatively small area

This is easier said than done, as countries like India, are finding (see ‘A bill for biodiversity’). Hyderabad will need to discuss how to make the Nagoya Protocol a reality.

Biosafety without liability

There is also the meeting of parties (MoP) on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which is a prelude to CoP-11. Top issues for discussion are regulations related to handling, transport, packaging and identification requirements for living modified organisms (LMOs) and to unintentional trans-boundary movements and emergency measures, both critical to ensure that no contamination of genetic biodiversity takes place. What is worrying is the increasing incidence of contamination worldwide. The GM Contamination Register lists 366 known contamination cases and illegal releases of LMOs since 2005 when the database was first set up. This year alone, 24 individual cases have been recorded in Asia, Africa and Europe, and many of these involve unapproved LMOs. The data is compiled from public reports by Greenpeace and GeneWatch UK. Although Article 17 of the Cartagena Protocol spells out what Parties must do when contamination happens, very few, just nine, have reported receiving information of unintentional trans-boundary movements arising from their jurisdiction, while the majority (133) reported that they have never received any such information, during the reporting period of the second national report, says an analysis by the CBD secretariat. Additionally, four Parties reported unintentional introduction of LMOs in their jurisdiction through imports of food or seed.

A briefing paper prepared by Third World Network for MoP-6, notes the clear “disjuncture between known cases of unintentional trans- boundary movement and what is notified to Parties. This could be because the source of some contamination may be from non-Parties to the Protocol”. But Parties to the Protocol have also fulfilled their notification obligations. The Hyderabad meeting would have to take a decision that includes the development of tools and guidance that assist Parties to detect and take measures to respond to unintentional releases of LMOs.

All is not well

CoP-11 meets amid the clangour of fresh alarm bells. A flurry of recent reports has revealed that biodiversity—across ecosystems, across species and in their genetic variety—is not faring well at all. In a study titled ‘Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity’ published in the June 7 issue of Nature, a group of 14 academics said that future loss of species has the potential to reduce plant production just as much as global warming and pollution.

In the first study to directly compare biodiversity loss to other environmental stresses, the results underscored the need for better strategies to protect biodiversity. Loss of biological diversity will rank as one of the top five drivers of global change, they warned. In ecosystems where 21 to 40 per cent of the species go extinct, plant growth is expected to decrease by 5-10 per cent, an effect comparable to climate warming, or increased UV radiation from stratospheric ozone loss. But at higher levels of extinction, the impact would be similar to acid deposition on forests, ozone pollution and nutrient pollution.

So what’s to be done? CBD executive secretary Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, who took charge this year, says he has started discussions with his team and partners on how to put into place mechanism to monitor the Aichi Targets. “The challenge here is to make the indicators implementable. Online reporting systems should be established so that we are not surprised in 2020, but rather that we know well in advance if we will meet the targets or not,” he says in a detailed interview published in the latest CBD newsletter.

Other measures have been take at the global level that might stem the loss of biodiversity. In April, after years of wrangling, agreement was reached on setting up the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a global platform that will regularly assess the state of biodiversity and the essential services they provide to all of us.

Experts say IPBES is expected to gain the same scientific authority and policy influence as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) but hopefully without controversies that have dogged it. A multidisciplinary expert panel that will pull together dispersed information and analyses on biodiversity and ecosystems is to be formed before the plenary in early 2013. But key issues related to funding, expertise and institutional design are yet to be worked out. And given the history of IPCC, bridging the gap between science and policy-makers will be a formidable challenge.

Mainstreaming biodiversity

With the focus on mainstreaming biodiversity concerns, some governments are taking measures to integrate biodiversity values into poverty reduction strategies and in the planning processes at the national and local level. India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) says such an exercise is under way in the country but the problem is complex.

Special secretary M F Farooqui told Down To Earth that biodiversity has to be mainstreamed by linking it to livelihoods. For instance, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, the world’s largest social security programme, needs to be dovetailed into the biodiversity conservation agenda, he says.

CBD Parties have till 2020 to incorporate biodiversity values into national accounting and reporting systems. However, the underlying problem is that the Aichi Targets are politically difficult because the danger of biodiversity loss seems distant and there are always more pressing developmental concerns that push conservation to the background, leading to the risk of reaching tipping points. The CBD secretariat’s document for CoP-11 warns of this danger.

Africa may be losing more than $15 billion from the piracy of its biodiversity as agricultural products, cosmetics, drugs and traditional knowledge are being patented by multinationals with no benefits going to local communities. So says the National Indigenous Knowledge System Office of South Africa. The best known case relates to Nestle subsidiary Nestec’s claim for five patents on using rooibos and honeybush plant extracts

“Biodiversity loss seems distant and can be crowded out by more pressing concerns. It is, therefore, important to highlight the expected benefits associated with the implementation of the Aichi Targets, including sustainable development and poverty reduction benefits.”

But most of all, achieving the Aichi Targets needs huge infusion of funds. The question is how much. A variety of exercise to get a fix on the money needed is under way and India, along with the UK, has set up a high-level panel (HLP) to provide as robust an assessment as possible of the resources needed to achieve the 20 targets. An estimate will be presented at CoP-11. HLP chair Pavan Sukhdev told Down To Earth, “We have made reasonable estimates from available information and research, and also pointed out the considerable gaps in information which need further research” (see ‘A bill for biodiversity’).

So far, the best documented estimates of funding needs have focused on the costs associated with protected area (PA) networks. A CBD paper on resource mobilisation strategy estimates the cost between $20 billion and $50 billion a year. Spending on tropical terrestrial protected area would have to go up from about $1 billion annually to about $13 billion per year, while an additional $6-20 billion a year is needed for marine protected areas. Estimates that also include maintenance of biodiversity for total ecosystem protection in the context of climate change mostly fall in the range of $300-$400 billion per year. The assessment of funding needs in the Little Biodiversity Finance Book puts the amount of protecting biodiversity to $4-$13 billion annually for an expanded PA network covering 15 per cent of land area and to an estimated $355-$385 billion a year for total ecosystem protection.

Mission sustainability
The Aichi Targets are aimed at addressing the underlying causes of biodiversity loss, reducing the direct pressure on it and improving the status by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity
Minimise multiple anthropogenic pressures on coral reefs and other vulnerable ecosystems impacted by climate change or ocean acidification to maintain their integrity and functioning
Put in force the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits
Commence implementing an effective, participatory and updated national biodiversity strategy and action plan
Make people aware of the value of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably
Integrate biodiversity values into national and local development and poverty reduction strategies and incorporate them into national accounting reporting systems
Phase out or reform incentives and subsidies harmful to biodiversity to minimise negative impacts, develop positive incentives for sustainable use
Halve and, where feasible, bring close to zero, the rate of loss of all natural habitat, including forests, by 2020; and significantly reduce degradation
Fish and invertebrate stocks and aquatic plants to be managed and harvested sustainably; put recovery plans in place for depleted species, and ensure impacts of fisheries on stocks, species and ecosystems are within safe ecological limits
Areas under agriculture, aquaculture and forestry to be managed sustainably, ensuring conservation of biodiversity
Integrate traditional knowledge and practices of indigenous and local communities relevant for conservation of biodiversity in implementation of the Convention
Mobilise financial resources for effectively implementing Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 from all sources to increase funding substantially from current levels

With such staggering requirements and little global public money on the horizon, CoP-11 is looking at a clutch of innovative proposals submitted by half a dozen countries. There are straws in the wind that business will play a dominant role in this funding strategy with CBD calling for a global partnership on business and biodiversity—a theme that was discussed at Nagoya, too. The strongest signal came two weeks ago from Jeju, South Korea, which hosted the ICUN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) World Conservation Congress from September 6-15.

The dominant motif here was corporate sponsorship with big names such as Holcim, Shell, Syngenta, Nestle, Hitachi, POSCO and Hyundai taking centre stage. The emphasis at the 10-day congress was on saving ‘natural capital’ with some speakers emphasising that there is a price to be paid for using nature’s bounty. The Jeju declaration states that efforts to implement innovative financial mechanisms, including (international) payment for ecosystems services, purchase and transfer of development gender and rights based approaches, green public procurement and green tax schemes must be supported. It also says that parties should incorporate the value of natural infrastructure in planning processes and ecosystem management.

What’s interesting is the response of CBD chief who was at the congress. Feature service IPS quoted him as saying: “All the progress we have made on the CBD agenda has been very much influenced by the results of discussions at IUCN congresses.” Will CoP-11 agree to make biodiversity a subsidiary of the economy? Will it help to strengthen the web of life on the planet? We need to wait for the outcome.




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