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Species loss gathers pace while the world watches

While the earth’s interconnected and interdependent eco-system faces an existential crisis, a high-level UN conference on bio-diversity taking place in Japan is set to take no action whatsoever to achieve goals set as far back as 1993.

It is a shameful repeat of the failure of states to agree a successor to the Kyoto Protocol at climate talks in Copenhagen last year. As with Kyoto, the US never signed up to the 1993 Convention on Bio-diversity (CBD).

And it is clear that the meeting in Japan will set no clear deadlines for action. All attempts to halt – or even slow – species extinctions have entirely failed, just as all proposals to reduce emissions of harmful greenhouse gases have come to nothing. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week warned a UN summit in advance of the talks:

Last year's financial crisis was a wake-up call to governments on the perils of failing to oversee and regulate complex relationships that affect us all. The biodiversity crisis is no different. We are bankrupting our natural economy. We need to fashion a rescue package before it is too late.

To underline the case for action, the UN has brought together a range of scientific research which shows the quickening pace of extinctions and its potential impact on food and water supplies.

Half of the earth's wetlands, 40% of its forests and 30% of mangroves have been lost in the past 100 years. One in five mammals, 30% of amphibians, 12% of birds, 35% of conifers and cycads, 17% of sharks and 27% of reef-building corals are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

A report published this week in the magazine Nature into the state of the world’s rivers and waterways shows that the impact of societies failure to act to protect them, threatens rivers that serve 80% of the world’s population.

Agricultural run-off, pollution and invasive species put thousands of aquatic wildlife species at risk. And the problems are not confined to poorer countries – rivers in both rich and poor countries have similar problems and are equally under threat.

The researchers say that the technical and engineering solutions that industrialised countries use to ensure a water supply to their population treat the symptoms rather than deal with the problem, giving a false sense of security in their water supply.

The parallels with the failure to tackle climate change are seen here too, with the researchers warning that what is needed is “deliberate prevention of impairment rather than simply offsetting threats once they arise.” Mitigation is not the answer but rather, the report’s authors say, “better land use management, better irrigation techniques and emphasis on protecting ecosystems and the life forms within them”.

Bold action is needed to reverse the loss of biodiversity caused by pollution, deforestation and climate change, Ban Ki-moon urged the UN General Assembly. But they won’t take that action – and therefore we must.

Given that the actions required are so straightforward – and the same could be said too of action on greenhouse gas emissions – we could make a start at once. But that requires us to get to grips with the system of economy and production that presently stands in our way.

This is not just a question of overthrowing the rule of the corporations and their client states, but also creating a positive alternative that overcomes our alienated relationship to nature and establishes it on a new, more harmonious, basis whilst improving the lives of billions of poor people across the globe.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
30 September 2010

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