Ecological crisis ‘will not be avoided’


Ecological crisis ‘will not be avoided’


Posted 07 July 2011, by Staff, The ENDS Report (Haymarket Media),

A failure to tackle biodiversity loss was predicted at a meeting of experts gathered to discuss solutions. Ministers have endorsed a new EU biodiversity strategy while a new English strategy has been held up.

Experts painted a gloomy picture of prospects for tackling global biodiversity loss at a meeting in Oxford at the end of June.

In public presentations and private conversations along the conference corridors, the assembled participants expressed little confidence that the changes needed would be made in time, or even about what those changes should be.

“We are not going to avoid the ecological crisis so the question is rather how are we going to navigate it?” said Laurent Mermet, professor of environmental management at the Paris Institute of Technology.

Professor Jon Hutton, director of the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre echoed this. “I find it very hard to imagine any scenario for the next 50 years which doesn’t involve increasing biodiversity loss. The question is how society will cope and respond.”

The conference was organised by Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and Environment, headed by former government chief scientific adviser Professor Sir David King.

The meeting brought together policymakers, research scientists, NGOs and businesses to build on renewed global commitments made last year to tackle biodiversity loss by 2020 (ENDS Report, November 2010).

The 2020 goal replaced earlier commitments to halt biodiversity loss by 2010, a target which was comprehensively missed while pressures on biodiversity continue to increase (ENDS Report, May 2010).

Biodiversity solutions

Subtitled “valuing ecosystem services: from new commitments to strategic action”, the conference was billed as an opportunity to find solutions to this problem.

The central premise was that society is not attaching enough value to biodiversity and the free services nature provides. If nature were valued appropriately in decision-making, the thinking goes, the world would be on the road to solving biodiversity loss.

Speaking at the conference, James Griffiths, managing director for ecosystems at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, described the work his organisation has done to help companies value nature (ENDS Report, April 2011).

Highlighting some of the work that is going on in the private sector, he pointed out that “valuation approaches are a very controversial area”.

Some ecosystem services can be translated into monetary prices, such as carbon storage in a forest, water purification by uplands or the boost to visitor numbers from a restored river. But others are much harder, or perhaps impossible to capture. Values can be highly context-specific, for example reflecting local scarcity, or rise sharply as a natural resource or species dwindles.

And values may depend on who is asked. Methods based on ‘willingness to pay’ surveys try to find out how much residents would stump up to preserve local wildlife. This will vary depending on incomes, raising the question whether a European species is ‘worth’ more than a similar African one because Europeans are wealthier.

Researchers may be able to come up with clever ways to approach these issues but are unlikely to be able to put a price on hearing the first cuckoo of the summer.

“I’m nervous about basing conservation priorities on monetary values,” said Professor David Macdonald, professor of wildlife conservation at Oxford University and chair of Natural England’s science advisory committee. But other delegates suggested better methods of valuing nature should not be sacrificed in pursuit of the best.

“If you can get to monetisation, that is when you can feed into your business decision-making processes most effectively,” said Mr Griffiths. Monetisation was not always possible, applicable, ethical or valuable, he added, “but it helps if you can do it”.

This central conundrum was raised repeatedly during the conference, but never satisfactorily answered. Sir David himself perhaps came closest in his opening speech.

“How do we move our society from rampant consumerism to sustainable lifestyles?” he asked. “We must find a way to value well-being over wealth, and common good over personal greed.”

Conspicuous absences

A raft of senior politicians listed on the draft programme for the conference’s high-level segment did not attend to hear Sir David speak.

The draft programme had listed deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, environment secretary Caroline Spelman, Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as participants, but none attended.

The new EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 was published in May amid suggestions from green MEPs and NGOs that it lacked substance (ENDS Report, May 2011). Even so, it was endorsed only reluctantly by some member state environment ministers at the 21 June environment council.

Italy, Denmark and Bulgaria expressed reservations about the EU strategy. Italian official Vincenzo Grassi said Rome was concerned about giving the EU executive a “blank cheque”, while Danish minister Karen Ellemann said there had been too little time to assess the strategy and its financial implications.

Ybele Hoogeveen, project manager for nature protection and biodiversity at the European Environment Agency told ENDS he would bet the 2020 strategy’s target to halt biodiversity loss will be missed, just as the 2010 target was. But it might be better than having no target at all, he added.

Hope for halting the loss of UK biodiversity rest on forthcoming changes to the EU common fisheries and agricultural policies, the recent natural environment white paper and the delayed biodiversity strategy for England (ENDS Report, June 2011).

Proposals in the white paper were backed by just £10m in new funding. Speaking at a 30 June Westminster Forum on biodiversity, Peter Unwin, environment department (DEFRA) director general for environment and rural, said: “The white paper sets out the tools, but those tools are no good unless we can use them. We need your help to do this.

Commenting on the forthcoming England biodiversity strategy, Mr Unwin said ministers were not keen on targets: “Where there are targets, ministers are pushing hard to ask how they will be met.”

The strategy was to have been published alongside the white paper this spring. Both were delayed with the strategy due “later in June”, according to a letter sent by Ms Spelman earlier that month.

But as of early July the document has yet to emerge. ENDS understands Natural England has finished a draft but publication has been delayed by Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin, the minister for government policy.

A DEFRA spokesman said: “We are working as hard as possible to finalise the England Biodiversity Strategy, ensuring it takes account of important recent publications such as the National Ecosystem Assessment and Natural Environment White Paper.”


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