UN biodiversity summit: Developing nations to demand more cash to protect nature

The UN biodiversity summit opens this week with host India seeking more money to protect wildlife and improve livelihoods of those dependent on forests.

Want a greener world? Pay for it. That is the message the Indian government is sending out as it hosts the summit of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) in the southern city of Hyderabad. But in today’s environment, money is hard to get at, and there’s every chance that the thousands of delegates from over 190 countries will go home with little to show for their efforts.

It need not be like this. There are important issues on which the biodiversity summit could take decisions. The most important is the terms on which pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies access useful plants and animals, and the way the benefits from products they develop are shared with communities that have preserved those plants or animals – the so-called access and benefit-sharing (ABS) issue.

This has been the most contentious issue in UNCBD negotiations for nearly two decades. Perhaps fearing another flare-up, Indian government negotiators ensured months ago that substantive talks on ABS are postponed to 2013 and beyond. “Unless some other country brings it up, only procedural issues on ABS will be discussed in the CoP (Conference of Parties),” said a senior Indian bureaucrat. And the host will do its best to ensure that no other country brings it up.

So what will the delegates and the hundreds of NGO observers gathered in Hyderabad talk about? There is, of course, the question of increasing the global area of protected forests, and many NGOs will make a strong push for it in this UN decade of biodiversity (2010-2020). But much of that is up to national governments, who in the last decade jointly failed to meet the protected area targets they set themselves during previous UNCBD summits.

Protecting biodiversity in international waters

But there is one area of biodiversity protection that may lead to confrontation at this summit – protection in international waters. The theme of this summit is coastal and marine biodiversity, and governments cannot really shy away from tackling this issue that has long eluded consensus, most recently at the Rio+20 summit this June. It is not that governments oppose biodiversity protection in the high seas. The question is, who will enforce it, and how? What will it mean to territorial claims, especially in disputed waters? There is no answer yet, while the extinction of marine species accelerates. This is especially worrying in coral beds, which are the nurseries of most marine life.

Jayanthi Natarajan, India’s environment minister, said on the eve of the summit that her first priority would be implementation of the 20 Aichi targets – so-called because they were drawn up at the last UN summit in Nagoya, which is in Japan’s Aichi prefecture, and which include aims like halving the rate of loss of natural habitats by 2020, improving the conservation status of known threatened species by the same year and mobilising the financial resources to implement the strategic plan for biodiversity.

While the goals are unexceptionable, governments around the world have done little to mainstream biodiversity in their financial planning, and all the other goals have suffered as a consequence.

One example is that only seven countries have ratified the Nagoya Protocol on ABS, India becoming the seventh just three days before the summit opened. Indian NGOs, which came together in late September to discuss the summit issues, are worried that most countries are still unprepared for implementing the protocol, because they have not even passed the laws by which communities that have preserved medicinally useful knowledge for centuries can be paid for it by their own governments. A spokesperson for WWF India, which coordinated the NGO meeting, said: “An institutional mechanism should be established or defined for post access monitoring and compliance of the access agreement.”

Money talks

Money has become the fundamental issue ever since academics, then NGOs and then developing country governments started saying that if the world wants them to preserve a forest, it should pay, because the benefit goes to the whole world, while the “opportunity cost” of not turning the forest area into a factory, for example, is borne by the local community and the government. This concept of “payment for ecosystem services” has now been well-established by academics and supported by UN institutions as well as NGOs, but has not really been implemented by any finance ministry anywhere.

Natarajan wants progress in at least the international part of this concept – which means she wants developed countries to pay much more to developing countries that preserve their plants and animals. The minister held a recent meeting with her counterparts in southeast Asian countries to push this demand. A resolution passed at the meeting “emphasised that developed country parties bear primary responsibility for providing adequate resources for implementation” of biodiversity targets.

During the Hyderabad summit the same demand is likely to come strongly from all developing countries. But given the current state of the economy in almost all developed countries, there is little chance of any significant financial commitment. Some recent semi-official estimates of the money required to meet the 20 Aichi targets came up with a range of between US$2 trillion and US$4,8 trillion.

The governments of India and the UK have set up a joint working group to make an official estimate, which will submit its report during the Hyderabad summit. Whatever the figure, it is likely to give nightmares to governments in developed countries.

US boycott holds back progress

One major problem with UNCBD negotiations is that the US only participates as an observer, since it has refused to ratify the convention. Lamenting this on chinadialogue last week, William J Snape III, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona, wrote: “The irony for the United States is that its robust public civil legal tradition could and should fit very well within a functioning CBD. The US certainly would help bring further focus to the CBD."

But the cricitisms extend to the countries who have signed up too. On the eve of the summit, there have been calls for governments to make good promises made in Japan two years ago to take action to stem species loss and protect the world’s most valuable nature. “What was agreed in Nagoya really has the power to halt the dramatic loss of biodiversity across the globe and address the main drivers of the destruction. But now governments must prove that Nagoya was not just a platform for empty promises,” said Lasse Gustavsson, WWF International’s executive director for conservation

Braulio Ferreir de Souza Dias, executive secretary of UNCBD, also said his agenda is “Implementation, implementation, implementation”. For that he needs to impress upon the delegates that, while the money requirements may seem large, the loss due to deforestation alone is estimated at two trillion dollars a year. “We need biodiversity to be discussed not as a problem but as a solution to the challenges facing the world,” de Souza Dias said. The question is, will anybody be listening?