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Earth 'On Verge Of Major
Biodiversity Crisis'

By Haider Rizvi

25 July, 2006

NEW YORK - Mindful that life on Earth is seriously threatened by the continued loss of thousands of plant and animal species, an international group of scientists is calling for the creation of a global forum to help officials craft plans to preserve biodiversity on the planet.

"There is an urgent need to bridge the gap between science and policy to take action," says a statement from the 19-member group that cautions against the possibility of a "major biodiversity crisis" facing the Earth.

If governments fail to take appropriate actions in due course of time, the group says it is quite likely that before the end of this century a large number of plant and animal species will have completely disappeared.

The protection of biological diversity is a must for the health of the planet's ecosystems that take care of all forms of life. The ecosystems, which include forests, flowers, coral reefs, and waterways, are currently under assault as never before.

Policy makers around the world not only acknowledge the need to preserve biological diversity, but have also made a number of commitments to address this issue. However, in most cases, their deeds have failed to match their words.

Despite substantial evidence of a steep decline in the population of a large number of species, as the group notes with a certain degree of dissatisfaction, both the public and private sectors remain unsuccessful in taking effective actions to protect biodiversity.

One of the reasons the issue of biological diversity remains on the back burner of environmental concern is perhaps linked to the fact that that it is more complex than issues such as the stratospheric ozone hole or global climate change.

Scientists say they understand that biodiversity cannot be measured by simple universal indicators such as temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide because it involves several levels of organization, such as genes, species, and ecosystems.

On the other hand, however, statistical facts on the loss of biodiversity suggest the imminent dangers of inaction, as two thirds of the services provided by nature to humankind are already in decline, with 12 percent of bird species, 23 percent of mammals, 25 percent of conifers, 32 percent of amphibians, and 52 percent of cycads (a type of evergreen plant similar to palms and ferns) continuing to face serious threats of extinction.

Moreover, according to scientific calculations, within the next 50 years, it is quite likely that up to another 37 percent of currently existing species might be gone due to climate change.

About 14 years ago, the world community created a treaty on biodiversity setting out three main goals that include the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from the use of genetic resources.

Under the treaty, which has been signed by 188 countries, governments are required to take certain steps that would "significantly reduce" the biodiversity loss by the year 2010.

But many countries continue to lag behind in implementing plans on biodiversity protection, in large measure because their policy makers have no close and coordinated links with the scientific researchers in the field.

Though comprehensive in various ways, the treaty on biodiversity has no clear-cut structural means to organize scientific opinion on a global level, according to the group that is currently engaged in efforts to create unity among its own rank and file first.

"For the sake of the planet, the biodiversity science community has to create a way to get organized," says Dr. Robert Watson, chief scientists at the World Bank, who led the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment (MEA).

Watson thinks that the global panel on climate change and other similar forums on international environmental issues could prove to be good models for biodiversity experts to help policy makers with advice on how to halt the catastrophic loss of species.

"Each model has strengths and weaknesses," he says, "but essentially they all serve as a reliable source of information and advice for the public, their government and decision makers."

Michel Loreau, a biology professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and one of the leading members of the group, fully agrees with Watson's proposal, but for other reasons as well.

"We need diversity of opinions and approaches," he says, "but we also need unity behind this collective effort, to speak with one voice collectively when it comes to recognizing key issues and how they can best be addressed."

Additionally, "biodiversity provides ecosystem services such as disease and climate regulation, storm protection, and habitat for useful species," says Charles Perrings of Arizona State University, who also signed the statement issued by the group.

In his view, since biodiversity imposes "real economic costs on society, we need to develop clear science guidance for policy options accordingly."

For their part, officials in some parts of the world, it seems, have no objection to the idea that Watson and his colleagues are floating. The French government, for example, has not merely agreed, but also provided funds for talks to create a global panel.

The ongoing consultations are likely to be concluded shortly before the ninth international conference of the parties to the treaty on biological diversity takes place in Berlin, Germany in 2008.

The ongoing talks will determine what kind of biodiversity information is needed by decision makers in many relevant areas, including fisheries, transportation, industry, and parks management, in order to design a panel that addresses those requirements.

The group says it wants the panel to be objective, independent, transparent, and representative, which includes official experts, as well as independent scientists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private sector representatives, a wish list, if realized, that could strengthen the 14-year-old UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

"This convention is about life on Earth. The achievement of the 2010 biodiversity target is of crucial importance for everyone alive today and our children and grandchildren and generations to be born," said Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the CBD in a recent statement.

"I would like to call on everyone to join this unprecedented effort to conserve life on Earth," he added.

Copyright © 2006









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