Thursday 29th November, 2018 concluded a 2-week United Nations (UN) Biodiversity Conference hosted in Egypt which was attended by decisions makers from over 190 countries. To provide some context, the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is an international treaty aimed at addressing issues of biodiversity conservation, sustainability of these resources, and equitable sharing of genetic resources, amongst other cross cutting issues such as the effects of climate change on biodiversity.
To understand why conventions such as these are important, we have to ask the age old question, ‘Why is Biodiversity important?’ Biodiversity or biological diversity refers to variance in genetics, ecosystems and species.
Why then is biological diversity important? What is the issue if we lose a species, or if an ecosystem is removed? Executive Secretary of the UN Biodiversity Convention stated that the loss of biodiversity is a silent killer. Unlike climate change, where the effects of increased temperatures can be clearly identified as the ice caps melt and sea levels rise, the effects from biodiversity loss do not immediately impact our everyday lives, even though rate of loss of biodiversity is accelerating at an unprecedented rate and over 70% of natural areas have been modified by humans. The main drivers of biodiversity loss are habitat stress, overexploitation of resources, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change. Biodiversity is important because this variety is the strength of life and the overlapping of roles of various species gives a rigid structure to the balance of life. Individual species, ecosystems and their interconnectedness, is the infrastructure for life that has evolved over centuries and when lost, it cannot be regained.
Biodiversity is also important for providing ecosystem services and supporting livelihoods. It supports 40% of the global economy dependent on these natural resources. Latin America and Caribbean countries have been blessed with a rich biodiversity; the South American continent alone contains around 40% of the global biodiversity. These countries depend on biodiversity for important ecosystem services. Ecosystem services, simply put, are the ways the environment are beneficial to people. These include provisional services such as provision of raw materials, medicine, food and water, regulating services involved in climate and pollination, and cultural services. In 2006, it was reported that almost 1.5 million persons were employed in the wood processing sector within the LAC, directly benefitting from forests, and in the Caribbean almost 2% of GDP was recorded from the tourism sector which links to eco-tourism.
Strategic Plan for Biodiversity
Seeing the importance of biodiversity, these conferences allow member countries to take stock of their efforts in biodiversity conservation. Whenever the members of the CBD treaty gather, it is called a Conference of the Parties (COP); this recent conference held was the 14th COP. As part of the CBD, countries who have signed on to and ratified the treaty have agreed to a ten year (2011-2020) Strategic Plan for Biodiversity with twenty specified targets called Aichi Biodiversity Targets, designed to curb the decline of biodiversity. Aichi Targets focuses on five main areas: dealing with causes of biodiversity loss, reducing pressures on biodiversity and promoting sustainable use, improving status of biodiversity, enhancing benefits from biodiversity and enhancing participatory planning and capacity building, all to be achieved by 2020. Trinidad and Tobago has tailored its Aichi Targets mainly in the areas that focuses on raising awareness on biodiversity, preventing loss of habitats, sustainable fisheries, agriculture and forestry management, reducing threats of invasive alien species, and protection of threatened species. At the recent conference, decision makers reviewed the progress made towards the implementation of the Strategic Plan and Aichi Biodiversity Targets ahead of final evaluations in 2020. The consensus was that ‘accelerated action’ was needed to achieve these targets before the end of the ten year period in 2020 and the need for a more concerted effort.
While commendable, these targets are not legally binding and there are no consequences if not fulfilled. However, conferences like these have achieved in making biodiversity conservation part of everyday jargon and accomplished in protecting approximately 15% of land and 7% sea areas globally. While it is important for policy makers to be part of the conversation in biodiversity conservation, often the lack of political will to prioritize conservation and the lack of forceful measures to hold nations accountable at these conventions reduces the progress towards the ideals of the Convention.
One of the other outcomes of this Convention was the decision to develop a long term strategy for the integration of biodiversity into productive sectors such as mining, manufacturing and processing as well as an infrastructure. It can be argued that this may seem contradicting for conservation to be integrated into these business-centered, development-oriented sectors, as it should be biodiversity that is prioritized in the decision making of these sectors, rather than being an addendum. However, it is a way to start the conversation in various disciplines and spheres of life where biodiversity conservation may not have even been considered previously. As small island developing states, our main concern is the allocation of our limited land resources between development strategies to support the economy and our infrastructure, and the protection of our natural environment. In this regard, the conversation the Convention seeks to bring about with integration of biodiversity into all the aforementioned sectors is a welcomed one.
Biodiversity and Climate Change
Another discussion as part of the post-2020 agenda was climate change. Climate change is a global issue that continues to threaten small island developing states. We are on path to a future with increased average global temperatures leading to the ripple down effects of rising sea level, increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, droughts, amongst many others. The CBD has always highlighted the need for conserving and restoring ecosystem biodiversity as a strategy to reduce and deal with the impacts of climate change. Mangroves, for example, can store carbon, reducing the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere while also buffering the land from heavy waves associated with intense storms. Hence, at this convention, voluntary guidelines, designed with policy makers and strategic planners in mind, were adopted. These guidelines encompassed how to implement ecosystem based approaches in dealing with climate change and natural disasters. Moving forward, the COP 14 called for the UN General Assembly to designate the next 10 year period between 2021 and 2030 as the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.
Nature and People
The data obtained from science and the direction given by policy are all important but this must translate to action on the ground. Hence, change must also start from the grassroots up. In this regard, recognizing that nature and people are inextricable link, and in preparation for the next COP to be held in China, an action agenda was launched for ‘Nature and People’, an online platform to promote and highlight actions taken - including actions taken by local communities - as it pertains to biodiversity conservation and sustainable use.
Time and time again it has been shown that when local communities, become invested in considering the natural resources as their own, and as important to their wellbeing an
d livelihood, they take ownership and responsibility to ensure that these resources are protected, creating waves of change within their communities, as with the case of leatherback turtle conservation in Trinidad and Tobago. We have a responsibility to ensure that we support and highlight grassroot groups that seek to protect our unique biodiversity.
As with the end of every COP, it is one step closer to ensuring a global win for biodiversity.
“Nature is dynamic and interrelated—and so must be our response. We must move from the very real incremental change that we have created to a model that continues to push incremental wins while also fundamentally reaching for transformational change. As this COP shows, we have already begun this journey,” Dr. Cristiana Paşca Palmer, UN Convention on Biological Diversity Executive Secretary.