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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Richard Black of the BBC: A financial trick in the familiar biodiversity tale

A financial trick in the familiar biodiversity tale

Often when I've written about biodiversity down the years, I've been assailed by a strong sense of deja vu.
While "we're screwing up life on Earth" still sounds like big news to me, it isn't always to news editors, whose reaction is often along the lines of "but we know that".

And in truth, the deja vu feeling is justified. Although the evidence that prospects for life-forms on Earth (other than humans) are declining in several different ways gets clearer and clearer, the basic message is as it has been since well before 1992 when governments signed the UN biodiversity convention.


Let me pick out a statistoid from the UN's third and latest Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3) report, launched at the Zoological Society of London on Monday.

The abundance of vertebrates -- mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish -- decreased by about one-third between 1970 and 2006.

Let's put it another way.

If you'd added up the numbers of mammals, fish, birds etc in the world in 1970, and done so again in 2006, one-third of them would have disappeared in between times.

Is it just me, or is that a truly staggering figure?

A couple of other things caught my eye from GBO-3.

One is that over the same time period -- 1970-2006 -- the Earth's human population almost doubled.

The second concerns the 21 "subsidiary targets" that governments set in 2002, alongside their headline target of significantly curbing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.

The main 2010 target has been spectacularly missed
, but some of the 21 subsidiary ones have partially been met, in some regions of the world at least. They're indicated in GBO-3 by a bit of green in an otherwise red circle.

But cloaked in complete red, indicating complete failure, are the two that are most fundamental when it comes to preserving the extent to which human lives depend on what nature supplies :
Reducing unsustainable consumption of biological resources, or that impacts upon biodiversity
Maintaining the capacity of ecosystems to deliver biological resources that support sustainable livelihoods, local food security and health care
There are, of course, significant problems in trying to track trends precisely across a world in which the capacity to observe rigorously is not uniformly distributed, and where reliable documentation gets swiftly less global and less plentiful as you go back in time.

Nevertheless, there are few signs even in the most expertly documented countries that ecosystems are returning to full health.

The big white hope of the biodiversity world is, as those of you who follow this stuff regularly will know, the idea of quantifying the economic benefits that nature brings, and then persuading people and governments and businesses that these economic benefits make preservation of said ecosystems a wise policy option.


We'll have a lot more detail on this coming later in the year, but in the meantime I wanted to offer you a couple of snapshots that were offered to me at the GBO-3 launch.

First, a feathered tale from Japan. In the 1970s, Oriental storks left the country; modern rice farming methods, including pesticide use, concrete irrigation canals and keeping paddy fields under water for shorter length of time had reduced their chances of finding prey so much that they couldn't survive.

The global population of this spectacular but endangered species, by the way, is less than 3,000.

In 2003, authorities in Toyooka City, in the south of the main island of Honshu, established incentives for farmers to adopt more traditional farming methods with a strong organic component.

The results: yields are down, but the rice sells for a higher price. The storks are back, and visitors are flocking to see them.

These two factors combined have increased municipal income by more than 1%.

This win-win outcome is in microcosm what the UN Environment Programme (Unep) hopes to achieve across the world by stimulating awareness of biodiversity's economic value.

But are governments interested -- those same governments that have so signally failed to meet the 2010 target?

According to Nick Nuttall, the Unep spokesman at the GBO-3 launch in London, 30 developing country governments have recently approached Unep asking for advice on how to "green" their economies and live within nature's boundaries.

That sounds like a new twist on the old story to me.

Whether it's enough to prevent a further 30% drop in the abundance of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians, with the human population set to increase as much between now and 2050 as it did between 1970 and 2006, is another matter.


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