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Q&A: The Threatened Have Some Friends

Miren Gutierrez* interviews AHMED DJOGHLAF, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity

BELLAGIO, Italy, Jul 17 2009 (IPS) - Declining amphibian populations, dwindling fish stocks, waning ocean biodiversity, loss of forests…All scientists acknowledge that the rate of species loss is greater now than at any time in human history.

Ahmed Djoghlaf Credit:

Ahmed Djoghlaf Credit:

But there are forces that are attempting to stop and correct the damage.

Ahmed Djoghlaf is one of the most well known global warriors against biodiversity loss. He is trying to make the most out of the International Year of Biodiversity next year, and of international meetings in the run-up to the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 10) in Nagoya in Japan in October 2010.

Executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) since 2003, he has also been assistant executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), coordinator of UNEP's division of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and general rapporteur of the preparatory committee of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), better known as the Rio Summit.

IPS: You said recently that "we receive increasingly strong signals of distress from the natural systems that provide the services that sustain our daily needs and livelihoods." What are those signals, and is anything being done to respond to them?

Ahmed Djoghlaf: The last assessment of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) – done by 2,500 experts – demonstrated in 2007 that climate change is real, that it is happening now, and that we, human beings, are responsible for it. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – in which more than 1,300 experts participated, launched in 2005 – demonstrated that the loss of biodiversity is real, and it is an unprecedented threat to the ecosystems.

The current rate of extinction is a thousand times the natural rate. We are maybe reaching a turning point where we cannot reverse this crisis. We are experiencing the sixth global mass extinction of species, but the first human-caused mass extinction. Climate change is one of the main drivers of loss.

The different studies concluded that, by 2010, we could achieve what the heads of state decided in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, provided we undertook unprecedented efforts at all levels.

Unfortunately, these unprecedented efforts have yet to be made. By 2010, surely, when the (United Nations) General Assembly in September 2010 meets, it will be difficult for any head of state to say that his or her country has achieved the promise.

However, this will be a unique opportunity for the leaders of the world to produce a change to stop the silent tsunami of the loss of biodiversity.

Djoghlaf spoke with IPS during a meeting on agricultural biodiversity organised by Bioversity International – the largest international research organisation dedicated to conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity.

IPS: Biodiversity loss and climate change are intimately linked. However, the recent G8 forum on energy and climate in L'Aquila, Italy, produced a declaration that included no concrete commitments on how much air pollutant emissions should be cut and when. What is your reading of the meeting? Ahmed Djoghlaf: The declaration is important. Of course, long-term targets need to be set, as well as short-term targets. The leadership of the G8 should commit to a post-Kyoto agreement in Copenhagen (next December).

This has been the first time that these heads of state endorsed the biodiversity commitments contained in the Syracuse Charter on Biodiversity, issued during the G8 environment summit in April this year. The Syracuse declaration was a very strong statement to take leadership on biodiversity and to finalise the negotiation under the international regime by 2010 in Nayoga.

The climate change challenge is a technical and financial issue, but it is first an environmental issue. Tropical deforestation contributes to 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Tropical forests are disappearing at a rate of about 13 million hectares per year, together with biodiversity that has yet to be recorded. Oceans absorb 20 percent of emissions; however global warming weakens the capacity of the oceans for natural abortion of emissions.

IPS: In L'Aquila, developing nations argued that, before committing to any action, industrialised countries should first agree to a 40 percent reduction of emissions by 2020, related to 1990 levels. Most biodiversity wealth is located in the so-called South. What do you think the role of developing countries should be? AD: Indeed, countries like India or China have more biodiversity than all G8 countries put together. Therefore the dialogue between the G8 and its partners in the South, that is, those who are rich in technology and financial resources, and those who are rich in biodiversity, is essential for the three objectives of the Convention on Biodiversity (conservation of biological diversity, its sustainable use, and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits of genetic resources).

The strong partnership between the North and the South that emerged from the Rio declaration (in 1992) is essential. It contained the basis for the links between rich countries and developing countries, and it should provide leadership and different responsibilities based on contributions and needs.

IPS: It should, but why wasn't a more substantial agreement reached at L'Aquila? AD: Because short-term interests are prevailing. If you think about the long- term targets, then all parties have all to win from an agreement: North, South, humanity will win. Short-term politics, short-sighted politicians are prevailing. We cannot afford to have this.

IPS: The position of developed countries – which urged developing nations to make a commitment to cut emissions by 2050 – and of developing countries stand far apart as the Copenhagen climate change conference approaches. What are your expectations for Copenhagen? How will this influence what happens in 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity? AD: Climate change and biodiversity loss are closely interlinked, and any agreement reached in Copenhagen will affect positively or negatively the biodiversity summit in 2010. The leaders of the world and the international community cannot afford to miss the Copenhagen opportunity to renew the efforts to attack climate change.

IPS: One in four mammals is at risk of disappearing, according to the red list of threatened species of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But the 2010 biodiversity target is to significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. Is this still achievable? What would you consider 'significant'? AD: This is a major problem the international community will face in Nagoya, where about 8,000 people will assess the progress made to achieve the 2010 target. We are working on a major study, the Global Biodiversity Outlook, which will be released in 2010, based on national reports governments are supposed to send. It will offer a snapshot of the state of biodiversity. There will be scientific data on whether countries have achieved the target.

More important than pointing fingers is to draw lessons from the Johannesburg target (for 2002) and the Nagoya strategy post-2010. So, 'significant' compared to what? The 2002 baseline assessment report? We hope that (the Nagoya strategy post-2010) criteria are measurable, identifying mechanisms to achieve targets because it is important to take decisions at the national level that translate into strategies.

IPS: COP 10 will evaluate the status of the 2010 biodiversity target and discuss a new target. Do you expect to have good news about concrete biodiversity indicators? What has changed since COP 1 in 1994 in Nassau, Bahamas? AD: The convention is unique and complex, and it has taken some time to adopt. There are work programmes in all sectors, guidelines in cross-cutting areas. And now the time has come to implement the convention.

What is happening now in comparison with the Bahamas meeting is that parties are engaged in the implementing phase. Also in L'Aquila you had heads of state referring to the Convention on Biodiversity. This started with the G8 summit of Heiligendamm in 2007, and was followed up in the Hokkaido/Toyako summit. This commitment has taken some time to emerge.

Biodiversity is mainstreamed at the highest level. Next year we will make a case in New York, during the General Assembly in September, when we will talk exclusively about biodiversity. It has never happened before. This momentum will be translated in Nagoya into concrete actions to implement the convention.

For the first time also, the U.N. has devoted one year to biodiversity. At the end of 2010 all people on the planet will be aware of the challenge, committed, and a partner to change. This is a tremendous revolution.

*Miren Gutierrez is IPS Editor-in-Chief.

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