Hope for the patient Earth in Hyderabad

On the bright side

Auroch, Tarpan, Tasmanian Tiger, Quagga-zebra, Steller’s Sea Cow, Bluebuck, Pyrenean Ibex, Falkland Islands Wolf, Atlas Bear, Caribbean Monk Seal, Bali Tiger and Javan Tiger, Eastern Cougar, Western Black Rhinoceros. Are you wondering, why you missed out on these exotic animals during your last visit to the zoo?

Little Chance of Survival

The unpalatable answer is that all these animals are prominent peers of the estimated up to 140,000 species, snuffed out every year. A number that has to be taken with a grain of salt, since most extinctions happen silently and undocumented. Nevertheless, expert agree that we are in the midst of the 6th mass extinction, also known as the Holocene extinction, which started about 10.000 years at the end of the last Ice Age. As a result of climate change and the proliferation of modern humans, it continues into the 21st century. Two out of three ecosystems on Earth are damaged. In other words, only one third of the earth is still reasonably intact. If our planet was a living being, it would have little chance of survival.

The Key Document Regarding Sustainable Development

To enhance these chances of the patient Earth, the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro on 5 June 1992 opened the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for signature, which entered into force the year after. Ever since, the international legally binding treaty emboldens and coordinates the development of national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. More precisely, its objectives are the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components; and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources. This key document regarding sustainable development is governed by its Conference of the Parties, which will convene in Hyderabad, India, 8 – 19 October 2012.

Next week, for the eleventh time world leaders will come together to negotiate the future of our biological diversity as a common concern of humankind. Ten years and five meetings ago the 2010 Biodiversity Target and its strategic plan aiming to halt the decline of biodiversity by the end of 2010 was adopted, which the world turned out to have largely failed to meet. On the contrary, loss of habitat and species have even accelerated, with the current extinction rate 10,000 times higher than the background extinction rate. Also the withering results of the toothless Earth Summit Rio +20, earlier this year, fresh in mind, on might ask if the sluggish process of global environmental governance is up for the multitude of 21st century challenges.

Let us see: Apart from the everyday doomsday scenarios there are also messages on the bright side, as the following examples illustrate:

Jute instead of plastic
The white plague dangles from tree branches, clogs sewers in cities and floats in the sea. Mind-boggling three billion plastic bags the Chinese alone use every day, according to an unofficial estimate. Plastic bags are a problem from the beginning to the end of their up to 500 years long life: They are made from petroleum and do not decay in the environment. It may take half a millennium, until the sun has decomposed a bag. By itself, the plastic bag would not be a problem if it was not for their large quantities and careless use.

Giant plastic garbage dumps float in the oceans, from which at least 80 percent come from land. Dropped by man, gone with the wind, the bags end up in the sea, with consequences that are not yet clear. Nobody knows what happens when the masses of waste decompose over time, what the consequences are on the global marine food web.

Thus, many countries have announced to fight plastic bags. In Bangladesh they have been banned since 2000. In China, they may no longer be given away since, but have to be sold. Since 2008 the population is also encouraged to use reusable and recycle plastic bags. Also in Tanzania plastic bags are banned, in some regions with six months in jail for violations of the law. What is more, some bags that are made from renewable resources such as corn starch, can be degraded biologically by soil bacteria without residue, putting an end to this threat to the environment and human well-beeing.

A Ban on Ocean Dumping
From today’s perspective, the practice to sink toxic waste in the sea, popular up to the 1990s, appear like a surreal postmodern-scenario. In fact, this usd to be the common method of disposal for such waste, like acids as a product of dye production. Even heavy oil residues from ship tanks were legally emptied overboard, with devastating effects on marine biodiversity and fisheries. It is also hard to imagine, that liquid nuclear waste was also disposed in this way for decades, until 1993, when a worldwide ban entered into force, which included the dumping and incineration of industrial waste at sea.

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Closing the Ozone Hole
During the mid-1980s mankind could finally no longer close its eyes to the fact that the ozone layer of the atmosphere, protective against UV light, had become leaky. New data showed that the concentration of ozone over Antarctica had decreased by 40 percent from 1975 to 1985. At that time also the culprit was detected: Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were used as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners, and propellants in aerosol cans. Typically, ozone acts as planet Earth’s natural sunscreen, as it absorbs in 15 to 25 km altitude over 90 percent of harmful UV-B radiation. If the ozone concentration in the stratosphere decreases by only ten percent, the UV-B exposure on the ground increases by half. To address this issue, in September 1987 47 states signed the “Montreal Protocol”, banning the production and use of five particularly dangerous chlorofluorocarbons substances. Today, 196 countries signed the treaty, which the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has described as “perhaps the most successful international agreements of all time”. As a result the Ozone hole stopped growing and the UN expects that it will close entirely until 2050.

The Forces Destroying Biodiversity Are Huge, the Forces Against that Tiny

So the good news is environmental policies and legislation can work and make an enormous difference to the state of our planet. Also, the crisis at hand yet is not for lack of trying: Efforts that governments have made to keep the 2010 Biodiversity pledge have soared since 1970 and are respectable.

But they clearly have not worked too well. The problem, says Stuart Butchart of the UN’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, UK, is that while there have been lots of plans on paper, “they have been inadequately targeted, implemented and funded”. For instance, there are manifold protected areas globally, but they have not been given enough money and are not in the most biologically important places. More than 80 percent of governments have promised to tackle invasive alien species, but fewer than half have done anything. The forces destroying biodiversity, all related to human economic expansion, are huge, the forces working against that are tiny. This won’t change until a force emerges that is similar in strength to the forces spreading destruction.

From Los Baños to Hyderabad

Recognising this, the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), based in Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines aims to consult and strengthen environmental policy at the regional and international level. As a regional intergovernmental organization, it coordinates national and regional efforts on biodiversity conservation and sustainable management in South East Asia.

Since September 2010, GIZ, the German development cooperation arm, through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP), supports the institutionalization of ACB’s core program on biodiversity and its nexus with climate change. In doing so, the project focuses on the elaboration and implementation of ASEAN-wide strategies.

Along these lines, the project also supports this years CBD COP, focusing on marine biodiversity and ecosystems.

First, via the International Youth Forum Go4BioDiv, acknowledged as a project of the UN-Decade on Biodiversity, contributes to the creation of public awareness for the issues in an exemplary way. Go4BioDiv offers young dedicated people from all over the world the opportunity to share their on-the-ground conservation experience with their peers and the wider public. It enables them to participate in political discussions by engaging with international leaders during the CBD COPs.

Secondly, the project carries out an exhibition, featuring Biodiversity Giants. These ‘Higantes’, traditional Philippine paper mache sculptures, will play an important role of rising awareness, particularly of the importance of marine ecosystems at peril. Perils beyond plastic bags and industrial waste in our seas.

More about this unique project can be explored in next week’s Biodiversity Sunday.

To sum up, the total loss of biodiversity is so far not ruinous. In the last 200 years, researchers found, ‘only’ 1 to 2 percent of all species have gone extinct, and, as we have seen, courageous environmental governance and leadership can make the difference, urgently needed. Most likely, the world will not end in December 2012. This leaves us with enough time to turn the ship around, and steer away from the fifth mass extinction – erasing some of the species on the red list, you will not see in the zoo, let alone the wild anymore. We still have time and the means to fix this.