Nagoya COP10 Primer #3: with a small reference to LOL cats

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(Continuing on from previous primers: 1. Star Wars | 2. Kevin Bacon)

O.K. now on to business… Here are the Convention on Biological Diversity's three basic objectives:

1. The conservation of biological diversity

2. The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity

3. The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources

They also have – or had rather – a goal, a biodiversity target, which was the following:

In April 2002, the Parties to the Convention committed themselves to achieve 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.

This was also the reason why 2010 was proclaimed as the International Year of Biodiversity.

Unfortunately, this target is way off the mark. Even the Convention itself has said this (you can read the formal admittance of this with this pdf), while other media outlets have been much more emphatic about its failure. But regardless, as far as all can tell, biodiversity loss rates have not been reduced – not even close.

But this policy speak vernacular is part of the problem. Because "biodiversity" is such a huge, nuanced, and multifaceted issue, and because it's also a word and concept that's tricky to pin down in a public setting, it's really quite difficult for governments to follow along with the desires and targets of the CBD.

For instance, this challenge becomes immediately obvious, if you look at the mandates again and decide to nitpick.

"The conservation of biological diversity."

This statement is very much about environmental stewardship, and the effects of human impact in general. It is, in many ways, the heart of the convention, but it is also an incredibly loaded statement.

Here, one has to simply query what exactly is the best way of doing this? And then how would you measure it? Is this done by focusing on projects that look at a few species at a time; projects that survey a specific locale; or by setting up general but scientifically undefined benchmarks, such as "You must not log X% of your land." If so, can your Convention deal with all of the different contexts associated with different biomes, climates, species, etc.

To put things in perspective, we don't even technically know the number of species out there, we only have limited specific knowledge of diversity within species, and we're closer to understanding the popularity of LOL cats than having even a glimmer of understanding how Nature's grand algorithm makes everything all work together.

In fact, if you look at this busy chart (brace yourself if you do choose to click it – it looks more complicated than a biochemistry pathway chart from hell), you can see a time line of all the many different and new elements of the CBD that have been created over the years, each with a specific mandate dealing with a specific element (i.e. you get corals, I get forests, he should get invasive species, who's game for sub-humid terrains?) This just gives you a taste of the complexity involved, and consequently, demonstrates the challenge in "measuring" how biodiversity is conserved.

"The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity"

This statement is also looking at impact, but attempts to look at it from the "what's in it for me" angle. As mentioned earlier, the fruits (sometimes literally) of biodiversity are a big part of the everyday items we and the rest of society consume. As such, they are not only following the limits of the natural world, but they are also governed by the mechanics of economics, and vulnerable if not often defenseless against market forces. From this reasoning, you'd think that the economic values of "the components of biological diversity" have been properly laid out.

Unfortunately, this isn't the case. Although there are studies available that attempt to "price" these biodiversity resources (the most notable of which is the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment released in 2005), the fact of the matter is that much more needs to be done. However, this, too, is not an easy proposition. Coming up with effective ways to assign "value" to biodiversity, and perhaps more challenging, assigning them in such a way that is comprehensive in scope and universally accepted, is another difficult task.

To get a sense of all the little nuances involved in assigning value, take a look at this graph from a case study done by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).

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What this remarkable figure attempts to compare, is the traditional market value (1998 prices) of the "timber logged to supply construction and materials sector in China over the period 1950-98", versus the "ecosystem 'externalities' associated with this logging, which are not reflected in market prices" (text from the TEEB case study). In other words, the timber has a much higher inherent worth when you consider the environmental impact it has on other goods and services. These are things such as the effects due to the deforestation of said timber: like loss of precipitation, land stability for building, the increased susceptibility to flooding, etc. In fact, the graph here basically suggests that the timber might be worth much more left where it is!

Now, there's likely all manner of issues with the numbers obtained with these figures: maybe they are too approximate, maybe they work only within the Chinese scenario, maybe they are missing X, Y and/or Z. But the underlying argument, is that it's probably worth it for governments and businesses to look into such things in detail, and possibly even figure out a way to include (or "internalize", if you want to use the jargon) them into their methods of accounting. However, this is generally not the case. Certainly, it's poorly defined in the government arena. And for businesses?

A review by PwC of the annual reports of the 100 largest companies in the world by revenue in 2008 found 18 companies that mentioned biodiversity or ecosystems34. Of these, 6 companies reported actions to reduce impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems and 2 companies identified biodiversity as a key 'strategic' issue. 89 of the same 100 companies published a sustainability report, 24 of which described actions to reduce impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems, while 9 companies identified impacts on biodiversity as a key 'sustainability' issue. (The TEEB for Business report, 2010).

Obviously, more needs to be done here as well.

"The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources."

This objective is all about sharing and being fair. This too has been hardly successful. A good way to get a handle on what this objective is all about is to provide two general examples.

1. I am a poor country and I have a biodiversity related natural resource (say, a forest) that would be beneficial to my economy and therefore my constituents. I don't think it's fair for you to tell me what to do with this resource – even in the name of environmental stewardship. More so, since wealthy countries have already benefited from their past unenvironmentally friendly acts (say, cut down their forests). If you're going to insist on telling me what's the right thing to do (again in the name of environmental stewardship), should there be at least some compensation for it?

2. In my country there is this freaking awesome plant that we use for medicinal purposes. The whereabouts of this plant, the best time to harvest, and the proper way to prepare it, is knowledge that has been passed on for many years, all the way back to my earliest ancestors. Not only is the plant "freaking awesome," but it is both economically and culturally important. Now apparently, folks in business attire are planning to go "genetic and biochemical" on the plant. They hope to distill its "freaking awesomeness" to a single tangle of atoms: then possibly market it, and do business with it. To this, I say that I am not against the discovery of a "freaking awesome" tangle of atoms, but I wonder if there shouldn't be "fair" compensation to my culture. After all, the relationship between my country and the plant was what amassed all that prior knowledge: knowledge that arguably provided the crucial first step for the folks in business attire.

The problem, of course, is that both of these scenarios require a somewhat altruistic approach, which for governments can be tricky at the best of times.


in summary, even though I've tried to discuss the difficulties of the Convention on Biological Diversity by only focusing on its three main objectives (the Convention is actually more structured around a long list of "goals"), this simplistic approach still nicely shows the difficulty of the whole affair.

Still, it's not like good things haven't happened. There are countless lovely instances where excellent work has been done, particularly at the local level, and particularly related to objective number 1. There was even a recent agreement that will hopefully shed a bit of light on how objective 3 might plod along.

However, the intention of the CBD is to provide a strong overarching plan for all members of the COP to follow, and from that vantage point, it hasn't succeeded at all. The 2010 targets are seriously off, and biodiversity as a whole is suffering tremendously.

Except that now, we have another crack at rewriting the code behind the CBD. This is what Nagoya-COP10 will be all about: a sort of "o.k. people, we've kind of screwed around for the last decade or so, but we've learned some stuff, and hey, if we're gonna set the scene for the next few decades by doing something, we should do it now" conference.

But what exactly should be done? Well, more on that in my final Nagoya-COP10 post coming up.