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Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Biodiversity - The Start of a Revolution?


Back in August the Guardian newspaper published an article by its Environment editor, John Vidal. The article quoted Ahmed Djoghlaf, the Secretary General of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, who warned: “What we are seeing today is a total disaster. No country has met its targets to protect nature. We are losing biodiversity at an unprecedented rate. If current levels [of destruction] go on we will reach a tipping point very soon. The future of the planet depends on governments taking action very soon.”

The article also quoted the UN Environment Programme who reported that the Earth is in the middle of a mass extinction of life. Scientists estimate that 150 – 200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. This is nearly 1000 times the natural, background extinction rate and is greater than anything the world has experienced since the dinosaurs [went extinct] nearly 65 million years ago.

Djoghlaf went on to warn that: “Destroying biodiversity only increases economic insecurity. The more you lose it, the more you lose the chance to grow.” He went on to criticise countries for separating action on climate change from protecting biodiversity. “The loss of biodiversity exacerbates climate change ... Climate change cannot be solved without action on biodiversity and vice versa.”
The article anticipated a UN report which was due out last month. This was expected to say that the economic case for global action to stop species destruction is even more powerful than the argument for tackling climate change and that saving biodiversity is cost-effective and the benefits from saving ‘natural goods and services’, such as pollination, medicines, fertile soils, clean air and water, are between 10 and 100 times the cost of saving the habitats and species that provide them.

In October representatives of more than 190 countries met in Nagoya, Japan to attempt to agree on a global strategy for conserving biodiversity under the umbrella of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The omens were not good – we all know what happened at the Copenhagen Climate Change conference last year! Nevertheless, the Nagoya conference agreed, at the 11th hour, on an ambitious conservation programme which included 20 key ‘strategic goals’ to be implemented by 2020 that should help to end the current mass extinction of species. It is intended that greater protection will be afforded to the natural world and enshrine the benefits it gives to humankind in a legally binding code of protection (‘The Independent’, 30th October 2010).

In the same edition of ‘The Independent’ Michael McCarthy commented that: “At the very least, the signing of the agreement in Nagoya ... is the moment when the international community at last began to take the destruction of the natural world seriously.” He went on to point out that: “Biodiversity loss has long been the Cinderella of global politics. For many years, while governments have prioritised the reduction of world poverty ... and the real threat of climate change, the remorseless destruction of the world’s habitats, ecosystems, species and natural genetic material has been an afterthought.” He regretted the fact that: “... the generation of politicians who made a first attempt at saving the planet at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, not only established a UN Convention on Climate Change [but also] the UN Convention on Biodiversity. But while the climate treaty has grown in importance ... the [biodiversity treaty] has never attracted the attention of world leaders.” He neatly encapsulated the whole dilemma that we have faced up to now in the following sentence: “The world’s politicians are at last waking up to the fact that this is not a matter of concern merely for middle-class birdwatchers, as some developmentalists used to dismiss it, but a threat to the fabric of all life, including our own [my italics].”

From now on it should be more difficult for people to say the sorts of things that they frequently say to me, e.g. “you care more about a few weeds than you do about people!” People are part of the fabric of life (whether some of them like it or not – it’s an inescapable fact) and if the present generation of people succeed in ‘winning’ the present vicious war against Nature their descendants will be the ultimate losers; it’s highly likely that the Human Race will follow thousands of other species to extinction. I think that it would be beneficial to stop talking in terms of “saving the planet” and more in terms of, “saving the Human Race”.

The buzzword among businessmen, economists and politicians at the moment is ‘globalisation’; they envisage a homogenised world in which goods, services and labour can be freely exchanged and shuttled around for their convenience and profit. But concern for biodiversity (and diversity in general) is about valuing and conserving the local; I strongly suspect that a truly globalised world would very soon be a dead world (or one not worth living in).

So what’s happening in our local patch of the world i.e. South Manchester? Well, the year 2010 is supposed to be UN International Year of Biodiversity but I know that, in Chorlton alone, we’ve lost at least three species this year (and I know which organisations are responsible). And there is more destruction in the pipeline e.g. the plan to push the Metrolink tram system through the Hardy Farm Site of Biological Importance and across the Mersey to Wythenshawe and the airport. GMPTE and their contractors assure us that they intend to put adequate mitigation measures in place – but I fear that more local extinctions will be inevitable.

For many years I had assumed that local politicians saw us conservationists as, at worst, a mild irritant – a bunch of eccentric “middle-class birdwatchers” and, at best, insignificant ‘bugs’ to be squidged under the vast tyres of the mighty juggernauts ‘progress’ and ‘economic growth’ (along with all the real, insignificant and eminently squidgeable, bugs). But even that is beginning to change. In October Mr John Leech, MP for Withington, put the following motion before the House of Commons:

That this House notes that 2010 is the UN's International Year for Biodiversity; believes that the alarming rate of biodiversity loss is not only an environmental problem but also threatens people's livelihoods, human well-being and economic progress, as well as undermining capacity to address other major challenges such as climate change; further believes that the 10th Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (Nagoya, Japan, October 2010) is an opportunity for governments to signpost sustainable ways to manage the planet's limited resources to reduce global poverty, as are the upcoming international negotiations on climate change in Cancun; welcomes the report Banking on Biodiversity: a natural way out of poverty, published by the International Institute for Environment and Development and Bird Life International to coincide with these important international meetings; agrees with this report that human prosperity is rooted in nature's riches and that governments must fully recognise the economic value of natural capital or risk deepening poverty, escalating climate change and irreversible damage to the biological wealth on which all humankind depends; and calls on the Government to contribute positively to the greener economic thinking that is required and to advocate greater integration of strategies to reduce poverty, tackle climate change and halt biodiversity loss.

When I last checked 22 other MPs has signed this motion, including Caroline Lucas and Glenda Jackson. Let’s hope that all of the other MPs in the House will see sense and catch up with our elected representative for South Manchester very soon! I hope that if you feel strongly about this (one way or the other) you will take the time to write to Mr Leech and give him your views; this is one area where we really are, “all in this together”!

I’ll leave you with a sobering thought: the Human Race, in its present form, is probably about 2 million years old – that’s 20 thousand centuries. If we keep on consuming and destroying the world at our present ferocious rate we might only have two or three more centuries left!

Dave Bishop,
November 2010

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