Greed Stalls 21st Century Bio-Economy

By Stephen Leahy

BONN, May 31 (IPS) – The world community took some ever-so-careful steps towards slowing the biodiversity crisis at a major U.N. meeting in Bonn, while emphasising the need for urgency and action.

Agreement on the need for more protected areas in tropical forests and oceans was universal, but only Germany offered any new funding. On the contentious issue of biofuels and their impacts on food and biodiversity, members agreed at the last minute that biofuels production ought to be environmentally sustainable and not impact biodiversity. There was also an agreement on a de facto moratorium on ocean fertilisation schemes.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged $785 million a year to protect forests.

And, after 16 years of meetings, the 168 nations that have ratified the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) agreed to a final two-year timetable to establish an asset and benefit sharing (ABS) regime.

ABS is about access to biodiversity and equitable sharing of benefits resulting from its use. The intent is to end “biopiracy” — the exploitation of indigenous plants and animals for profit without permission or compensation — and reverse countries’ denial of access to any native species for scientific or commercial purposes. Half of all synthetic drugs have been derived from plants or insects.

“This is a real breakthrough. This agreement is a detailed framework on how to put ABS into place,” said German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who is also the president of the CBD for the next two years.

It might seem strange that delegates enthusiastically cheered this “Bonn Mandate”, an agreement to have two more years of meetings. But in fact, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have fought hard against anything resembling a legal obligation to compensate countries in the developing world for the use of their genetic resources, a delegate from Malaysia told IPS:

“They don’t want to share any money they’ve made from using our biodiversity.”

The United States is not on that list simply because it has not ratified the CBD and cannot vote. However, the delegate, who did not wish to be named, said the U.S. also opposed the ABS and was allied with Canada on this issue.

So what does this have to with stemming the loss of species that provide the ecological services that support life on Earth? Under the CBD, parties are obligated to protect biodiversity, and the thinking goes that if countries can be compensated under an ABS regime, they will have financial incentives and resources to better protect their biodiversity.

“Without a legally binding ABS regime, we cannot build tomorrow’s green economy,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme.

Steiner is referring to a growing “biological-based industrial revolution” that either use natural substances like toxic-free fire proofing made from grape skins to those the mimic nature such as new anti-bacterials based on marine algae. Hundreds of new products and services are under development and backed by more than one billion euros in financing. However, an international agreement is needed to move this new nature-based economy forward, Steiner told IPS.

“Countries are closing their borders when they could be collecting investments that will help them make land use decisions in favour of protecting biodiversity,” he said.

Governments and industry in the developing world need to understand there is tremendous financial potential in biodiversity and that they have to make investments. “Protecting natural areas cannot be done on philanthropy alone,” Steiner said.

With two days left in the conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged 785 million dollars between now and 2013 to help defend threatened forests and committed to the same amount annually after 2013. She then called on other countries to contribute as well, telling ministers that, “Obviously, Germany cannot shoulder this enormous global burden alone.”

Despite universal agreement that more money was needed, no other country made a financial commitment. Last fall, Norway pledged 600 million euros a year for the next three years.

“At the CBD COP (conference of the parties) in 2004, delegates pledged to invest more money for protected areas on land and sea but there has been little progress,” a spokesperson from Greenpeace International, Martin Kaiser, said in the final plenary session in Bonn Friday.

Greenpeace has estimated that 30 billion euros a year are needed to protect forests alone, to halt deforestation and provide a reduction of more than 20 percent in CO2 emissions. “Germany has demonstrated leadership and a strong commitment but none of the other rich G8 countries have stepped up,” Kaiser said.

For full story see Good Intentions Eclipse New Funding at U.N. Meet

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