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BIODIVERSITY: Earth’s Life Support Systems Failing

Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Oct 13 2009 (IPS) - The world has failed to slow the accelerating extinction crisis despite 17 years of national and international efforts since the great hopes raised at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

The last big promise to act was in 2003, when government ministers from 123 countries committed to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.

Experts convening an international meeting in South Africa this week agree that target will not be met next year, which is also the International Year of Biodiversity.

“It is hard to imagine a more important priority than protecting the ecosystem services underpinned by biodiversity,” said Georgina Mace of Imperial College in London, and vice chair of the international DIVERSITAS programme, a broad science-based collaborative.

“We will certainly miss the target for reducing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010,” said Mace in a statement.

Biodiversity is not just weird-looking animals and pretty birds. It is the diversity of life on Earth that comprises the ecosystems that provide vital services, including climate regulation, food, fibre, clean water and air.

By some estimates, 12,000 species go extinct every year, and the rate is accelerating. Akin to a cataclysmic asteroid, pollution, logging, over-exploitation, consumption, land use changes and engineering projects have produced the planet’s sixth great extinction of species.

Freshwater ecosystems may be the first collapse of one of Earth’s life support systems in 13,000 years. Species that live in lakes and rivers are vanishing four to six times faster than anywhere else on the planet, said Klement Tockner of the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Germany.

“There is clear and growing scientific evidence that we are on the verge of a major freshwater biodiversity crisis,” Tockner told IPS.

Some experts predict that by 2025, not a single Chinese river will reach the sea, except during floods, with tremendous effects on coastal fisheries in China. Worldwide, all 25 species of sturgeon and all species of the river dolphins are either extinct or facing extinction. The species remaining in the world’s great rivers like the Danube, Rhine, Hudson and Mekong are mostly non-native species, Tockner said.

“This is a complete change, and few are aware of the threat,” he added.

Freshwater ecosystems cover only 0.8 percent of the planet’s surface, but they contain roughly 10 percent of all animals, including more than 35 percent of all vertebrates. The pace of extinctions is quickening, Tockner warns – especially in hot spot areas around the Mediterranean, in Central America, China and throughout Southeast Asia.

“Our priority must be to conserve the last free flowing river systems…there are very few left,” he said.

And many have new dams proposed to generate carbon-free electricity. Ironically, freshwater ecosystems do a better job at keeping carbon out of the atmosphere as they absorb and bury about seven percent of the carbon humans add annually to the atmosphere.

“Scientists are alarmed at how fact things are unraveling,” said Hal Mooney, an environmental biologist from Stanford University in California and the chair of DIVERSITAS, which is convening its Second Open Science Conference Oct. 13-16 with 600 experts from around the world.

“There is a real sense of urgency, but not amongst policy-makers,” Mooney told IPS from Nairobi, Kenya last week.

Mooney and others had been meeting with government officials from 95 countries in Nairobi to try and create an Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – not unlike the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The idea is to bridge the enormous divide between biodiversity science and policy and be able to provide science-based guidelines for policy-makers.

Many policy decisions, even green ones, are made without regard to impacts on biodiversity, said Anne Larigauderie, executive director of the Paris-based DIVERSITAS.

For example, government policies that encourage and subsidise the use of biofuels and biomass energy to reduce carbon emissions have largely gone forward with little investigation into the potential impacts on ecosystems.

“Such policy decisions reveal a fragmented view of the world,” Larigauderie told IPS in an interview in Geneva last August.

While major decisions about the fate of the climate will be made at the Copenhagen climate treaty negotiations in December, those involved know little about biodiversity. Some carbon reduction programmes carried out poorly, such as the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), could be a disaster for biodiversity and make climate change worse, she said.

“Climate change impacts biodiversity and vice versa,” Larigauderie said.

However, governments are not yet ready to integrate or mainstream biodiversity concerns into their daily decision-making. After four and half years of talking about an IPCC-like organisation for biodiversity, they failed to agree in Nairobi, said Mooney.

“It will be at least another year… There is a mismatch between speeds of ecosystem decline and political decision-making,” he said.

And without such an organisation, there is little possibility the accelerating decline in species will slow. As with climate, governments need to firmly commit to binding targets, but no specific biodiversity protection targets are likely for some years.

“If we already had created IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service) the world would have new science-based targets in place,” said Mooney. “We’re hoping that missing the 2010 target to stem the rate of biodiversity loss will create the momentum to get governments to create IPBES.”

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