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Speaking Remarks for Angela Cropper, UNEP Deputy Executive Director at UNESCO Biodiversity Launch

Theme: Biodiversity and the Global Economy

Paris, 21 January 2010 - Ladies and gentlemen,

Colleagues; have you heard of the southern gastric brooding frog of Australia?

The species was discovered in the 1980s and the find intrigued scientists.

How did the female frog, which raises young in her stomach, protect the offspring from being dissolved by acids and other gastric juices?

Researchers suspect that the frog must secrete special inhibitory substances that protect the baby frogs from harm.

The research on the gastric brooding frogs could have led to new insights into preventing and treating human peptic ulcers which affect some 25 million people in the United States alone.

But these studies could not be continued because the species became extinct, and the valuable medical secrets they held are now gone forever.

It is the kind of story that is becoming ever more common.

It will become increasingly so unless we stop the erosion and loss of the very living organisms and life-support systems that sustain humanity in the first place.

The southern gastric brooding frog is part of a trail of extinct species that is getting ever longer with losses occurring ever faster threatening the lives, livelihoods and future opportunities for human-beings.

If the 20th century was an industrial age; the 21st century will increasingly need to be a biological one.

One generating enterprises and economies based on new products, processes and ways of doing business inspired and based on biodiversity, nature-based resources and the treasure-trove that is their gene pool.

Let me speak about a few of that multitude of species which abound, about which Professor Wilson advised us.

I am not a scientist or a biologist, but in a book called Sustaining Life, which UNEP supported in advance of the last Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Bonn Germany, researchers at the Harvard Medical School listed other promising products from amphibians:

  • Pumiliotoxins, like those made by the Panamanian Poison Frog that may lead to medicines that strengthen the contractions of the heart and thus prove useful in treating heart disease.

  • Alkaloids made by species like the Ecuadorian Poison Frog, which could be the source of a new and novel generation of pain-killers.

  • Antibacterial compounds produced in the skin of frogs and toads such as the African Clawed Frog and South and Central American leaf frogs.

  • Bradykinins and maximakinins, made in the skin glands of species like the Chinese Large-Webbed Bell Toad; Mexican Leaf Frog, and North American Pickerel Frog that dilate the smooth muscle of blood vessels in mammals and therefore offer promising avenues for treating high blood pressure.

  • Frog glue, produced by species such as the Australian frog, could lead to natural adhesives for repairing cartilage and other tissue tears in humans.

  • Many species of newts and salamanders, such as the Eastern Spotted Newt, can re-grow tissues such as heart muscle; nerve tissue in the spinal cord and even whole organs.

  • Some frogs, such as the Gray Tree Frog and the Chorus Frog can survive long periods of freezing without suffering cell damage-understanding how these frogs do this may yield key insights into how we might better preserve scarce organs needed for transplant.

But there is another fact that the researchers also underline.

  • Nearly one third of the approximately 6000 known amphibian species are threatened with extinction.

    Medical advances forsaken are one issue. But what about biomimicry, an emerging area of commerce again based on nature.

    How does a shark's skin allow it to speed through water with minimal drag-can we design ship's hulls better while saving time and fuel?

    Where does one begin and end here-perhaps with two examples among the myriad:

    Two million children die every year from vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, rubella and whooping cough in part because in many developing countries there is a simple lack of refrigeration.

    Enter Myrothamnus flabellifola, a plant found in Central and Southern Africa, whose tissues can dried to a crisp and the revived courtesy of a sugary substance produced in the cells during drought.

    Researchers in the UK are developing a way of copying and then spraying these sugars onto vaccines to form water-tight, inert beads.

    Ones that can be packaged in an injectable form and sit in a doctors' bag for months even years.

    And there are many others in the pipeline or under development.

    • Friction-free surfaces suitable for modern electrical devices gleaned from the slippery skin of the Arabian Peninsula's sandfish lizard.

    • New antibacterial substances inspired by marine algae found off Australia's coast that promise a new way of defeating health hazardous bugs without contributing to the threat of increasing bacterial resistance.

    • Toxic-free fire retardants, based on waste citrus and grape crops inspired by the way animal cells turn food into energy without producing flames - the so called citric acid or Krebs cycle.

    • A pioneering water harvesting system to recycle steam from cooling towers and allowing buildings to collect their own water supplies from the air inspired by the way the Namib Desert Beetle of Namibia harvests water from desert fogs.

    Ladies and gentlemen,

    This is biodiversity-these are some of the risks we take if we fail to capture its true and real value.

    It is the same for ecosystems and their services-whose real value is only being glimpsed.

    UNEP hosts The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), involving many organizations, whose final report will emerge this year in advance of the CBD meeting in Nagoya, Japan in October.

    Many of you may have already read and heard about some of the preliminary findings.

    That perhaps as much as $5 trillion-worth of natural assets are being lost annually-more than in the financial crisis and every year in and year out.

    I mention this because unless we give economic value to biodiversity and to ecosystems and the services they provide, we are unlikely to turn the tide in a world captured and fascinated by GDP, stock markets and the measures we define as progress.

    Biodiversity for me, let me say, and for UNEP, and I'm sure for some of you, is far more than dollars and cents, or Euros, Yuan or Kenyan shillings.

    But the economic case for sustainable management of our natural capital is as overwhelming as the ones focused on stewardship and the spiritual dimensions of the living world.

    That economic case is now being made and we will make it even more sharply and clearly in 2010.

    At the UN General Assembly in September, UNEP and the UN Development Programme will underline in a new report the central link between the Millennium Development Goals and biodiversity.

    But what of the response in this UN International Year of Biodiversity: how do we make it a success, rather than a mere celebratory passage of time?

    Perhaps we need a few litmus tests-let me outline some under the title of this session, "International Actions for Solving the Biodiversity Crisis"; below are six areas for increased and focused attention to support the achievement of the post 2010 targets:

    1. Science

    There is an urgent need to bridge the gap between science and policy-makers in governments around the world.

    In February, environment ministers attending UNEP's Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum will decide whether or not to establish an Intergovernmental Panel or Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

    Governments should consider supporting the proposed new panel or give guidance on an alternative body or mechanism- the status quo is not an option if biodiversity loss is to be truly addressed.

    2. Public Awareness and Understanding

    Mobilizing public support across countries, cities, companies and communities would be among the keys to a successful year.

    This includes de-mystifying terms such as biodiversity and ecosystems and communicating complex concepts and sometimes obscure scientific terms, will also be vital to get people on board.

    This can be achieved in part by linking livelihoods, the combating of poverty and the relationship between biodiversity and natural systems with the health of economies.

    Equally the link between the role of living organisms and systems in buffering humanity against the worst impacts of global warming are messages that need to be heard loud and clear.

  • Marine ecosystems, including mangroves, salt marshes and sea-grasses are not only coastal defenses and fish nurseries. It is estimated that they are absorbing and locking away greenhouse gases equal to half the world's transport emissions.

    The international, multi-lingual, traveling exhibition launched today is a good example of how UNEP and UNESCO can marry our strengths to boost public understanding.

    Mainstreaming the Economics

    It is estimated that for an annual investment of US$45 billion into protected areas alone, the delivery of ecosystem services worth some US$5 trillion a year could be secured.


  • In Venezuela, investment in the national protected area system is preventing sedimentation that otherwise could reduce farm earnings by around US$3.5 million a year

  • Planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves in Vietnam costs just over US$1 million but saved annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of well over US$7 million

  • One in 40 jobs in Europe is now linked with the environment and ecosystem services ranging from clean tech 'eco-industries' to organic agriculture, sustainable forestry and eco-tourism.

    Among the positive outcomes of the recent UN climate convention meeting in Copenhagen was an agreement that Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) can join the existing options for combating climate change.

    There are other opportunities here across a range of ecosystems.

    4. Alien Invasive Species

    Part of the challenge that echoes the economic question includes addressing alien invasive species.

    These are species that, as a result of international trade including shipping or deliberate introductions, can flourish unchecked in their new homes sometimes thousands of kilometers from where they are naturally found.

  • By some estimates alien invasive species may be costing the global economy US$1.4 trillion or more while representing a further challenge to the poverty-related UN Millennium Development Goals.

  • In sub-Saharan Africa, the invasive witchweed is responsible for annual maize losses amounting to US$7 billion: overall losses to alien species may amount to over US$12 billion in respect to Africa's eight principal crops.

    Improved international cooperation is needed and stepped up support for the Global Invasive Species Programme.

    It is also important to boost the capacity of the responsible national customs and quarantine agencies, especially in developing countries and to accelerate controls on the movement of alien species via the UN's International Maritime Organization.

    5. Access and Benefit Sharing

    Successfully negotiating an international regime on access and benefit sharing of genetic resources at the CBD meeting in Japan would also be a landmark for 2010.

    Currently, and in the absence of such a regime, many developing countries harbouring the richest source of genetic material are declining companies from developing countries and scientists access to these resources.

    An international regime could foster cooperation and unlock the genetic resources available in the developing world for the development of new pharmaceuticals, new crop strains and materials for all nations.

    In turn it could trigger financial flows from North to South and improve the economics of conserving biodiversity and ecosystems.

    Constructive negotiations have been underway since the last meeting of the CBD in Bonn in 2008 and there is optimism that an international regime could be concluded to the benefit of developed and developing economies alike and to the benefit of biodiversity and ecosystems.

    6. Improved International Environment Governance

    The international response to biodiversity loss and sustainable management of nature-based resources has been the establishment of several key bio-related treaties.

    These include the CBD and its Cartagena Protocol on living modified organisms; the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species; the Convention on Migratory Species; the Ramsar Convention covering wetlands and the Africa Eurasia Waterbird Agreement.

    Greater cooperation among the relevant treaties and agreements should be fostered in 2010 in order to accelerate the international response.

    Ladies and gentlemen,

    Biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation are currently a fact of life-2010 is an opportunity to consign these facts to the history books;

    to face the realities and catalyze some new facts of life-ones that eschew the status quo, ones that deliver a sea change and a landmark in the pact between humanity and the living world.

    We have enough knowledge to act and we have enough compelling reasons to transit from complacency to transformational change.

    Reversing the rate of loss of biodiversity is an inspiring end in itself-but even more concentrating when one recognizes that your life and the life of six billion people depend on the decisions you and I take each day.

    Decisions that collectively the international community must take throughout this special 2010 year.

    It just requires a little re-thinking and a little re-calibrating-looking at the challenge but through a fresh and transformational lens.

    Albert Einsten, the renowned physicist, was once asked by a student why he had again set the same examination papers.

    To which Einsten replied:" Because I now have new answers".

    I believe the international community like Einsten, has some new answers. It is time for us all to put them collectively to the test.

    I thank UNESCO for giving me the opportunity to address this meeting.