Romanticizing Biodiversity

“We always plan too much and always think too little.”                Joseph Schumpeter

We have just completed twenty-five years of adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that was born out of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit (UN Conference on Environment and Development), along with two other Conventions, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

The milestone passed silently with muted voices on the need to conserve biological diversity and ecosystems that harbour such diversity. Millions of dollars are being spent on increasing the profile and attention on biological diversity with thirteen meetings of Conference of Parties to the CBD since 1992. Tons of paper and hundreds of thousands of man-hours were used by the contracting parties to CBD to rein in national, regional and global actions on conservation, sustainable use and access to resources and benefit sharing (the three objectives of the CBD).

We are now left with less than 30 months to achieve the global biodiversity targets adopted by 194 countries in 2010 at Nagoya, Japan. The progress being made is still patchy, not so inspiring with indications that several targets will remain unachieved by 2020.

As someone who started following the CBD since its inception (and having had the unique opportunity of attending all the thirteen governing body meetings – COPs – held thus far), I have the following questions that remain unanswered and observations that remain worrisome.

  1. Both UNFCCC and CBD are Rio Conventions, born out of the same meeting, negotiated by the same governments and presided over by the same Ministries (mostly Ministries of Environment, Forests). If so, why does CBD receive the differential treatment?

It is the same Ministers that focus on actions and policies related to conservation and climate change. While any action related to climate change receives highest and many times personal attention by the Ministers and Prime Ministers, the same is not true for biodiversity. It is a known fact that without ecosystems being protected and biodiversity thriving on this Planet, no adaptation action can meaningfully happen. But, there is very limited attention paid to conservation action which is seen more as a detriment to development while actions related to climate change is seen as an opportunity for investment!

  1. Both the Conventions focus on economics. While the UNFCCC focuses on loses to economic potential (read GDP), the CBD focuses on gains to economic development. But why are the economic arguments related to UNFCCC more heard and followed up with actions, while the arguments related to CBD largely stop at statements of mere commitments?

The economic assessments, related to development, are aplenty both for climate change impacts and biodiversity. A number of compilation exist for the potential of biodiversity to development but there is limited action on the ground to translate the potential to real. While for climate change actions, even the non-existent opportunities are continuously being created. This is a surprise.

  1. While for climate change actions, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are a commitment, made voluntarily, my member states, with enormous focus on actions to achieve these, why is that there is limited emphasis on what countries are doing to achieve reduction to rates of loss of biodiversity?

Countries committed to their first set of biodiversity targets in 2002 under the CBD to reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity b y 2010. They could not achieve these and re-dedicated themselves to achieving the same by 2020 using the CBD Strategic Plan and associated biodiversity targets. With less than 30 months to go before the deadline expires, there is still limitation in action at all levels. It gives us a feeling that commitment made to climate change are to be met while those for biodiversity can pass.

  1. The Open Working Group (OWG) mandated by the UN General Assembly to develop the SDGs and related targets spent considerable time discussing the rationale and need for SDG 13 alignment with discussions under the UNFCCC. This is commendable. However, there was limited focus on aligning the issues with CBD when SDG 14 and SDG 15 were discussed. Does this mean, countries consider UNFCCC a more binding, impactful and serious multilateral environmental agreement than CBD?

It is a bit surprising to see the muted reactions by member states, that are Parties to both the conventions to position the actions and mandates to climate change and conservation differently.

The forthcoming Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) to be presented at the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) in July 2018 will stand testimony to see how serious countries are in considering the conservation agenda since SDG 15 on terrestrial biodiversity will be a subject for in-depth discussions.

I am an optimist.

The words of Nobel Laureate, late Prof. Wangari Mathai, still resonate in my ears when she asked a question during the Ministerial Panel (held during the 2010 UNEP Governing Council meeting in 2010) “if biodiversity is worth the trillions of dollars in its goods and services and if a small number of countries harbour 70% of world’s biodiversity, why are these countries poor?”.

Profound, in deed. Time for all of us to think and balance our actions.

But, how can we act?

First, use Joseph Schumpeter’s approach to managing biological resources.

Schumpeter’s principle that asset (read biodiversity) need to perform and be a part of the economic development by focusing on new products, new production methods or processes, new organizational forms, new markets and new sources (or ways of sourcing) the raw material and inputs.

Though the work of Joseph Schumpeter (1911) was highly analyzed and articulated in economic and development debates during the last 50 years, only parts of his arguments were assessed as being relevant to environment and biodiversity conservation planning and policy development. While agreeing that there may be other reasons for this, environmental economists could have interpreted the imminent base for Schumpeter’s arguments is capitalism and putting the resource in the hand of entrepreneur for development gains would not work for ecosystem management and biodiversity since there is an inherent mistrust that natural resources are always destroyed or over-used by commercial enterprise resulting in the depletion and therefore capitalization and/or commodification of biological resources will be a no-go zone for both development practitioners and environmental planners. This continues to haunt the biodiversity debate.

Developments under the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) is a testimony to this. What started as a facilitating element to encourage people to use genetic resources and associated knowledge has turned into a restrictive regime with a singular goal of locking-in the resources from others from using the same.

The deep sense of mistrust between the users and providers is increasingly becoming hard to crack.

For this to change, countries need to re-think on the relevance of Nagoya Protocol for conservation and development. Design thinking will certainly help here.

Second, be bold to say the negatives in biodiversity discourses on how the human race will lose out if we do not conserve.

After all, it is a common understanding that the political attention to climate change resulted from the work of Lord Nicholas Stern who cautioned and alerted people and politicians using the GDP handle to invest in climate action.

Though there are a number of studies on the value of natural capital and opportunities that biodiversity conservation provides for development, for common public and politicians, there is nothing alarmist in these studies. This can be seen in a number of countries where millions of dollars are spent on mainstreaming biodiversity with limited impact.

Third, we need to tell the biodiversity story differently. Actions such as the convening of a cabinet meeting underwater by the then President of Maldives before the Copenhagen UNFCCC COP, the alarms raised by tourism industry in Switzerland on grey winters and the articulation of first set of environmental refugees due to climate change have all transformed the way common public and politicians saw what is forthcoming due to climate change.

We still do not have this narrative for biodiversity yet. This is partly due to the fact that many times the impacts of biodiversity and ecosystem loss is seen as local than global. This is not true and the global impact narratives of biodiversity and ecosystem loss is still weak and disjointed.

Fourth, we need to make conservation a citizen problem. This is what the climate community has done quite successfully.

Biodiversity is still a problem of ‘theirs’ than ‘ours’. Consistent lack of focus on issues like technology transfer, traditional knowledge, financing – all seen as the problem of the south. This need to change. It can only change if the Parties to CBD own the full agenda of CBD than parts of it.

Suggestions

Given the current scenario, I have the following suggestions:

  1. Let the next CBD COP (COP 14) attempt to focus on securing better political attention for biodiversity issues. For this, the hosts (Egypt) need to work for designing the Ministerial segment that results in serious commitments from the Ministers, preferably using the HLPF 2018 outcomes as a base. Mere statements are not yielding much impacts.
  2. The economics of ecosystems and biodiversity needs better traction at national levels for action and should go beyond tokenism in the form of studies and reviews.
  3. Parties to CBD need to review the seriousness of implementation of current CBD Strategic Plan since the current implementation and compliance mechanism needs more support and focus, and
  4. Everyone working on conservation and development need to see the implications of climate change and biodiversity with same level of seriousness and commitment.

After all, as per an Indian saying – you need a wall to paint a picture! Without securing our ecosystems and biodiversity, investments in climate change need to work extremely hard to gain small profits (benefits!).

Wake Up!!!

5 thoughts on “Romanticizing Biodiversity”

  1. An excellent piece and hopefully an eye opener. Perhaps the fact that there is still some ‘green’ around that has resulted in ignoring biodiversity-related issues. Maybe concepts like ‘biodiversity refugees’ need to be brought up. While everyone knows about global warming, few know about the extinction crisis or the issues related to habitat fragmentation.

    1. Your romanticizing biodiversity with jugad of economics and ecology is impotant as you have selected model of j.shumpeter (1911) instead of Albert Howard 1930.

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