Stepping up the fight for life (2)

In the conclusion of Olivia Boyd and Joydeep Gupta’s interview with Ahmed Djoghlaf, the UN biodiversity chief argues rich nations have both a moral duty and selfish reasons to help developing countries prevent species loss.

Joydeep Gupta: Developing countries continue to say the money they are being offered by rich nations to set biodiversity-rich areas aside is inadequate. In this era of continuing global financial weakness, do you expect developed countries to improve their offers during COP 10?

Ahmed Djoghlaf: Really, I think it’s not the amount of money, it’s the message – I sincerely believe that. It’s about whether or not the richer countries of the world are ready to send a message to their partners who own the biodiversity. China has more biodiversity than all the OECD or G8 together; South Africa has 10% of all the biodiversity in the world; if you take the Congo, they have more biodiversity than Canada. They are poor in terms of money, capacity, institutions – but very rich in terms of biodiversity.

And biodiversity is the real world. This is natural capital, which is more important than the paper capital of the dollar bill and the pound and the euro. These countries are poor in terms of capacity and money and those who are rich in these things need to help them. For climate change, leaders are talking about hundreds of billions of dollars. Our budget in the secretariat is US$10 million [67 million yuan] and we have 30 staff. How you want us to protect the world with 30 staff and US$10 million? And it’s money, by the way, which is devoted exclusively to meetings and salaries. We cannot achieve implementation through meetings. Meetings are important but they are not an end in themselves.

I refer to Japan. Japan is going through a deflation crisis, staff are being fired, the budget is being cut, but they have taken a political stand by establishing the Japan Biodiversity Fund. If Japan has done it, why can’t the European Union? It could demonstrate the principle that the EU – the richest continent in the world, the most developed continent in the world, the most environmentally friendly in the world – stands ready to assist in this process. For example, what is US$1 million for the UK or France or Germany? This is peanuts. But for the owners of biodiversity in for example, Haiti or Chad, these are tremendous amounts that can be used to build capacity to implement the convention. Without building capacity of these countries to protect biodiversity, we will fail.

It’s both a moral duty and, I would say, a selfish interest. By helping others, we are helping ourselves. Whatever is going on in South Africa will affect Europe. If the destruction of the Amazon continues, it doesn’t only affect Brazil but all the countries of the world. So it’s not charity – it’s investment. Now we have a Stern-like report on the cost of inaction on biodiversity, “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity”, which will be published by the Indian economist Pavan Sukhdev, demonstrating that investing in biodiversity is investing in the future. The money will come back in terms of healthy environment, and also contribution to peace and security. It’s demonstrated that the loss of biodiversity is a major threat to peace and security.

JG: Some argue biodiversity hotspots such as the Amazon rainforest or the Himalayas should be set aside and that this decision should be taken by the international community rather than national governments. Are you in favour of this?

AD: I think it’s not at all practical and will only create tension. This is a national sovereignty issue and this is the basis of the convention [on biological diversity]. The convention considers natural resources – water, forests – to be under national jurisdictions. I don’t believe the time has come for us to divert attention and dialogue from the substance into conflict over concept and theory. There is a government, there is a flag and, as long as the frontiers are there, we will not at this juncture of the environmental crisis divert attention – we should focus on implementation and translating the convention into reality.

We are also advocating that biodiversity cannot be solved without climate change and climate change cannot be solved without biodiversity. If we succeed in tackling these issues at a national level, implemented in a mutually supportive manner, that’s the best approach that we can take. Because now, all these issues are compartmentalised, handled by different ministries, without any connection with other actors.

You cannot adapt to climate change without biodiversity and vice versa. Just to give you an example, the ocean absorbs 30% of all CO2 emitted in the world, so it’s a fantastic carbon sink. But the warming of the planet is weakening the capacity of the ocean to provide this regulatory function and also destroying the coral and the algae due to acidification. It is predicted that by 2050, the rate of acidification of the ocean will be 100 times higher than the current rate, owing to the warming of the planet. And therefore the acidification will destroy living organisms including the coral in cold water. And we all know coral reefs are a food factory, so this is a major threat.

We sent a report to Copenhagen on the relationship between climate change and biodiversity, which no one paid attention to. It demonstrates that each degree of increase of the surface temperature will lead to 10% destruction and extinction of known species, let alone unknown species. So the decision in Copenhagen to limit the warming of the planet to two degrees was a decision to kill 20% of all known species.

Olivia Boyd: China was the first country to prepare a biodiversity strategy and action plan back in 1994, but today it has at least 384 threatened species. You have praised the country’s next 20 year strategy. Why should we feel more confident this time around?

AD: I not only praise, but really congratulate China. Last month, China convened an international forum with the European Union and their partners, including some NGOs – Conservation International, the IUCN, WWF – in Sichuan province to discuss the new strategy plan for China on biodiversity to 2030.

It’s a 20-year programme with nine targets, including a target to increase the forest cover of China from the current 15% to 18% by 2015. When you know the size of China, you realise the tremendous importance of this target. They could have done it alone, but they decided to bring in partners and discuss it – this has never happened before. The rate of afforestation in China is remarkable, the rate of creating protected areas is remarkable, and I think China is demonstrating that you can continue to grow and prosper while protecting your assets and your biodiversity.

Therefore we are also calling on China, in their partnership with Africa, to assist African countries by sharing their experience. And I think they are duty bound, as one of the leaders in the south and one of the members of the Group of 77 and China, which comprises 132 countries, to do this.

Olivia Boyd: As well as heads of state, you have talked about the importance of engaging the private sector with biodiversity protection. How is business doing so far? What more can be done?

AD: Last December, we had a forum on business and biodiversity in Jakarta, where more than 200 representatives of companies adopted what they call the
Jakarta Charter on Business and Biodiversity. In Nagoya, we are convening high level dialogue on 28 October between CEOs of companies and ministers. This has never happened before. They will discuss this charter on business and biodiversity and how the business community should be engaged in the implementation of biodiversity.

The report on the economics of ecosystems will also be submitted to demonstrate to them that biodiversity is your capital and you should not waste it. You should maintain it as you maintain any equipment in your factory, and therefore it’s an investment. The idea is to establish what we hope to be the new
Davos of tomorrow, where back-to-back with government meetings, we have all the private sector getting together to see how they can extend experience, how the experience of a green company in the UK for instance can benefit another company in South Africa or Ghana and how to mainstream biodiversity within the business plan and management.

We have also issued guidelines on business and biodiversity. In Japan, these have been adopted and signed by 2,000 businesses. We want to repeat that throughout the world, in particular in developing countries. Because I think companies in the north are well aware that the business of tomorrow will be green – and it will be green not by luxury or choice, but by necessity, because we will be living in warmer planet with fewer resources: there will be less and less oil, less and less forests, this is the reality. So the companies that invest today in the strength of tomorrow are the companies that are going to flourish, those that have ignored and continue to do business as usual will have to close.

Olivia Boyd: You have talked about the catastrophe we face if agreement between governments isn’t reached and if business doesn’t change. At this point, do you really believe we can turn things around – or have we already gone too far?

AD: For my generation, it’s too late. So we are investing in youth and biodiversity. We did a global study last year, interviewing 10,000 children between the ages of six and 12. The result was just appalling – 30% of children in the UK, for example, could not tell the difference between a wasp and a bee, and some confused it with a fly. Fifty percent of children said they preferred to watch TV and play on the internet than be outdoors. In Quebec, where the secretariat is located, teenagers of today spend 20% less of their time outdoors than their parents did. Children today are living in a virtual world, far removed from nature.

I was in Tunisia a couple of months ago, and the minister told me that children in Tunis haven’t even seen an olive on the tree – only in the market. So, with the Tunisian government, we launched a Green Wave garden in 500 schools, planting three emblematic trees of north Africa in order to connect the children with nature.

We are dealing with an increasingly urban environment, especially in developing countries where nature has completely disappeared from the cities. And the world will only become more and more urban, this is a fact. In 2050, two thirds of humanity will be living in cities, by the end of the century 90%. The fight to protect life on earth will be won or lost in the cities.


Olivia Boyd is assistant editor at chinadialogue.

Joydeep Gupta is project director (south Asia) of chinadialogue’s third pole project.

Part one: "Failure in Japan is not an option"

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