The desire of French president Jacques Chirac to boost political efforts to defend biodiversity is welcome. His specific proposals on how to do this are more debatable.
Few can now doubt that protecting the world's living systems from the damaging side effects of rapid economic and industrial growth is one of the biggest challenges facing modern society.
During the past century, this concern was expressed most strongly within the developed world, reaching its peak with the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Over the past decades, however, it has become a concern to the developing world as well, as contaminated land and water, increasing air pollution, and even the loss of firewood and other sources of energy, have each undermined any gains in the quality of life made as a result of the spread of scientific and technological innovation.
Yet despite this apparent consensus, progress in achieving the goal of protecting biodiversity has been disappointingly slow. Even though a decade has passed since the CBD was signed, for example, there is as yet little hard evidence of any significant slowdown in the rate at which natural species are disappearing, and their habitats — such as tropical forests — are being destroyed.
In that context, any bid to slow down this process is to be welcomed. And that includes last week's decision, endorsed by French president Jacques Chirac, to set up a high-level intergovernmental committee of experts to strengthen the scientific case for taking action. The new committee, whose creation was approved on the final day of a week-long meeting in Paris organised jointly by the French government and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), would be modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), operating through an international network of scientific experts.
But there are legitimate questions to be asked about whether such a committee will justify the amount of time and effort that it will require of its participants (let alone the money that will be needed for it to function). Indeed, by suggesting that political action should only be taken when there is solid scientific agreement on the underlying questions — such as the exact number of species — there is a significant danger that such an initiative may delay action in a field where such agreement is difficult to reach through the sheer complexity of many of the issues being addressed.
Need for a high profile
There are, admittedly, certain areas in which such a panel of experts might make a useful contribution. It could, for example, be given the task of coming up with science-based measures to assist in the implementation of specific policies, particularly where the science is already at hand. One, for example, might be to suggest precise measures that can be used to judge progress towards achieving the target that the world's political leaders themselves set at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August 2002, namely that they would achieve a significant reduction in the rate at which biodiversity is currently being lost by the year 2010.
Furthermore, any significant warnings or declarations by a high-level international panel of scientists about the loss of biodiversity, and the failures to stem it, are likely to attract widespread media attention. This alone is likely to encourage the public to put further pressure for action on the political community.
That has certainly been one of the achievements of the IPCC. Organisations such as the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and Conservation International have long sought a similar panel, as has the United Nations Environment Programme. In the past, their efforts have come to little because no one of Chirac's standing has given their stamp of approval. But the decision by the French government to put its weight behind such a move, even if partly motivated by a desire to upstage other industrialised countries, has altered the political dynamics.
Indeed this seems to be one reason that some of those who have expressed scepticism about the value of the panel's work are nevertheless prepared to endorse its existence. Attractive to most in the conservation world is the thought that a global scientific consensus backed by governments will remove any notions of uncertainty about the crisis in species extinctions in the minds of the public. They are already worried that the media puts out too many mixed messages on environmental issues such as climate change — for example, by giving space to critics such as Bjorn Lomborg — and do not want the same happening in biodiversity.
Against all this, however, needs to be set the argument that asking for more and better science to underpin political decisions could be used as a delaying tactic. That has certainly been the case in the climate debate; much of the foot-dragging by the United States on action to curb carbon emissions has been justified on the grounds that the science of climate change still contains many uncertainties (something that even the supporters of drastic remedial action are prepared to accept).
For the underlying challenges on protecting biodiversity are political, not scientific (or even financial). It requires not only high-minded statements from political leaders, but also a demonstrated commitment to putting words into action. And this applies particularly to the developing world, where, as has frequently been commented on this website, much of the world's threatened biodiversity is to be found. And it is also in developing countries that arguments in favour of preserving biodiversity — particularly when preservation might lead to the loss of income and livelihoods — are often the most difficult to make.
Awareness is growing in developing countries
Reassuringly, there were several signs at the Paris meeting that this awareness is growing within the developing world. The representatives of both Kenya and Madagascar, for example, spoke strongly of the increasing sensitivity among political leaders to the need for prompt action. The Kenyan Nobel laureate, Wangari Maathai, who is assistant minister for environment and natural resources in Kenya, drew on her own experience in leading reforestation campaigns to tell the Paris meeting that political will was the key to taking action to conserve biodiversity.
Furthermore, such countries have reason to express reservations about the IPCC approach, which seeks to use scientific consensus on climate change as the cornerstone of political agreement. With the exception of oil-producing states, developing countries have, on the whole, been supportive of the IPCC in principle. Each of the panel's three working groups, for example, is co-chaired by one scientist from a developed country and one from a developing country, and the IPCC ensures that scientists from developing countries are well represented among the lead authors of its reports.
But these countries have also pointed out that, despite being in existence for more than 15 years, the panel has made few concrete efforts at increasing the amount of developing country-based research used in its assessments. And they continue to complain of the unfairness of being asked to cut their own carbon emissions at a time when the largest single emitter — namely the United States — has declined to make any commitment to doing so.
Furthermore developing countries have in the past opposed the idea of a new scientific panel on biodiversity. Unlike in climate change, much of the physical research work on biodiversity will need to take place in developing countries, and the colonial-era collecting by natural history museums and botanic gardens from developed countries remains a sensitive issue, particularly as foreign researchers and companies seek to commercialise products such as drugs derived from rainforest plants and other species.
A need for caution
The French government's idea of a new commitment to strengthening the science underlying biodioversity policy will not be popular with such countries unless it comes with a commitment to train their researchers in taxonomy and other related fields, to share all data, and to help ensure they are equal partners in the process. This is why developing countries are backing ideas such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and the Proteus Project of United Nations Environment Programme and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, both of which seek to build capacity in taxonomy and bioinformatics within the developing world.
Furthermore, while international conservation groups and the French agree that 'science' should ultimately determine what should and should not be conserved — and see a new scientific panel as providing more backing for this view — this is very contentious in developing countries, particularly among representatives of people who live in areas that are protected, or designated for protected status. Often, species that researchers believe should be protected are important in the lives (or livelihoods) of people who live in or near protected areas (see Conservation efforts must embrace local knowledge). Indeed, a heated exchange on this issue appears in the January issue of Worldwatch magazine.
For all these reasons, therefore, there is good reason to be sceptical of any approach that claims that the fundamental reason for a lack of action on biodiversity is a lack of sufficient scientific knowledge. The current priorities for strengthening scientific input into decision-making lie elsewhere, for example, building national and regional capacity in the relevant scientific fields, investing in policy-relevant science, and strengthening mechanisms that already exist, such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
If the new panel can ensure that its remit is firmly channelled in the direction of capacity building and related goals, then it could play an important role in helping to achieve global objectives. It might also publicly identify those developed countries that are failing to meet international obligations, either by taking action at home, or by providing the financial and technical resources that developing countries need to implement their capacity building projects.
If, however, the panel's brief is written in such a way that its focus is limited to building a scientific consensus around specific aspects of biodiversity, whatever the value of its individual conclusions, its overall effectiveness is likely to be limited. And given that the amount of political capital available for application in this field is already limited, that could have a negative impact on the global strategy to protect the planet against the impacts of human activity.
Visit SciDev.Net's new biodiversity 'facts and figures' section, which gives the latest data on the extent and distribution of the world's biodiversity.