Stepping up the fight for life (1)

Ahmed Djoghlaf is the executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. In the run up to a key summit on species protection, he tells Olivia Boyd and Joydeep Gupta why failure to reach agreement is not an option.

Olivia Boyd: Remarkably few people seem to know there is a big summit on biodiversity next month, according to recent polls. Has the issue been given too little attention compared to, say, emissions reduction?

Ahmed Djoghlaf: Absolutely. I think one of the major problems we are facing with the unprecedented loss of biodiversity is the lack of awareness and sometimes, for policymakers, indifference. In May, we issued the Global Biodiversity Outlook – based on 150 reports we received from national governments. The news is very bad, and very frightening. The report confirmed that the loss of biodiversity today is maybe 1,000 times higher than the natural rate of extinction. And 89% of the reports we received indicated that climate change is emerging as a major driving force behind loss of biodiversity.

The report also predicts that if business-as-usual is allowed to continue, we will very soon reach what experts call the tipping point, meaning a state of irreparable and irreversible damage to the ecosystems and the services the planet offers. And it predicts the state of biodiversity in the million years to come will be determined in the few decades to come. Therefore, we call on all governments and stakeholders to participate, to raise the flag and say business-as-usual is not possible and we need – all of us – to change our relationship with nature.

On 22 September, we had a meeting in the UN general assembly. For the first time since the UN’s establishment in 1945, we had 192 heads of state or representatives discussing biodiversity for a whole day. The summary of that discussion will be sent to [the UN-led biodiversity conference in] Nagoya [in Japan], where we expect 10,000 participants and where a new strategic plan will be adopted. The strategy plan contains vision for 2050 – a long term target – and a short term target for 2020.

Joydeep Gupta: Countries around the world have failed to fulfil their 2002 commitments to preserve biodiversity. You and your colleagues have said this was because they failed to account for the value of biodiversity in their national plans. What gives you the confidence that countries will change their planning processes now?

AD: In 2002, in Johannesburg, 110 heads of state agreed to reduce the loss of biodiversity by 2010. In 2001, in Gothenburg [in Sweden], the European Union decided to stop the loss of biodiversity by 2010. But these targets have not been integrated as a national priority – they have remained at the conference level, at the [UN] general assembly, at the G8 summit. It was just lip service. We will not achieve the objective simply by gathering together, adopting the decision and reaffirming that we shall do it.

Any target that is adopted in Nagoya needs to be integrated as a national and local priority. All the parties without exception will be required to revise their national biodiversity strategies and action plans between 2010 and 2012. The strategy plans are the vehicle for translating the agreement of the consensus at international level into national action. Since the 1990s, 140 countries have adopted national strategy and action plans, but most of them are sitting on the shelf and they have also been completely outstripped by the events. We are also asking the mayors – and we will have 300 mayors attending the meeting – to have the same strategy plan at the city level, and also at the local and prefectural level.

It’s not only about having a plan, but also a means of implementation. The strategy plan that will be adopted in Nagoya will also have a full section on this, including the provision of new and additional financial resources, capacity building, the exchange of experience and promotion of best practice. And this plan will have monitoring and evaluation. We shall not get to 2020 and say we have failed. We will have a mid-term evaluation in 2015 and we are also calling on the UN general assembly in New York to have a heads of state meeting on September 2, 2015 to assess progress or failure in order to take the corrective measures. The governments will be obliged to submit a national report in 2015 on how they have implemented this Nagoya target and a final report in 2019, a year before the target deadline.

In addition, Japan, for example, has decided to establish a biodiversity fund in order to support developing countries in implementing the plan. It’s a substantial amount of money and the prime minister of Japan will announce it in Nagoya. Something else of tremendous importance will be a plan of action on south-south [developing world] cooperation. Some countries in the south like China, India, Brazil and South Africa have a status where they can and are morally obliged to help other countries in the south.

Lastly, these action plans will be accompanied by what we believe to be the most important legal instrument on environment, which is a protocol on access and benefit sharing (ABS) arising from the utilisation of genetic resources, which will also be adopted in Nagoya.

OB: Can you explain this a little? What would such a system mean for biodiversity protection?

AD: This is the result of an almost 18-year negotiation process. The idea is to give access to genetic resources in, say, the Amazon or Congo to cosmetic companies, pharmaceuticals, agro-biodiversity companies, to allow them to use the genetic resources as they have been doing, but to share the benefit arising from the commercialisation of the genetic resources with the owners of biodiversity – the indigenous people, the local communities. This will improve livelihoods and give people an incentive to protect biodiversity. Without an incentive, the local communities have no reason to protect biodiversity. This will be a major instrument for implementing the Millennium Development Goals, alleviating poverty, protecting biodiversity and achieving sustainable development.

JG: How confident are you of an effective agreement on ABS given diplomats have so far failed to finalise a draft?

AD: I am 100% convinced that no one in Nagoya can afford failure. Japan is very committed because they don’t want another Copenhagen. They have a very powerful ambassador for this meeting, who is travelling from capital to capital in Brazil, in India, in China, in the US to try to bridge the differences between the major users of biodiversity and the major owners of biodiversity.

All the ministers have been briefed about the outstanding issues and, if they cannot resolve them, to have a roadmap to resolve them after the adoption of the protocol. We don’t need to agree everything on 29 October. If you take climate change for example, we first had the framework convention on climate change in Rio, and we had the Kyoto Protocol five years later. But we need to agree on basic principles, on a legally binding treaty – and after that, we have time. This will be a fantastic political statement, a fantastic message from the OECD [developed world] countries.

The north [developed world] sometimes has short-sighted vision, it sees immediate interests. But we are all cemented by the same long-term interest, which is sustaining life on earth for our children. So if we fail in Nagoya, I can assure you that this will have consequences for Cancún. And if we have another Copenhagen in Cancún, I think we will have to wait centuries to restore what we have achieved since Rio, bringing the south as a partner with the north, the east, the west, with the government, with the private sector, in order to protect life on earth. I call on all governments without exception, including the United States – which is not a party but a major player – to reach agreement. I do not want to think of any option other than adopting the protocol on 29 October.


Olivia Boyd is assistant editor at chinadialogue.

Joydeep Gupta is project director (south Asia) for chinadialogue‘s third pole project.

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