NO Plan B, Planet B

UN meet will highlight urgent need to protect biodiversity
Grace Chua Straits Times 16 Oct 10;

ON MONDAY, policymakers from around the world will gather at a United Nations meeting in Nagoya, Japan.

The fortnight-long Tenth Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has drawn less international attention than the UN's meetings on climate change.

But it is no less important.

According to the WWF's biennial Living Planet report released this week, species populations shrank about 30 per cent overall between 1970 and 2007.

And the damage is far worse in tropical countries, which are home to most of the world's biodiversity. There, animal, plant and other species populations shrank an average of 60 per cent in the same period.

Protecting the vast array of life on earth is critical, for it supports many human activities. For instance, more than a billion people depend on seafood as their main source of protein, while fresh water for many others is filtered through forest watersheds.

To that end, some 193 countries, including Singapore, have signed and supported the CBD, an international agreement to protect biodiversity and ensure that developing countries benefit from, say, medical discoveries made on their native plants.

But the road to conservation is fraught with obstacles, say academics, non-governmental organisations and policymakers. Earlier this year, member states admitted that they had missed their 2010 target of a significant reduction in biodiversity loss, agreed on in 2002.

That is why this year's meeting is particularly critical, explained the WWF's Ms Susan Brown, head of the environment group's negotiating team.

'We don't have a Plan B because we don't have a Planet B,' she said in a phone conference earlier this week.

The CBD member states must take biodiversity loss seriously at the highest level of government, and they must put the right value on biodiversity, she urged. Already, a United Nations Environment Programme report called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, has put a price on the services that eco-systems provide.

In southern Thailand, for example, coastal land could be used for prawn farming, with an economic value of about US$1,220 (S$1,580) per hectare per year.

But it also holds mangrove forests that provide wood and other forest products (US$584 per hectare per year), serve as nurseries for young fish (US$987) and shelter communities from the force of tropical storms (valued at US$10,821).

In this case, the economic benefit of not converting mangroves to prawn farms should be clear.

So what is holding back efforts to protect biodiversity?

It's not that the political will is hard to muster, noted ETH Zurich ecology researcher Koh Lian Pin. Rather, biodiversity has to compete with many other issues.

'In the coming decades, the global human population will have to juggle conservation with economic development, food security and climate change all at once. Reconciling these often competing priorities will be the greatest challenge we face,' he said.

Closer to home, Malaysia and Singapore are already studying how gazetted nature sites in Johor - Pulau Kukup, Tanjung Piai and Sungai Pulai - can be marketed as an eco-tourism package with the popular Sungei Buloh wetland reserve.

In addition, the CBD member states are realising that biodiversity is not only about preserving wilderness. Half the world's population lives in cities, and that figure is expected to reach 70 per cent by 2050. While cities take up 2 per cent of the earth's surface area, they consume 75 per cent of its resources.

So in 2008, the City Biodiversity Index was mooted in Singapore as a way for urban centres to evaluate how well they are doing on conservation efforts.

That index is set to be adopted at this year's CBD meeting.

In preliminary tests of the urban biodiversity index, Singapore scored high on governance - rules to protect wildlife - and less well on eco-system services. For instance, there are few areas of soil here through which fresh water can be filtered.

Besides valuing and formally protecting biodiversity, the WWF's Ms Brown said, countries must set up legal protections for eco-systems, and there must be mechanisms for developing nations to benefit from medical and scientific discoveries made within their borders.

For example, a compound from a soil micro-organism isolated in Norway has been turned into a drug used to prevent organ rejection after transplants. The gains from such discoveries must be shared with the tropical, developing countries, where much of the world's biodiversity resides, said Ms Brown.

While lauding such a move, National University of Singapore biologist Peter Ng warned that there were practical implications for conservation biology research.

For instance, he said, the CBD had raised the profile of benefit sharing so much that biologists doing field research faced red tape and paperwork to get samples out of another country.

And what of that other hot-button issue, climate change?

Climate change and biodiversity are intricately related, and the WWF is suggesting that a joint work programme be set up between the two UN conventions on the issues, said Ms Brown.

The biodiversity conference takes place about a month before the United Nations' climate change meeting in Cancun.

'If we don't solve climate change, there will be new and greater threats to biodiversity,' she added. 'There's room for more than one spotlight on the stage.'