A call to put a value on biodiversity




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Without radical action to conserve Earth's biodiversity, economies, livelihoods and lives are at severe risk, according to a report released by the UN last week.

"Humanity has fabricated the illusion that somehow we can get by without biodiversity or that it is somehow peripheral to our contemporary world," said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Program.

"The truth is we need it more than ever on a planet of six billion heading to over nine billion people by 2050."

The Third Global Biodiversity Outlook report states that essential and basic services to human societies will be lost unless we get serious about conserving our biodiversity.

The global rate of extinction is 1,000 times higher than it should be, the report says, and it's affecting food and livestock diversity as well.

Michael Roache, Threatened Species Program Manager for the WWF Australia told G that loss of biodiversity is affecting Australia's resources.

"Given the need for water purchases, there's an increasing difficulty for farmers to maintain agriculture in the Murray Darling-Basin," said Roache.

The Outlook confirms failure of world governments to reach a target set with the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2002 for a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.

192 countries (including Australia) and the European Union agreed to the 2010 biodiversity target. No government has met the target at the national level.

In an official press release last week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that the findings of this year's Outlook make it clear that "conserving biodiversity cannot be an afterthought once other objectives are addressed".

Tipping points

UN experts warn that if we continue to use the variety of life on Earth in an unsustainable way, we will reach three potential 'tipping points' that will severely affect human societies.

The three main 'tipping points' mentioned in the report are dieback of the Amazon forest, degradation of freshwater, and collapse of coral reef ecosystems.

Without these three crucial ecosystems, the report argues that the impact on the well-being of humans will be severe. There's an imminent risk that we'll lose access to clean freshwater, productive agriculture, fisheries, medicine, and the many services that coral reefs provide (see G's feature story on coral reefs HERE).

Once these ecosystems are gone, the report warns that it may be difficult or impossible to recover them.

Valuing biodiversity

"If the Global Biodiversity Outlook was a financial report, then world governments wouldn't hesitate to jump in and help solve problems, but because it is a non-financial report governments are reluctant to follow through with targets," Roache said.

"The Australian federal budget released last week has shown a net drop in money going into environmental restoration, when every indication is that we should be increasing our conservation efforts."

Steiner said that economics are a key reason why the 2010 biodiversity targets were not met. "Many economies remain blind to the huge value of the diversity of animals, plants and other life-forms and their role in healthy and functioning ecosystems from forests and freshwaters to soils, oceans and even the atmosphere," he said.

"Many countries are beginning to factor natural capital into some areas of economic and social life with important returns, but this needs rapid and sustained scaling-up."

"If the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem does collapse, then Australia will loose coastal fisheries and a valuable tourism industry - not to forget the capacity to reduce the impact of storms on the mainland," said Roache.

In 2009, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority estimated the tourism value for the Reef at $5.1 billion, other recreational and cultural activities $153 million, and fishing $290 million.

The UN General Secretary agreed. "To tackle the root causes of biodiversity loss, we must give a higher priority in all areas of decision making and in all economic sectors."

The Outlook has been touted as a key input for discussions at the UN General Assembly in September this year. In addition, a new strategic plan will be developed by the UN Environment Program in Japan in October this year.

While Roache doesn't discount the value of an international agreement in October, he hopes for a more proactive approach from governments.

"In terms of biological diversity, we don't need an international agreement to create action in Australia. We can make the decision tomorrow."