Remarks by Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director To the 2nd Diversitas Open Science Conference

Cape Town, 14 October 2009 - Distinguished delegates, members of the international scientific community, ladies and gentlemen,

Your press release issued on Sunday in some ways said it all-seven years after the World Summit on Sustainable Development there is a public acceptance that the biodiversity target will not be met.

The fact that reversing the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010 is going to be missed does not however undermine the goal-or can it.

Everyone in this room knows that acceptance on this issue is no strategy at all.

Anyone around the world who is interested in alleviating poverty and combating climate to realizing the next generation of smart and sustainable products based on genetics and biomimicry knows that any more biodiversity losses make zero social, environmental or economic sense.

This meeting here in Cape Town must be part of the launch pad that takes the international response on biodiversity and ecosystem loss from the incremental to the strategic and comprehensive.

An occasion where scientists, national and multilateral institutions like UNEP, the private sector and civil society begin making sure that 2010 is not a cause for hand-wringing.

But a year where many busy hands start making this challenge a lighter and finally achievable one.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The New Economics of Climate Change

There are reasons for cautioned optimism-optimism in part born from the fact that some of the missing links in the evolution of a more comprehensive response are emerging.

Firstly we gather here just weeks before more than 190 countries meet in Copenhagen at the crucial UN climate convention meeting.

As head of the UN's environment body, I confess that my optimism over what will be achieved in December waxes and wanes at turns.

There remain big uncertainties still over developed country commitments in terms of emission reductions and financial support for developing economies.

But then you read the 'Yes We Can' editorial by John Kerry and Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, in Sunday's New York Times.

Or the statement last Saturday in Beijing by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak and one feels the chance of a scientifically-credible deal may be possible or at least less implausible.

REDD

Part of that agreement and perhaps one of the less controversial issues politically is Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD).

Whether as a fund or as a market mechanism, it represents both a climate mitigation and adaptation strategy-but also one that can, if carefully and creatively designed assist in meeting the 2010 target.

Assist too in bolstering the ecosystem services of forests alongside generating revenue flows from North to South and employment in natural resource management.

I delighted that UNEP is hosting the UNREDD secretariat for this partnership with FAO and UNDP and that preparations with the nine pilot countries are advancing.

Colours of Carbon-Blue to Green

This morning UNEP, in collaboration with the FAO; the UNESCO's International Oceanographic Commission, bodies such as IUCN and scientists, will launch a Blue Carbon report.

It estimates that carbon emissions-equal to half the annual emissions of the global transport sector-are being captured and stored by marine ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses.

A combination of reducing deforestation on land, allied to restoring the coverage and health of these marine ecosystems could deliver up to 25 per cent of the emissions reductions needed to avoid 'dangerous' climate change.

Meanwhile UNEP and the World Agroforestry Centre, with funding from the Global Environment Facility, has launched a Carbon Benefits Project with farmers and landowners in Western Kenya; China, Niger and Nigeria.

It aims to rapidly develop the land use standard or calculator that will allow investors to know how much carbon is being sequestered under different management regimes.

On World Environment Day 2009, we also launched The Natural Fix. Again looking at the carbon capture and storage potential of other terrestrial ecosystems.

If REDD can get the green light, then perhaps other ecosystems can benefit from carbon investments too.

Some developed economies are preparing to put billions of dollars into carbon capture and storage (CCS) at power stations-why not invest some of this in nature-based CCS.

The natural one is tried and tested over millennia and I do not have to tell the audience here of the multiple, what I would call Green Economy, benefits.

TEEB-an Investment Prospectus

Investments flows in a sense only work if investors-be they the public or the private sector-can properly value their assets.

This has been an evolving field but one which is gathering a sense of maturity through the work of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) funded by the European Commission, governments such as Germany and the UK and now hosted by UNEP.

I am sure the work of Pavan Sukhdev and his team is well known to many of you here.

The final report, scheduled for 2010 just before the crucial Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya, will I am sure be groundbreaking.

The ability of this work to transform the economic relationship between humanity and ecosystems and their services is only now being glimpsed-not least through data showing that perhaps as much as $5 trillion-worth of natural assets are being lost annually or more than in the financial crisis.

ABS-The CBD's Financial Mechanism

In mentioning the CBD meeting, held in the International Year of Biodiversity, I must also mention another economic issue which like the 2010 target has been too long in discussion with less than optimal action.

That of course is an International Regime on Access and Benefit Sharing of Genetic Resources (ABS).

Governments are, it seems, finally and meaningfully wrestling with this third pillar of the CBD-its unrealized financial mechanism in many ways.

2010 really needs to bring closure on this because it is not only under cutting or clear-cutting the ability of the CBD to reach its full potential, but also having economic impacts on developed and developing economies alike.

ICPE, the integrated pest control institute now has case upon case of examples where developing economies are refusing to share genetic resources in the absence of an international regime.

So less and less access for developed economies and companies and less and less benefit sharing for developing ones.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Economics go hand in hand with science and visa versa-we know the power that can be brought in terms of catalyzing a political response.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), hosted by UNEP and the World Meteorological Organisation, took the contested science and subjected it to the most intense peer review in a way that no government could walk away from the reality.

Brought too the economic costs of action and inaction to the political and negotiating table.

Is this a model for catalyzing a political response in terms of the natural world?

As Director General of IUCN, I remained to be convinced that an Intergovernmental Platform or Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was needed.

I have changed my tune. Indeed it should and must be a way forward-if not I would be keen to know what is.

The number of scientific assessments, their focus and assumptions, are simply too bewildering and fragmented.

Should an environment minister in Burkina Faso or Bolivia act on hot spots, eco-footprints, protected areas assessments and advice or even UNEP's Global Environment Outlook or the CBD's flagship assessments?

There are also gaps and big time-lags from science recognizing that a phenomenon is unfolding, to the point at which it hits a minister's in-tray or multilateral discussions.

Biofuels are a good example-the implications and possible impacts were being discussed in scientific circles well before-perhaps decades- they came onto the political radar and hit the headlines.

Last week in Nairobi at UNEP's headquarters, close to 100 governments discussed, assessed and tried to envisage the structure, form and role of a possible IPBES.

By the end only a handful of countries were still unsure-the vast majority is now in favour of such a body, able to strengthen the science policy interface

A final decision will take place at a final meeting in 2010.

An IPBES will need verifiable and reliable monitoring-a topic that I am glad to see is high on this meeting's agenda.

For perhaps over 30 years, the scientific community has been evolving remote sensing of planet Earth but in the minds of many we have not got as far as was originally thought.

Yes we have a lot of good site-scale monitoring going back in time that allows evaluations and decisions to be made.

But in the absence of consistent and long term-standards and the shifting priorities of space agencies and others, what we have at the moment is costly and sub-optimal.

UNEP fully supports efforts by Diversitas and others to establish a global biodiversity observing system or GEO-BON-with the caveat that it needs to keep the goal posts firmly in the ground so as to provide that comprehensive baseline upon which gene, biodiversity and ecosystem trends can be comprehensively evaluated.

Let me mention perhaps one last reason why I believe there is a renewed interest among policy-makers in biodiversity and ecosystems-human health.

Environmental change is also accelerating and globalizing the spread of diseases-combating them is becoming a costly business.

Whether it be the link between loss of wetlands and the way flu viruses can more easily jump back and forth between domestic fowl and wild birds.

Or the link between Nippah virus and deforestation in Asia

Or bilharzia and dam building, lime's disease and the disappearance of predators or climate change, deforestation and malaria-bolstering biodiversity and ecosystems have a big and only recently recognized role to play in health and health costs.

It is a card that should and must be more effectively played in the international debate about the value of the planet's nature-based assets and yet another of the myriad of reasons why they matter to economies, the Millennium Development Goals and effective public policy.

Science can also drive more sustainable agriculture. I find it breathtaking that the strategies and solutions for feeding a growing global population remain largely dominated by more fertilizer, more hybrid seeds, more pesticides-in other words more of the same intensification models of the 20th century.

The way society incentivizes farmers is in many ways forcing them to mine the very inputs that underpin agriculture in the first-from fertile soils and biodiversity above and below ground to wetlands and forests.

In conclusion, the failure to reach the 2010 has to be the spur for transformative change above all on the political front.

Policy-makers may appreciate biodiversity and ecosystems but they tend to appreciate and thus act more comprehensively if the scientific and economic arguments become unavoidable.

I believe those arguments are entering the political and the public domain in ways that perhaps were not quite there when the 2010 target was originally set-but they are coming loud and fast.

I would ask you to look to the environmental programme of the UN as part of that change and as an old partner but with a new sense of urgency, direction and creative vision-one where in cooperation with organizations such as Diversitas we can shape the arguments for action ever more crisply and define the choices ever more clearly.

Climate change is not going to simply go away like a bad nightmare in the morning if governments walk away from Copenhagen without a serious deal. It is the same in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem loss.

You can stop the clocks, but you cannot stop the climate clock ticking without transformative and committed action-neither can you reverse the rate of biodiversity loss.

And the longer the world waits, the more difficult, costly and damaging both these issues will become.

Both Copenhagen and the International Year of Biodiversity represent opportunities to plan the future in a managed and considered way; otherwise the future will plan itself.

And this may well overwhelm the coping capacities of our national and global institutions, forcing societies to react and to scramble to deal with events that already unfolding and challenging the very foundations upon which modern civilization, as it has evolved today, depends.

2010 may not be the year when we reverse the rate of loss of biodiversity-but needs to be the year when we reversed the response to that loss.

For More Information Please Contact:

Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson/Head of Media on Tel: +254 733 632755, Email: nick.nuttall@unep.org


 

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