doi:10.1038/nindia.2012.169 Published online 21 November 2012

Science backs biodiversity policy

To make international environmental agreements work, effective political framework, farsighted policy and good science have to blend in equal measures, says S. Gopikrishna Warrier, who attended the Conference of Parties (CoP) of the Convention of Biological Diversity in Hyderabad recently.

The Hyderabad CBD had a fair measure of science built into policy making.
© CoP11 Flickr stream

The 11th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD CoP-11) held at Hyderabad, India, from October 8-19, 2012 was a gathering of more than 6,000 participants. They represented governments, UN agencies; inter-governmental, non-governmental, indigenous and local community organizations; civil society, academia and the private sector.

Smelling science at CoP11

Purely from the science perspective, there were several significant take-homes. The Hyderabad CoP flagged four issues — climate change, geo-engineering, synthetic biology and biofuels.

The gaps in knowledge linking biodiversity and climate change came up in the discussions. The CoP wanted countries to take up research studies at spatial scales ranging from local to larger landscapes. It also wanted countries to incorporate policies that promote synergies between biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation, support protected areas and improve land use planning. Also, some more linkages were made between the Biodiversity Convention and the Climate Change Convention.

The CoP noted that geo-engineering could involve deliberate intervention in the planetary environment on a large scale to counteract human-induced climate change. Since there is a "lack of science-based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanism for climate-related geo-engineering" there is a need for a precautionary approach. Further, since these interventions can have trans-boundary consequences, customary international law has to be applied, it noted.

For synthetic biology, the CoP recommended the precautionary principle, based on "the need to consider the potential positive and negative impacts of components, organisms and products resulting from synthetic biology techniques on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity."

Countries were also advised to develop and apply tools to promote biofuels that have a positive impact on biodiversity. This is because some biofuel technologies could impact biodiversity and negate its positive contribution to reduce climate change. There are gaps in scientific knowledge, tools and approaches, as also difficulties in measuring indirect impacts of biofuels. Hence the need for a precautionary approach, the CoP noted.

There were also talks of encouraging traditional knowledge, innovation, practices and sustainable use of biodiversity. The CoP thought it was wise to strengthen the participation of indigenous and local communities. It wanted countries to incorporate traditional knowledge and customary sustainable use into their action plans. It also wanted the initiation of an in-depth dialogue by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) on connecting traditional knowledge systems with modern science.

Ecosystem restoration was on the agenda too. The CoP asked the CBD Secretariat to organise training workshops with indigenous and local communities to compile a comprehensive web portal to restore ecosystems. Taxonomic organisations will train manpower to count and identify new species under the Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI). Publicly available information systems and facilities for biological collections will be built and maintained, if the CoP directives work. Such taxonomic research would require movement of genetic resources and traditional knowledge across international boundaries. The CoP emphasised that such movement should be according to the principles of access and benefit sharing as per the CBD and the Nagoya Protocol.

Decisions taken

CoP-11 got much work done — the delegates took 33 decisions. The decision that was most reported in the media was of the breakthrough in developing a financial mechanism for the conservation, sustainable use of global biological diversity and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from it. Like in all COPs, the parties set targets. One was of doubling biodiversity-related international financial resources from developed countries by 2015.

Also, to make that funding a minimum benchmark till 2020. This was a critical breakthrough, especially at a time of global economic slowdown and following a not-so-heartening history. At the 2010 CoP-10, held at Nagoya, Japan, the international community had to accept that they had failed to achieve the biodiversity conservation targets set for 2010. A new Strategic Plan and a set of 20 targets (known as Aichi Targets) to be achieved by 2020 were drawn up.

Building on the framework for biodiversity conservation for the decade between 2010 and 2020, each country is preparing its own national biodiversity strategy and action plan (NBSAP). CoP-11 urged parties to review, revise and update their NBSAPs in line with the Strategic Plan, and share best practices and lessons learnt amongst each other.

The conference discussed incentive measures for the conservation of biodiversity. It encouraged countries to conduct their own national studies on the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity and integrate the values of biodiversity conservation into national and local policies. It also wanted countries to identify incentives harmful to biodiversity conservation and phase them out.

The pieces fall in place

The Hyderabad CoP was part of a 20-year old continuing process. The Biodiversity Convention, as one of the three framework conventions that came out of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, has enough political buy-in from governments. The only significant exception is the USA, which had signed but not ratified the CBD.

Also, the Biodiversity Convention negotiations have not raised strong political differences like the Climate Change Convention. At a conceptual level, every national government agrees with the objectives of the CBD – conservation of biodiversity, its sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits arising from its use. Working independent of strong political animosities, CBD negotiators have been able to work quietly and efficiently over multiple CoPs.

The question is whether the national governments — individually and collectively — will put enough action to support their words? The realisation that the global community had not met decadal biodiversity conservation targets provided a shock treatment at the Nagoya CoP in 2010. Added to this was the imperative for conservation that the Third Global Biodiversity Outlook (also released in 2010) articulated. The Strategic Plan and the Aichi Targets resulted from this sense of urgency.

In this context, the agreement on resource mobilisation was a breakthrough, since it could have otherwise made other discussions ineffective. At least the wheel will not stop rolling after Hyderabad. Added to these were the science-based policy decisions linking biodiversity to climate change, the Nagoya Protocol, the Global Taxonomy Initiative, geo-engineering, synthetic biology and biofuels.

More eyeballs for biodiversity

The weakness that the Biodiversity Convention suffers vis-à-vis the Climate Change Convention is not one of science but on public awareness. Unlike with climate change, the global public has poor understanding of the concept of biodiversity.

While the fact that climate change was not discussed in the US presidential election itself made news, habitat loss and the resultant loss of livelihoods to communities does not create the same media and public impact. There are no hurricanes such as Sandy that can be linked to biodiversity loss directly.

On the positive side, the systematic work being done by the CBD Secretariat, biodiversity negotiators, international and national NGOs, the scientific community and the media is leading to increasing awareness. According to Balakrishna Pisupati, Chairman of the National Biodiversity Authority of India, the Hyderabad meeting generated more media attention than any of the earlier ones.

The CoPs are venues where politics, policy and science come together. As a corollary, at CoPs high science has to meet the test of being practical to be implemented as policy and be politically acceptable to national governments. The Hyderabad CoP achieved this well.

The author is a regional environment manager with Panos South Asia. Views expressed are personal.