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ENVIRONMENT: Not Enough Done to Protect Biodiversity

Julio Godoy

BONN, May 21 2008 (IPS) - The UN conference on biodiversity opened in the former German capital Bonn this week in the face of new evidence that many countries, particularly the industrialised ones, are not complying with their declared goal of "substantially reducing the loss of biological diversity."

According to the study '2010 and beyond: Rising to the Biodiversity Challenge' by the environmental organisation World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) presented in Bonn ahead of the UN conference, more than a quarter of all animal species have disappeared since 1970 as a consequence of human action.

"Between 1970 and 2005 the Living Planet Index (LPI) declined by 27 percent overall," the study says. According to the study, this decline has been even stronger in the European Union, 35 percent between 1990 and 2005.

The WWF study affirms that the decimation of biodiversity has stopped temporarily and some species are recuperating, but "all evidence indicates that we have not reached a turning point towards a better conservation of species," Christoph Heinrich, director of environmental protection at WWF Germany told IPS. "The global dying of species continues."

The LPI, an internationally agreed standard to measure progress towards the global target of reducing biological diversity loss by 2010, uses population trends in species from around the world to assess the state of global biodiversity.

The index tracks a population of nearly 4,000 of 241 fish, 83 amphibian, 40 reptile, 811 bird and 302 mammal species. Indices for marine, terrestrial and freshwater species are calculated separately and then averaged to create an aggregated index.

James Leape, the WWF International director-general, points out that "biodiversity underpins the health of the planet and has a direct impact on all our lives.

"Put simply, reduced biodiversity means millions of people face a future where food supplies are more vulnerable to pests and disease and where water is in irregular or short supply," he told IPS.

"No one can escape the impact of biodiversity loss because reduced global diversity translates quite clearly into fewer new medicines, greater vulnerability to natural disasters and greater effects from global warming," Leape said.

The WWF report follows several studies saying there is no sign of slowdown of biodiversity loss. Furthermore, direct drivers of such loss, such as change of land use and climate change are expected to increase further.

Heinrich said that multiple human economic activities, from fishing on an industrial scale to the demand for energy sources, deforestation, desertification, and the consequent greenhouse gas emissions that provoke global warming, continue to kill flora and fauna around the world.

"This continuous death of species means that future generations will face hunger, thirst, disease and disaster," Heinrich said.

In addition, the loss of biodiversity is a self-multiplying process. The disappearance of one species disturbs the fragile equilibrium of nature by breaking the chain food within biological habitats, thus putting other species' existence at risk, forcing them to emigrate, adapt, or to die.

The UN conference on biodiversity aims at reviewing compliance with the targets adopted in 2002 to significantly reduce the rate of decimation of species at the global and national level by 2010.

The UN conference in Bonn takes place in the framework of the UN Convention on Biological diversity (CBD), the international treaty adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio in June 1992 to protect biodiversity.

The CBD's three main goals are conservation of biological diversity, sustainable economic use of flora and fauna, and the equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources among all countries.

In 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg endorsed the target of achieving by 2010 "a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional, and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on earth."

That year EU countries agreed to a more ambitious target – to halt biodiversity loss by 2010. Neither objective will be reached, according to environmental groups.

The UN defines biodiversity as "the variability among living organisms from all sources, including terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part."

Biological diversity provides humankind with a wide range of benefits, including important goods like timber and medicinal products, and essential support like carbon cycling and storage, clean water, and natural hazards mitigation.

The UN conference in Bonn is also looking at the need to renew agriculture and restore biological diversity in it.

Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, says that "agriculture is a prime example of how human activities profoundly impact the ecological functioning of the planet.

"During the past 50 years, humans have altered ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any other period in human history," Djoghlaf said in an interview. "Indeed, more land was converted to cropland during the last 50 years than in the previous two centuries. This is why the issue of biodiversity and agriculture is on the agenda of the Bonn conference."

The meeting in Bonn, with some 5,000 delegates from 191 countries in attendance, takes place at a time when the international community is faced with a severe food crisis.

The price of basic staples such as wheat, maize and rice have reached record highs, and global food stocks are at historical lows. One of the most important challenges facing mankind is to feed a growing population in an increasingly urbanised world confronted with the combined impacts of climate change and the unprecedented loss of biodiversity.

Djoghlaf spoke of how modern agriculture has contributed to destroying biological diversity. "Since the dawn of history, humans have used more than 7,000 plant species to satisfy their needs," he said. "During the last 100 years, 75 percent of the food crop varieties we once grew are no longer cultivated. Today, we rely on just three – wheat, rice and maize – for over two-thirds of our calories."

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