The 2010 Climate Challenge

By Achim Steiner, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme

With less than three years remaining, the 2010 target to reverse the rate of biodiversity loss looks increasingly elusive. If anything, the rate of extinction is accelerating. In 2005 the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that 60 per cent of the world's ecosystems are in decline. Last year, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species revealed that two out of five species known to science could face extinction, including one in eight birds, a quarter of all mammals and one-third of amphibian species.

Now this year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report has confirmed that global warming is affecting biological systems around the globe, with between 20 and 30 per cent of plant and animal species facing increased risk of extinction as global average temperatures rise. These estimates do not include the myriad life forms yet to be catalogued, whose role in the finely tuned balance of ecosystems, or whose value to human society as sources of medicines, foodstuffs or other uses, may never be known. That, ultimately, is the tragedy of extinction. Unlike some other types of ecosystem degradation, extinction cannot be reversed. Once a species has gone, it is gone forever.

Reversing the decline in biological diversity will increasingly depend on how successful we are at slowing global warming. As the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment states: "By the end of the century, climate change may be the dominant direct driver of biodiversity loss and changes to ecosystem services globally." Recognizing the growing severity of the problem, and the need for more awareness and action, the Convention on Biological Diversity has chosen Biodiversity and Climate Change as the theme for International Biodiversity Day 2007.

If we do not stop the climate juggernaut, many, if not all, of the other strategies for protecting increasingly threatened species and habitats will be doomed to failure. As an example, a recent study has shown that amphibian and reptile populations in the La Selva lowland forest reserve in Costa Rica have declined by 75 per cent in the past 35 years. The significance of the findings is that this area is devoted principally to these species' protection. The researchers' conclusion is that climate change is to blame.

Elsewhere in the world tropical forests continue to be felled at an alarming rate?for timber, subsistence and industrial agriculture, and, increasingly, for crops such as soya and palm oil to feed the growing global demand for biofuels. This is bad news both for biodiversity and for the climate. A UNEP report, released in February 2007, entitled The Last Stand of the Orangutan: State of Emergency found that rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia is being felled so quickly that 98 per cent could be gone by 2022. As well as spelling doom for the orangutan and countless other species, such destruction contributes directly to global warming, accounting for up to 20 per cent of global annual greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the value of tropical forests for carbon sequestration?estimated by some economists at tens or even hundreds of billion of dollars a year?is also in decline. The world lost 5 per cent of the carbon storage capacity of its forests in the first five years of this century alone.

It therefore stands to reason that protecting existing tropical forests must be recognized as a priority, both for biodiversity conservation and for mitigating climate change. Unfortunately, there are currently few, if any, economic incentives for protecting forests, and many for destroying them. For instance, under the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, the only truly global instrument for combating climate change, countries can receive credits for planting new woodland, but there is no incentive for protecting existing forests. This has to change.

Later this year, parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will meet in Bali to continue negotiating the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. It is imperative that these negotiations provide strong incentives to countries such as Indonesia and Brazil to conserve their forests.

Businesses the world over are also looking for clear signals from governments that the Kyoto mechanisms will continue post-2012 and be built on. Emissions reduction regimes, carbon trading and other strategies for mitigating climate change demand a long-term view from governments and investors alike. I firmly believe that protecting tropical forests can form a keystone of a new carbon trading regime, as well as providing a wide variety of business opportunities?to the benefit of the global climate and of species and habitat protection.

Climate change is emerging as the single greatest threat to biodiversity. This reality serves an extra reminder of the importance of pursuing the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the 2010 target with renewed vigour and commitment.


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