The next time someone asks you what biodiversity is, try this: “It’s about your life, life on this planet, and about what we’re doing to this planet with our eyes open.”

So said United Nations Environment Program Executive Director Achim Steiner on Monday, Oct. 18 at the opening of a U.N. meeting that has brought representatives from 193 countries to Nagoya this week and next to work out a new plan to halt the sixth great extinction event in the history of the Earth (and the only one caused by humans).

Delegates to the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), or COP10 for short, also aim to sign off on a deal to ensure that the benefits of biodiversity are shared fairly — and agree on who’s going to pay for it all.

This isn’t the first time that Parties to the CBD have attempted to turn the 17-year-old treaty’s lofty goals of conserving, equitably sharing and sustainably using biodiversity into concrete action.

In 2003, Parties drew up a so-called Strategic Plan intended to slow the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. Yet, according to the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, a report published this May by the CBD Secretariat, animal and plant populations continue to dwindle as quickly as ever.

Certainly, protected areas are growing and some local progress has been made, but the report says funding, awareness — and action — all fall short of what’s needed.

Moreover, biodiversity conservation remains relegated to environment ministries and NGOs rather than being “mainstreamed” throughout all key areas of government, business and society.

To counter this disturbing state of affairs, delegates gathered in Nagoya are now charged with creating a new, more effective Strategic Plan to guide biodiversity conservation over the next decade. Parties will be expected to incorporate that plan into their own domestic governance systems, although those that don’t, or can’t, won’t be dragged before the U.N.’s International Court of Justice, but may merely face adverse pressure from their peers.

However, if the plan’s strongest version garners support, it could include mandates to set aside 20 percent of the world’s land and sea areas in protected areas, end overfishing, and increase official funding for biodiversity conservation tenfold, to $30 billion per year.

Weaker versions of the Strategic Plan also on the table could lead to much less ambitious targets being set.

Hanging in the balance are the estimated five to 30 million species that differentiate Earth from all the other cold, hard rocks floating through space.

Scientists say that these species — which are now being lost at between 100 and 1,000 times the historical “background rate” shown in the fossil record — are worth saving not only for their own sakes, but because humans literally can’t live without them.

“Without biodiversity there’s no life. It’s not only emblematic species such as polar bears and giraffes and elephants. It (affects) the air, the forests, the food we eat, the medicines — it’s everything,” said CBD Executive Secretary Ahmed Djoghlaf in an interview with The Japan Times.

Djoghlaf’s task is to bring that message to politicians, businesspeople and civil-society groups often myopically focused on climate change.

However, the goods and services we derive from diverse natural environments matter in financial terms as well. For example, a recent U.N. study estimated the economic value of coral reefs alone at up to $1.1 million per hectare per year through the fisheries and other marine life they support.

Biodiversity is also crucial for ecosystem stability, said Thomas Elmqvist, a professor of natural resources management at Stockholm University’s Resilience Center and member of Sweden’s COP10 delegation, in a recent interview. That’s because multiple species can serve the same function within a given ecosystem — but respond differently to disasters such as floods, fires and storms.

Consequently, even if one species doesn’t survive, another is likely to pull through and carry on its vital functions within the ecosystem.

Illustrating this are the results of a study Elmqvist has made of two species of flying fox that are both key dispersers of seeds in Samoan forests. He found was that, after a major typhoon, one species stayed in the trees and survived, while the other descended to the forest floor to forage and was decimated by predators.

“After a catastrophic event, even subtle differences can be really important for the system to recover. You wouldn’t attach much importance to them unless you see them in the light of these big disturbances,” says Elmqvist.

Yet just as fires, floods, and other natural (and unnatural) disasters appear to be on the rise — due in large part to climate change — the biodiversity that helps ecosystems withstand these shocks is being rapidly eroded.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), more than a third of the nearly 50,000 species surveyed so far are threatened with extinction, while the Living Planet Index — another long-term study — shows that overall species abundance is falling in many parts of the world.

The chief cause behind all of this is, of course, a single species — humans.

Most plants and animals are at risk because we have hunted, fished or harvested too many of them, or because we have destroyed their habitat by converting it to farmland, polluting it with chemicals or introducing invasive species into it.

Meanwhile, human population and the global middle class are both growing. That means more land and natural resources will be needed not only to provide for basic needs, but to feed growing demand for cars, televisions and other luxuries of the developed world.

Climate change is also now one of the top threats to biodiversity. Habitat range and the timing of seasonal events is shifting, oceans are growing more acidic and entire ecosystems, such as those in polar regions, are in danger of disappearing. Indeed, a 2009 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (established in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization) warns that if average global temperatures rise by more than 3.5 degrees Celsius, 40 to 70 percent of species could be wiped out.

However, patterns of species loss aren’t very predictable. As pressures build and interact with one another, seemingly stable ecosystems can lurch over “tipping points” and suddenly become much less diverse.

For instance, a recent study coordinated by the World Bank warned that losing more than 20 percent of the Amazon rain forest — of which 17 percent is already gone — in combination with climate change and fires, could trigger a massive dieback that would transform vast swaths of one of the world’s most diverse ecosystem into dry savannah.

These are the issues facing the environment ministers, scientists, NGO groups and business people gathered in Nagoya for COP10.

Already, they have debated benefit sharing and marine conservation in contentious meetings that often pit developed countries against developing nations such as Brazil that are home to extraordinary biological diversity and want strong commitments of financial help for conservation. Incidentally, as the United States, Andorra and the Holy See are alone in not having signed the CBD, they may only participate as observers.

For its part, conference chair Japan has focused on promoting biodiversity- friendly agriculture, pointing out that farmland makes up nearly a third of the world’s land surface. Its Satoyama Initiative proposes Japan’s traditional mosaic of rice paddies, woodlands and grasslands as a model of how farmers can share their land with wild plants and animals.

Other countries have pushed for more conservation funding and have argued for the need to link currently uncoordinated action on climate change and biodiversity.

Whichever of these initiatives makes it into the final Strategic Plan, however, CBD Executive Secretary Djoghlaf has emphasized that what’s needed most is a global wake-up call on the importance of preserving biological diversity.

“If business-as-usual continues, we will very soon reach tipping points — which means irreversible damage to major ecosystems, weakening the capacity of the planet to continue sustaining life,” he said.

“The status of biodiversity for millions of years to come will be determined by what one species — human beings — does or fails to do in the next one or two decades.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.