Is biodiversity a washing powder?

September 21, 2010

biodiversityWorld leaders will hold special talks at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Wednesday about preserving “biodiversity”. 

That might clear up some misunderstandings — an official involved in negotiating a new U.N. treaty said that some surveys show a worrying number of people reckon it’s a brand of washing powder.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s definition runs: “Biological diversity – or biodiversity – is a term we use to describe the variety of life on Earth. It refers to the wide variety of ecosystems and living organisms: animals, plants, their habitats and their genes.”

And it’s being lost at a shocking rate — some U.N. estimates are that three species an hour are going extinct because of loss of habitats to cities, farms and roads to make way for ever more people. Related problems of pollution, climate change and alien species of plants and animals brought in from other parts of the world are also adding to losses. Only about 2 million species have been identified but there could be up to 100 million — by some estimates — from blue whales to amoeba.

As part of a harder-headed way of persuading governments to do more to protect biodiversity, economists are highlighting largely hidden values of nature, such as how forests clean the air or store carbon dioxide, or how coral reefs are nurseries for fish or help cut coastal erosion from storms or tsunamis. biodiversity2

Pavan Sukhdev heads The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity and wants governments to place proper values on the “free” services nature provides. “Just because something is free doesn’t mean it’s worthless,” he says. His team estimates that losses of “natural capital” may be between $2 and $4.5 trillion a year. His project tries to highlight how much it would cost to replace services like insect pollination. Or it shows that the long-term value of a mangrove in Thailand (a source of building wood, fish, coastal protection) is higher than cutting it down and changing it into a shrimp farm.

Negotiators have been working on a draft 20-point plan under the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, meant to be agreed in October at a U.N. meeting in Japan. Among the points in the plan (perhaps to discourage people from trying to put it in their washing machines) is that “by 2020 at the latest, all people are aware of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably”.

Talks have been sluggish — hours went on deciding whether to use the word “people” in that sentence or alternative phrases using “everyone”, “everybody”, “humankind” or “mankind”.

Some want an ambitious overriding mission of “halting biodiversity losses” by 2020 — many others reckon that is out of reach after the world failed even to achieve a goal, set in 2002, of a “significant reduction” in losses by 2010. What’s the best target?

(Pictures: top left – A green grasshopper is seen at the San Francisco University Biodiversity Tiputini Station in Yasuni National Park September 9, 2010. Ecuador is launching a one-of-a-kind initiative to protect a jungle reserve in the park that contains not only a huge variety of plants and animals but 20 percent of the country’s crude oil. REUTERS/Guillermo Granja. Bottom right – A rare albino Southern Right Whale surfaces off southen Argentina, Sept 13, 2010. REUTERS/Maxi Jonas)


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