archive material: updated March 2021
Human knowledge is expanding so fast that the sequence of our discoveries has become disorderly. We have mapped the universe before completing an inventory of life on our own planet.
Scientists have struggled even to estimate the total of our living species. Their best guess lies between 5 million and 30 million. A 2011 study suggested a figure of 8.7 million, acknowledging a considerable margin of error. Only 1.2 million species have actually been identified.Biodiversity Loss
Published by IPBES, the world scientific body responsible for biodiversity policy advice, the 2019 Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades. Live coral reefs – among the most species-rich habitats on earth – have declined by an average of 4% per decade since 1990.
The IPBES report estimates that human activity is responsible for a rate of species extinction at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the natural background rate. Scientists warn that the accelerating rate of destruction of biodiversity may trigger unpredictable tipping points in our earth support systems.
It is often said that the countries most affected by climate change are those which are least responsible for it and which lack the means to adapt. Exactly the same is true of biodiversity loss. Furthermore, the undignified scramble for raw materials and genetic blueprints occurs largely in the world’s poorest countries, with insufficient reward for local economic development and poverty reduction.
At the same time, limited financial resources available to promote the sustainable use of biodiversity are skewed in favour of richer countries, mirroring the lack of funding for adaptation to climate change. The multiple sense of injustice felt by the less developed countries symbolises the mountain that must be climbed to tackle environmental change in an unequal world.
Often described as the “sixth great extinction”, this anthropogenic slaughter is compared with devastating events of geological history such as the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Indeed, the link between unnaturally high rates of species extinction and human activity is only one of the factors prompting moves towards the formal declaration of a new geological epoch to succeed the Holocene. A decision to usher in the “Anthropocene” now seems probable, given the evidence that humanity will leave a permanent mark on the earth’s geological record.
Such a radical scientific verdict on the state of the planet adds to the frustration of environmentalists at the stuttering international policy response. The challenge of decoupling our dominant economic model from its inherent abuse of nature is proving too much for the insular mindset of contemporary global leadership.
The scientific community continues to seek effective ways to explain why haemorrhaging biodiversity will sooner or later disturb other pieces in the jigsaw of planetary boundaries. Environmental campaigns, too, are considered more effective if presented on a broader canvas in which ecosystems are protected, not just for their intrinsic value, but also to secure basic human needs of food, water and energy.
Importance of Biodiversity
Biodiversity is nature’s strategic defence. If it were not so well camouflaged, we might be more careful to preserve it. This hidden hand of variety patrols each layer of the hierarchy of life in the biosphere – genes, species and ecosystems.
Take the simple example of a herd of grazing cattle. Their field is an example of an ecosystem, comprising the animals, plants, insects and all living things for which the field offers a suitable habitat. The range of these species will be one indication of biodiversity in that field.
Species diversity sustains the equilibrium of an ecosystem. The loss of one component, especially an important “keystone” species such as a pollinator, can trigger the breakdown of the whole.
Genetic diversity within the breed of cattle will be apparent from slight differences in physical appearance and temperament of each individual, as well as countless invisible traits. This form of diversity is important because it improves the likelihood that a plant or animal species will be able to adapt to disease, pests or a variation in habitat.
Ecosystems can be smaller or larger than a field. The largest and most familiar – such as lakes, wetlands and mangrove forests – are described as biomes. The incidence of biodiversity varies greatly between biomes, being most intense in tropical forests and in coral reefs.et
The bounty of nature is often subdivided into four categories – the provisioning of basic needs such as food and water, the regulation of critical earth systems such as the carbon cycle, the support of formations such as soil and the spiritual inspiration of the natural world. Our dependence on a tiny number of staple crops for food security, on combustion of fossil fuels for heat and transport, and on throwaway consumer goods, are obvious threats to these benefits of biodiversity.
Stability of ecosystems is therefore of particular importance to the top species, homo sapiens, whose rising numbers lack resilience to any disruption in supplies of life’s essentials. The world’s poorest people, 70% of whom live off the land or the sea, have little difficulty in understanding the importance of robust diversity in the natural world. There are 475 million smallholder farms on plots of less than two hectares and 150 million poor people dependent on livelihoods linked with fisheries.
By contrast, industrialised urban environments have distanced the average family from its genetic affinity with the land and sea, physically, economically and emotionally. The innate value of biodiversity has slipped off the human radar, with devastating consequences.
Causes of Biodiversity Loss
The dramatic decline in global biodiversity is attributed principally to habitat loss, resulting from changes in the use of land. Further important causes, in order of impact, are over-exploitation of natural resources, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species.
Humanity is to blame for each of these causes of biodiversity loss, with the threat to species and degradation of ecosystems likely to continue beyond 2050, without fundamental change.
These were the conclusions of the 2019 Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services carried out by IPBES, the world’s leading advisory body on the science of biodiversity. The Assessment noted that 75% of land-based habitat has been significantly altered to accommodate urbanisation, industrial development, and the expansion of agriculture. More than one third of the planet’s land surface is utilised for crops and grazing of livestock.
Inability to control the global fishing industry provides the most obvious example of unsustainable use of natural resources. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 28.8% of marine fisheries were over-exploited in 2011. The FAO has further warned that, without radical measures, commercial fishing may not survive beyond 2050.
Many of the world’s rivers have been rendered inert by dumping or careless use of industrial and agricultural chemicals. Nitrogen run-off from fertilizers encourages algae blooms which starve aquatic life of oxygen through eutrophication. On land, there is currently great alarm at the apparent link between the neonicotinoid range of insecticides and the plunging population of bumblebees.
The introduction of alien species has caused untold damage to native plants and animals. Some of this invasive interaction dates back centuries and has been accidental, for example through the inadvertent transport of rats, cats, and even jellyfish. Restoring the natural mix of species requires formidable resources as, for example, the eradication of rats on South Georgia island in 2018
In varying degree, each of these direct causes of biodiversity loss is a servant to humanity’s insatiable demand for food, water, energy and consumer goods. In turn these demands are inflated by indirect factors such as world population growth and increasing per capita incomes.
For example, the UN’s World Population Prospects estimates that cities in developing countries must expand in anticipation of doubling their populations by 2050. Most of these cities are located in biodiversity-rich tropical regions.
A further indirect cause of biodiversity loss is the dysfunctional performance of contemporary market economics. Inappropriate price signals are the inevitable consequence of attributing zero value to environmental assets.
This failing is compounded by political mismanagement of key global economic instruments. For example, even the highly developed economies of Europe and US have proved incapable of removing subsidies which are complicit in unsustainable farming practices. Global monopolies in agribusiness are permitted to flourish, narrowing the diversity of crops that feed the world.
Importance of Tropical Forests
The tropical rainforest is the jewel in the crown of the biosphere. No other ecosystem delivers more to enrich the natural resources that support life on earth. Anxiety about deforestation is therefore acute when contemplating the state of the world’s greatest rainforests, located in the Amazon region of South America, the Congo basin and in Indonesia.
Biodiversity is the most renowned attribute of the tropical forest and in particular “primary” rainforests, those which contain only native tree species and which have experienced very little human intervention beyond that of traditional forest dwellers. One hectare of Amazon rainforest can contain more plant species than the whole of Europe.
Less widely recognised is the stabilising influence exercised by tropical forests on regional climate and the water cycle. Water vapour emitted from the trees through evapotranspiration stimulates rainfall, whilst the roots reduce the risks of floods and drought by storing water and binding topsoil.
The squabbling over palatable solutions to deforestation has a tendency to overlook the human presence that finds a welcome home in the forest environment. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 60 million people live within tropical rainforests. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 500,000 members of Pygmy groups live inside the forest.
The richness of the ecosystem enables these forest peoples to pursue a wide range of traditional livelihoods, from wood and textiles to food and medicines. A further 300 million people live in close proximity to forest areas, largely dependent on their resources.
The far-reaching importance of tropical forests, from stabilising regional climate to underpinning rural economies, has not protected them from rapacious deforestation.
Tropical deforestation during a single year (to July 2020) in a single country (Brazil) amounted to 11,000 square kilometres, an area which would more than cover the island of Cyprus. After a long period of significant reduction in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon region, the rate has been rising since 2012 and has doubled since that year.
The global picture is also alarming, with deforestation increasing since the millennium, the worst years all occurring since 2015. In 2019, the rate was the equivalent of losing a football pitch of primary forest every 6 seconds for the entire year. Three countries, Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), were responsible for more than 50% of this debacle.
This rising global trend for deforestation is a major disappointment after a generation of environmental activism to protect tropical forests, supported by billions of aid dollars. However, the rapid advance of satellite technology, such as Global Forest Watch, now offers real-time accuracy for monitoring deforestation, within 100 metres of resolution, the data openly available.
Causes of Deforestation
Extracting timber, mineral and fossil fuel resources from a tropical forest prior to its clearance for agriculture remains the irresistible business model that powerful investors have relished since colonial times. Amongst these direct causes of deforestation, agricultural commodities have become by far the most important, their profile varying in each forest region.
The dominant forces in South America are cattle ranching and soy crops. Studies conclude that demand for beef accounts for more than 80% of deforestation in Brazil and in the Amazon rainforest as a whole. Oil palm plantations and the pulp and paper industries are the main culprit in Southeast Asia, where Indonesia and Malaysia supply almost 90% of the global market.
In sub-Saharan Africa, deforestation and forest degradation have been driven by the imperatives of extreme poverty that undermine wise management of natural resources. Poor farming communities often seek quick returns through “slash and burn” methods of shifting cultivation at the forest periphery.
The widespread lack of rural energy utilities in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is a further direct cause of deforestation. There are 789 million people without access to electricity and at least another two billion whose supply lacks capacity to power cooking facilities. The consequence is widespread reliance on traditional biomass methods of cooking, for which the use of forest timber for charcoal and wood fuel is the dominant choice.
Solutions to Deforestation
Most tropical forest countries are forthcoming with pledges to take control of deforestation, through legislation where necessary. Both Indonesia and DRC have in recent years attempted a moratorium on granting leases for land clearance. Such endeavours have a poor track record of enforcement, with thinly resourced government departments unable to exert control.
For businesses in richer countries, product certification is a core response to pressure from consumers. Certifying bodies such as the Forest Stewardship Council and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil oversee agreed standards of commodity sourcing.
Popular global consumer campaigns have perhaps proved more effective than certification in slowing the pace of deforestation, especially those which target the reputational risk of big corporate brand names. A sequence of such campaign victories has unleashed an avalanche of “zero deforestation” commitments announced by the sector’s most significant global companies, including Asia Pulp and Paper, McDonalds and Cargill.
Hundreds of similar commitments by major companies are on record, many of them coordinated by the Consumer Goods Forum, a global network of consumer businesses. Poor evidence of progress suggests that formidable challenges remain, not least to bring public pressure to bear on major timber importers such as China, Vietnam and Japan.
After years of painstaking negotiations and pilot programmes to reduce deforestation, the importance of preserving tropical forests gained recognition in both major multilateral agreements reached during 2015; the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Agreement.
Climate Change and Biodiversity
The rate of increase in greenhouse gas emissions and decrease in biodiversity both exceed the tolerance threshold of a stable earth system. That is the verdict of research into “planetary boundaries” by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. This research also warns that the interaction between a changing climate and biodiversity will create uncertain scenarios.
This looming concern amongst earth scientists was confirmed in the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity which ranked climate change as the third most significant cause of biodiversity loss. The report warns that global warming shrinks the area of habitat in which species can survive, whether terrestrial or marine. Even at 1.5 degrees of warming this impact is of concern. At 2 degrees, the impact doubles.
A 2017 study published in Science journal warns that “climate change is impelling a universal redistribution of life on Earth.” The lead author states that “land-based species are moving polewards by an average of 17km per decade, and marine species by 72km per decade.” Birdlife is also known to be sensitive to changing temperature of habitats.
The same threat exists in the oceans. Research published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) warns that marine species may lack the ability to adapt to the pace of ocean acidification and warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions. Describing the impact of the consequent loss of biodiversity as “overall simplification of ecosystem structure”, the researchers predict that “the future simplification of our oceans has profound consequences for our current way of life, particularly for coastal populations and those that rely on oceans for food and trade.”
Rising temperatures therefore create the perverse situation in which animals and plants need to move out of national parks and other protected areas for their own survival.
Concern about these damaging impacts of global warming are redoubled by awareness of the vital role that biodiversity plays as a defence mechanism against climate change. The value of mangrove and coral reef ecosystems in mollifying the impact of rising sea levels and storm surges is an example. Almost every country in the world is scouring its indigenous gene pool for varieties of staple crops that might be tolerant to higher temperatures, drought, floods or salinity.
Likewise, recent science has improved our understanding of the role of the biosphere as a sink for carbon. Terrestrial ecosystems, led by tropical rainforests, absorb about 25% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, whilst the oceans soak up a further 25%.
A warming planet is stressing these ecosystems, threatening to disrupt vital components of the carbon cycle. Ocean acidification and bleaching of coral reefs are examples already apparent at 1 degree of warming.
Tropical forests provide a particularly complex illustration of this highwire dance between climate and biodiversity. Rampant deforestation releases carbon dioxide through disturbance of the residue of carbon in the soil, the decay of leaves and wood, and combustion. Figures published in 2013 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that deforestation contributes about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, most of which relates to tropical forests.
Forest ecosystems will themselves react to the changing climate. In very general terms, greater concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide increases biomass formation whilst higher temperatures reduce it. The net effect is likely to be positive in temperate forest regions (mostly richer countries) and negative in the tropical forests (mostly poorer countries).
Scientists are particularly concerned that warmer and drier conditions could transform parts of the Amazon rainforest into savannah, with implications for disrupting rainfall patterns in the United States.
The presumption within international climate change agreements that two degrees of global warming represents a tolerable threshold is therefore not strongly supported by the science of biodiversity.
Conservation of Biodiversity
Conservation of biodiversity is one of the three core objectives of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). For this purpose, most countries have legislative frameworks in place for designating areas of land or sea as national parks. There are over 250,000 of these protected areas in the world, each sharing the broad aim to prohibit any human intervention that might alter its natural state.
At the 2010 CBD Conference at Nagoya in Japan, it was agreed to set 2020 targets to increase protected areas to at least 17% of the world’s land area and 10% of the oceans, from the 2010 baseline of 12.7% and 1.6% respectively.
Progress has fallen short of these targets, According to the Protected Planet database, 15.4% of terrestrial and 7.7% of marine areas were protected in early 2021. Particular disappointment stems from the failure to agree a network of sanctuaries in the Antarctic Ocean, despite support of the majority of countries involved in negotiations.
Establishing new targets for protected areas was a task scheduled for the 2020 biennial conference of parties to the CBD, now postponed to 2021. The draft text under consideration includes the goal that protected areas should cover “at least 30% of land and sea areas with at least 10% under strict protection by 2030.” Many environmentalists are unhappy with the new distinction between “protected” and “under strict protection.”
Prospects for the marine target may depend on efforts to overcome the current legal void in the vast area that lies beyond coastal waters under national jurisdiction, about two thirds of the oceans. The UN has instigated negotiations to adopt the framework of an existing treaty, the UN Convention on the Law of the, Sea. Hopes of conclusion in 2020 have been put on hold by Covid-19. Balancing the interests of richer and poorer countries in protecting fish stocks will not be straightforward.
International reappraisal of such crucial environmental goals is bound to provoke debate about the effectiveness of protected areas. Insatiable demand for natural resources, combined with weak law enforcement, limits capacity to prevent illegal poaching, logging and clearance for agriculture. Such realities prompt debate as to whether the aims of protected areas would be better served by permitting a degree of normal human activity.
A very different branch of conservation of global biodiversity exists in a relatively microscopic dimension. Many national authorities have established seed and gene banks where thousands of varieties are stored as protection against catastrophe. As these repositories are known to be fallible to violent conflict or natural disaster, duplicate specimens are frozen in the “doomsday vault,” the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in northern Norway. The Vault holds more than a million varieties.
Solutions to Biodiversity Loss
For those living in advanced economies, the most effective solution to biodiversity loss is to reduce consumption of meat and dairy produce. Loss of habitat converted to agriculture, combined with land degradation through intensive farming practices, is the principal contributor to the decline and extinction of species. Livestock farming requires disproportionate areas of land.
Selective purchasing decisions can also deter unsustainable food production. Organic food is one example. Reassurance about sustainable fishing methods can be gained through certification of seafood products, such as that offered by the Marine Stewardship Council.
All governments should seek to extend protected areas and national parks – and strive to enforce the relevant legislation.
Governments of richer countries continue to provide subsidies to their farmers estimated to total $450 billion per annum, supporting production methods which degrade soil and promote monoculture environments. Diverting subsidies towards sustainable land stewardship would achieve greater long term benefits.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that about three-quarters of the genetic diversity once found in agricultural crops has been lost over the last century. Partly on account of subsidised industrial farming, just three staple crops – wheat, maize and rice – now provide more than half of plant-based calories in the global human diet. Thousands of traditional crops have not only been discarded for food production but have themselves become threatened species.
Importing this model, involving consolidation and modernisation of small farms, brokered by agribusiness corporations, may not therefore be the obvious strategic choice for governments in the world’s poorest countries. But they face dilemmas in protecting biodiversity whilst pursuing their goal of reducing poverty. The FAO estimates that there are 475 million smallholdings of less than two hectares – this is where the world’s most acute poverty is located.
An alternative to the modern farming approach seeks higher yields through intense husbandry on small farms. Described as “agro-ecology” or “eco-farming”, this low input model requires skills in soil regeneration, nitrogen fixation, natural pest control and agro-forestry, each of which depends on greater variety of crops and peripheral plants.
Reconciliation of these polarised approaches to agriculture is critical to both food security and biodiversity.
Scientific reports on sustainable development commissioned by intergovernmental bodies increasingly advocate that the traditional branches of environmental science should be considered together. In particular, climate change has moved up the agenda of concerns for biodiversity.
Detailed implementation of multilateral environmental agreements increasingly overlaps. This difficulty is most apparent in the three separate 1992 UN Conventions addressing the interconnected problems of biodiversity, climate change and desertification. Decision-makers should seek complementary solutions for these areas, as indeed for the entire social and economic programme represented by the sustainable development goals.
Many of the world’s major corporations are beginning to acknowledge not just the reputational risk of unsustainable supply chains but also the more fundamental business risk of ecosystem failure. Commodities such as coffee and cocoa are integral to the global economy, yet dependent on delicate ecosystems. A production method involving freshwater will depend on a reliable supply which in turn requires stable local ecosystems.
Companies should factor these supply considerations into their risk analysis, allocating capital investment accordingly.
A world economy in which ecosystems and biodiversity are recognised as the highest and non-negotiable tier of economic capital, framing policymaking and business strategies, offers a vision of the solution to biodiversity loss.
An innovative path to achieve supremacy of ecosystems has been pioneered in a small number of countries since 2017, including New Zealand, and Bangladesh. This grants legal rights to rivers and other environmental assets of especial cultural significance, as though the ecosystem has human agency. The implications are uncertain but any development affecting these rivers is likely to encounter legal hurdles.
Sustainable Development Goals for Biodiversity
The principal international treaty addressing biodiversity is the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The Convention was one of several important outcomes of the Rio de Janeiro “Earth Summit” in 1992.
A Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 was approved at the 2010 CBD conference at Nagoya in Japan, supported by goals known as the “Aichi Biodiversity Targets.” The Aichi targets were largely reproduced in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the all-embracing development programme approved by world leaders at the UN in 2015. The SDGs tackle biodiversity in separate goals addressing marine and terrestrial concerns:
Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems…. and halt biodiversity loss
Achieving biodiversity targets will also be essential to the SDGs relating to food security and freshwater.
Prospects for SDGs relating to biodiversity suffered a setback as the 2020 Aichi targets came under scrutiny. The CBD’s most recent progress assessment, known as the Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, concluded that: “none of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets will be fully met, in turn threatening the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and undermining efforts to address climate change.” There is concern that many National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans are neither sufficiently aligned with the Targets nor adequately resourced.
Adequate resourcing is indeed a challenge for the CBD itself; its major conferences are held only every two years, lacking the media and political commitment enjoyed by the sister UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Financial flows from richer to poorer countries in support of biodiversity plans are a fraction of climate finance. And the United States has never signed the CBD.
The crucial 2020 CBD conference, tasked with articulating a new strategic plan to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2030, has fallen victim to Covid-19. Negotiations on the draft of a Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework have commenced, with the aim of concluding agreement at a rescheduled conference in 2021.
As a rallying cry to restore confidence in multilateral action on biodiversity, over 80 countries, including the European Union, have signed a “Leaders’ Pledge for Nature,” committing to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.
Since 2013 the CBD has been advised by a scientific body, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. IPBES aims to improve the quality of scientific advice to policy makers and to identify priorities for much-needed new research.
Biodiversity Finance and Economics
The cost of national action plans to achieve biodiversity targets agreed at the 2010 conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has been estimated at “between US$ 150 billion and US$ 440 billion per year.” by a UN High Level Panel. Targets for biodiversity finance required by the more recent 2015 Sustainable Development Goals will be even more demanding. Nonetheless, most scientists believe that the ultimate costs of not achieving these targets would be higher still.
As such financial goals are almost certainly out of reach, environmentalists press governments to take a more holistic view, addressing areas of expenditure which lead to destruction of biodiversity – such as inappropriate agriculture and fishing subsidies.
Another option is to scale up an established model known as “payments for ecosystem services” (PES) in which a government, or other beneficiary of a natural resource, pays households and farmers whose land management dictates its sustainability. There are about 550 PES schemes in place globally, the most popular being watersheds, for which transactions valued as $25 billion were in place in 62 countries in 2015. Many of these schemes have social as well as environmental objectives, typically associated with rural development.
As with other multilateral environmental agreements, the poorest countries will require assistance in funding their biodiversity plans. This topic is prominent in the biennial CBD conferences but the outcome is invariably similar to that for climate finance, with vague assurances that small amounts of aid funding can leverage large amounts of private sector engagement.
The best-known example of a model for transferring resources from rich to poor countries, indirectly benefiting biodiversity, is technically classified as climate finance, having evolved in climate change negotiations for tackling deforestation. Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) involves payments to forest communities in return for measurable conservation of the forest inventory.
In practice, designing such schemes in low income countries is proving far more complicated than the basic principle implies. And REDD is criticised as a cheap licence for rich countries and businesses to carry on polluting.
The richer countries, too, face the challenge of resourcing substantial price tags attached to their own biodiversity action plans. There is widespread interest in experimenting with financial mechanisms which aim to overcome the failure of contemporary economics to reflect the value of biodiversity in market prices.
A series of reports demonstrating possible economic tools has been published under the heading of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), a research initiative sponsored by the UN Environment Programme. By attributing monetary values to “ecosystem services”, the studies argue that decision-making by policymakers and businesses could be better informed; for example, by comparing the cost of restoring a damaged ecosystem with the economic benefit of a development.
The TEEB publications introduce ideas that go further than PES schemes, many under the banner of “innovative” private sector finance and “market mechanisms” for biodiversity. A 2013 UK government publication, described as a “best practice guide”, states that “examples of market-based mechanisms include trading systems in which irreversible damage (to biodiversity) in one place is compensated for through improvements elsewhere (eg biodiversity offsetting).” The European Commission has also conducted a consultation on biodiversity offsetting.
Many environmentalists question the scientific basis of offsetting. Critics of market mechanisms anticipate the biodiversity equivalent of carbon trading which has a chequered history in raising climate finance. And they object in principle to putting a price on functions in nature which are critical to human life, observing that it is impossible to calculate the cost of restoring an extinct species or an ecosystem which has totally collapsed.
If the economics of biodiversity fails at the extremes, then there may be no choice but to respect a combination of science and the precautionary principle in our search for sustainable development.
Biodiversity Access and Benefit-Sharing
The most valuable seed and genetic material tends to be found in the poorest regions of the developing world where indigenous communities rarely possess the capacity to defend their rights as custodians.
The World Health Organization estimates that three-quarters of modern drugs are derived from traditional indigenous knowledge. Another example is the frantic search for “climate-ready” drought-tolerant maize. In the hope of cornering the world market, biotechnology giants have lodged multiple patent applications for modified gene sequences of local crop varieties.
Inevitably, such measures have been described as appropriation or “biopiracy” rather than equitable sharing of commercial benefits. The implied claim of a corporate “invention” of a seed variety developed by generations of indigenous farmers is anathema to global justice campaigners.
A major breakthrough was achieved with the adoption of the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilisation at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference in 2010.
Coming into force during 2014, the Nagoya Protocol provides a legal framework for equity between national sovereignty, the rights of local communities and the cause of science or commerce. Host countries should not withhold permissions if the terms for sharing benefits are reasonable. And they must facilitate community protocols, observing the principle of “free prior informed consent” from local people before approving access for outside commercial interests.
With good reason, global justice campaigners remain uneasy that the long years of tortuous line-by-line negotiations of the Nagoya Protocol have not kept pace with the lightning advances in genetic engineering. Highly sophisticated bio-technologies such as synthetic biology, Crispr and gene drives have brought fresh complexity to the troubled world of biodiversity.
It is possible that concerns about these technologies could be addressed by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which came into force in 2003, within the CBD framework. This Protocol was drawn up to protect natural organisms from contamination by early examples of genetically modified organisms. A Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress was adopted in 2010 to enable countries to claim damages when cross-border contamination occurs.
Environmental campaigners called unsuccessfully on the 2016 CBD conference to impose a moratorium on the development of gene drives which can rapidly spread a desired characteristic through an entire species population. Sterilisation of malaria-carrying mosquitoes is the most advanced example.
Synthetic organisms can now be developed from openly available databases of genetic sequencing, with no transfer of actual material and with no benefit accruing to the country of origin. Marketing a synthetic food product, such as vanilla flavouring, will be at the expense of farmers whose genuine vanilla pods delivered the base genetic pattern.
A further gaping hole in the UN’s best intentions is found in the high seas. The Nagoya Protocol has no reach beyond coastal waters. The Financial Times has reported that of 13,000 registered marine patents, over half are owned by a single company (BASF) whilst 165 countries own none at all.