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The next step for biodiversity

Catherine Bearder MEP has written an article on biodiversity for the Winter edition of Challenge Magazine. Please see the full text below.

The next step for biodiversity

2010 is the UN International Year of Biodiversity. To all good Green Lib Dems this represents an opportunity to spread the message about biodiversity loss, to pressure our politicians into protecting the environment, and push the issue up the political agenda. But my fear is that for many others, it will not mean much at all.

Caring for Our Environment

What is biodiversity? I wonder if people are put off by the word alone because they just do not know what it means? Essentially biodiversity is the diverse natural environment. Protecting it is about ensuring the survival of species, of ecosystems and of natural habitats. The natural world is so interconnected that when one species becomes extinct the whole ecosystem is affected. Extinction has a domino effect, before we know it, the natural environment we depend on to feed us and to make our medicines will disappear. I hope we as a society will not need to see the negative consequences before our own eyes in order to act. If we wait that long then it will already be too late. Even with a reasonably educated public all this is not understood. Perhaps we are using the wrong terminology entirely - Biodiversity should perhaps be replaced with the words natural environment?

In the European Parliament I have been working to ensure environmental protection is included in our trade deals with other countries. Too often the environment and biodiversity are sacrificed to foster economic development. Companies are motivated by profit but it's the job of governments to make sure this self-interest doesn't come at the expense of our long-term sustainability - our long term survival. But are they building this into their economic recovery plans? Sadly not. There are corporations that recognise the benefit of effective Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. Enlightened consumers become more favourable to companies that respect the environment so everybody wins: companies become sustainable and curb their damaging practices, and in return their 'green' brand image will have a positive impact on profit margins. It seems this too little too late? But getting environmental protection into bilateral trade deals is an uphill battle.

What makes this harder to swallow is the disproportionate impact of biodiversity loss. Those who have done the most to cause it are cushioned from the effects; those who are not responsible for it will be the first to suffer its consequences. Poverty and biodiversity loss are very closely linked. It is often the poor that face the toughest consequences when our economies begins to falter. But given that whole world is dependent on the natural environment for its survival, this symbiosis is most acutely seen in developing countries. Countries across Africa, Asia and South America depend on the environment daily for their income much more than in Europe or North America. Whether through subsistence farming, animal husbandry, fishing or informal forestry, the environment provides these communities with the means for their survival.

Not only will developing countries be hit hardest by biodiversity loss but, under our current GDP-based measure of development, this impact will largely go unnoticed. If a drought halved the income of the poorest of the 28 million Ethiopians, this would barely register on the global balance sheet - world GDP would fall by less than 0.003%.

I have recently been working with my colleagues from the ACP delegations (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific regions) on how we can meet our Millennium Development Goal objectives in five years time. What is clear is that little is achievable without ensuring effective protection of ecosystems and biodiversity. Sources of income through food, water and wood will all be threatened by biodiversity loss; loss of clean water and traditional medicine services will threaten maternal health, and the fight against HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other tropical diseases will be lost. Failure to effectively value nature will prolong inequitable trade practices that offer market prices that do not reflect the true ecological costs of production.

Is a lack of understanding of the true economic value of nature what is leading to the exploitation of the environment and natural resources? The initiative called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) was set by the UN Environment Programme with funding from the European Commission. The study is led by Pavan Sukhdev, an economist by trade, and its objective is to assign an economic value to biodiversity. The theory is that, despite its inherent value, exploitation of the environment has no short term costs for businesses. Resources can be extracted, used to manufacture a product and the market value of this product does not take into account the long term ecological cost. If nature were assigned an economic value then environmental costs would be thoroughly built-in to a company's cost-benefit analysis of a project. This way the consumer really will pay the full price of a product. It will encourage businesses and individuals to pay much more respect to the environment and to recognise the cost of its exploitation.

TEEB has produced a number of reports for policymakers, local government and for businesses.

 Environmet Action Now

The final report is being aimed at delegates of the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya. It is hoped that these will become the 'Stern' report for the natural world. As I write this, delegates from around the world are preparing for Nagoya, an event where people across the world can come together to set our goals and put in place agreements to protect biodiversity. At Nagoya we could embark on a course that will save our natural environment from the abusive excesses of our society. But is there a sufficient political will to reach an effective agreement? At a Conference on Biodiversity in Ghent, the European Environment Commissioner, Janez Poto_nik, said, "We can't afford to mess up". But is his message being heard?

This conference is so important, so why does no one know it is taking place? Unless you are a regular subscriber to environmental news, or an avid watcher of BBC Parliament and other political programmes, you're unlikely to have seen the word Nagoya mentioned. Compared to the furore that preceded the UN's Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Nagoya is merely a footnote to an uninspiring Autumn Conference Season. No one is marching the streets of London to show their outrage at biodiversity inaction; no one is calling on governments to take advantage of our "last chance" in the battle against biodiversity lost. Why is this?

At the moment citizens across the world are just not engaged with biodiversity and the natural environment. It is our job as campaigners to make it more important to them. We must make clear the symbiosis between nature and our society. The fields our farmers plough to fill our fridges, the fish our fishermen catch, the plants our pharmacologists turn into medicines - these services are entirely dependent on the survival of the planet's biodiversity. Unfortunately, they are taken for granted. Without a committed electorate on board and exerting pressure on the political establishment, I wonder how long it will take politicians to mobilise on this issue? During this age of austerity, short-term costs get more attention than long-term benefits.

There is much that climate change and biodiversity loss have in common, yet as political fashions they are very far apart. The severity of biodiversity loss is great. All life is threatened if we lose the battle to save it. But biodiversity could do with a few lessons from climate change's PR team. After years of campaigning there is finally recognition of man's impact on our climate, and a consensus that we must act to stop it. Biodiversity loss is also a largely man made problem and through our actions it can be tackled.

Climate change and biodiversity loss are two sides of the same coin. They must be tackled alongside each other or else neither will be stopped. Climate change is quickly accelerating the rate of biodiversity loss, and without biodiversity, nature's built-in protection system against carbon emissions will be lost. We can set ambitious climate change targets but if we don't also protect biodiversity we will fail to reach them.

I hope that Nagoya proves fruitful but to be honest I'll be surprised if it produces earth-shattering (or saving) results. The real job lies in the hands of environmental campaigners. We have to make people realise how important this issue is otherwise I fear we won't get anywhere. It is not often we get to say cheesy lines like "the fate of the earth lies in our hands" and genuinely mean it, but this time we really can.

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