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ENVIRONMENT: Trapped Between Economy and Ecology

Julio Godoy

BONN, May 21 2008 (IPS) - One of the most frequent arguments against environmental protection is an alleged economic imperative. Humankind must progress economically, and the environment is only an input in the overall economic process, this argument goes.

But if the economy is about managing scarce resources, the resource most scarce, and irretrievable, is the environment and biological diversity. When one species is gone, it is gone forever. And loss of biodiversity is a self-multiplying process: the disappearance of one species, by destroying the ecological balance of eco systems, brings along the death of more.

Two cases involving the German government, hosting the UN conference on biological diversity taking place these days in Bonn, show the deceptive dichotomy between environmental protection and economic progress.

Earlier this year, the German energy giant RWE confirmed that it is planning to start a drilling project to search for fossil oil in the North Sea, the small part of the Atlantic Ocean just off the shores of Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.

The German North Sea offshore area, known as Wattenmeer, or Wadden Sea, is a fragile biological habitat. It is the only home to more than 4,000 animal species, and as much flora. In addition, the region is the seasonal stopover for some 12 million migratory birds.

In a nutshell, the Wattenmeer is a biological treasure.

For environmental activists therefore, the RWE plans are simply unethical. “The RWE plans are not only unethical, they would also violate German and European environmental protection law,” says Hans-Ulrich Roesner of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The environmental organisation Greenpeace has also protested against the oil drilling plans by sending its Beluga ship into the area, and anchoring at the sandbank known as Hoher Knechtsand, by a buoy with the legend ‘No oil drilling in the Wattenmeer’.

According to Greenpeace spokesperson Cornelia Deppe-Burghardt, RWE estimates a deposit of some 15 million tonnes of crude oil in the area.

Other organisations point out that the German government has just asked the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to place the Wattenmeer on its list of the world’s heritage sites. Oil drilling in the area would be in sharp contradiction with the UNESCO convention on protection of the world’s cultural and natural heritage.

But although the convention describes actions governments must take to protect their registered sites, it has little leverage to sanction those countries which do not comply with them. Often the reputation of a given site, coming from the UNESCO listing, is enough to boost its protection.

The RWE has confirmed its plans, but denies that the oil drilling project would violate the German environmental law. “Oil production from the area is embedded in the German national laws of environmental protection and in the German national parks legislation,” said RWE spokesperson Derek Moesche.

Moesche also insisted that the oil drilling project would not affect eventual recognition by UNESCO of the Wattenmeer as a world heritage site.

RWE already has two oil drilling facilities in the Wattenmeer, to last until December this year and December 2010. The local state government must approve the new oil drilling permits sought by RWE.

The second case of eventual biodiversity degradation is in the neighbouring Baltic Sea. Here the environmental challenge is represented by plans for a 1,220 kilometres long pipeline aimed at transporting gas from the Central Russian gas fields to Western Europe.

Due to ecological opposition from all the countries involved, the pipeline project, a joint venture of the Russian gas giant Gazprom and several German energy companies which started in late 2005, has so far not obtained a single construction permit.

According to Marcin Libicki, chairperson of the European Parliament’s Committee on Petitions, “there are serious environmental considerations that could affect the environment of the Baltic Sea.”

The committee’s task is to examine petitions from European Union citizens related to issues within the bloc. In 2007, the committee received petitions related to the Nord Stream from some 30,000 citizens, mainly from the Baltic states.

“There is real concern about this pipeline,” Libicki said at a press conference in the French city Strasbourg earlier in May.

Due to its biochemical composition, the Baltic Sea is a wholly different ecological habitat than the North Sea and the rest of the Atlantic Ocean, and has seen the evolution of divergent species.

These would be put in danger by construction of the giant Nord Stream pipeline, environmentalists contend.

Such specific themes form the larger picture of protecting the global environment and its richness in fauna and flora, being debated in Bonn since May 12 by more than 6,000 delegates from all over the world, in the framework of the UN convention on biological diversity.

The convention has set out to formulate a set of internationally binding legal measures to stop the loss of biodiversity. This treaty is scheduled to be approved in 2010 in Japan. Since the treaty must be approved unanimously, and the conflicting economic interests involved in the use of biodiversity resources are enormous, the task is not easy.

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