Achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of targets aimed at halving global poverty by 2015, could come into conflict with parallel efforts to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss, according to a new report from some of world's leading environmental scientists and policymakers.
The report Ecosystems and Human Wellbeing: A biodiversity synthesis, which was launched today (19 May), was produced by the biodiversity working group of the five-year-long Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
It warns that the loss of the world's biodiversity is a major threat to humankind, and says that unless current patterns are checked, key 'ecological services' — such as providing medicines and purifying water — could be lost.
The report highlights the economic value of protecting natural ecosystems and the importance of biodiversity to poor people in developing countries. It adds that unless the various values of biodiversity are acknowledged, efforts to halve global poverty will be in vain.
But the report also says that "trade-offs and synergies" will be needed between poverty and conservation targets if internationally agreed goals are to be met. Even then, says the working group, both the MDG goals of halving poverty, and the separate goal of reversing biodiversity loss, are likely to be only "partially achievable".
One example of a potential trade-off, suggests the report, is that road building schemes in the developing world might need to be planned more carefully because of their negative environmental impact.
"Improving rural road networks — a common feature of hunger reduction strategies — will likely increase rates of biodiversity loss", for example by fragmenting habitats, the report says.
Suggestions about the need for trade-offs, however, have upset some of those charged with advising UN secretary-general Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals.
Jeffrey Sachs, for example, director of the UN Millennium Project, a UN-backed initiative that gives governments practical advice on achieving the goals, told SciDev.Net that he regrets the language used in the report. He claims that it seems to be rekindling historical debates between environmental scientists and those working in development.
"This is a mistake," he says. "All of us now agree that poor people depend on the health of ecosystems to survive. The idea of a 'trade-off' is naïve; if anything this is a non-debate. I don't want to see a debate because environmental sustainability is as much a part of the Millennium Development Goals as are the other goals."
In January, Sachs's initiative released its own report on how to end world poverty (see Ending poverty 'needs massive science funding boost'). In it, Sachs advised that a significant increase in development aid and infrastructure spending was needed in developing countries to meet the Millennium Development Goals.
But this recommendation alarmed some of those in the environmental community. To them it implies that conservation should come lower than economic development as a priority for poor countries.
Anantha Duraiappa, director of economic policy at the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg, Canada, and one of the co-chairs of the biodiversity report, says that Sachs's recommendation to boost infrastructure, if implemented in its current form, "could have a devastating impact on biodiversity".
Hamdallah Zedan, executive director of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, is also critical of some of the recommendations of the Millennium Project report. He says, for example, that its recommendations on the need to increase agricultural productivity meant that biodiversity was being given little chance to recover from its present decline — caused largely by current agricultural practices.
"What they are forgetting is that biological diversity is the source for our current and future food supplies," says Zedan. "We will destroy this if we expand our current agricultural system."
Although many of the authors of today's biodiversity report are also members of Sachs's UN Millennium Project group, Duraiappa complains that their views were given little weight in the final document, which will form the basis for a major UN anti-poverty conference in September.
Duraiappa says that the environmental scientists on Sachs's team of experts largely worked in isolation from other panels, This meant, for example, that they were given few opportunities to connect their advice to that being drawn up by scientists and development economists charged with looking at ways to end hunger and extreme poverty.
In response to this criticism, a spokesperson for the UN Millennium Project secretariat in New York, United States said that numerous attempts had been made to get the environmental experts more actively involved, but that this effort had been hampered by the low level of response to these requests.
"The Millennium Project is a very outcome-oriented exercise," the spokesperson said. "We need ideas for solutions to reduce poverty and achieve environmental sustainability. We want to know what works and what doesn't."
"Decision-makers want to know about experience on the ground. We didn't get enough of this from the environment group. We did get a detailed assessment of the problems; but how do you integrate that into a report that is recommending solutions?"
The biodiversity report could generate further controversy in another area. Scientists working on the report who assessed the speed at which ecosystems are being degraded around the world found that on a global scale, the rate of decline is beginning to slow, and that in some places the goal of reducing the rate of biodiversity loss before 2010 is likely to be met.
But these findings do not appear in the report's 11 "key messages" and have not been flagged prominently in the rest of the document. The report's 'Summary for Decision Makers' says that "overall, the rate of habitat loss ... is now slowing in certain regions". But it qualifies this statement by pointing out that slowing down habitat loss does not necessarily translate into lower rates of species loss, as species are not evenly distributed across all habitats.
Cristian Samper, director of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, and a member of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment steering group, says that he would have preferred it if greater prominence had been given in the report to slowing down of habitat loss.
Zedan agrees, "I wish we had made more of this," he says. "When we hear good news, we should not be afraid to talk about it."
Read more about biodiversity in SciDev.Net's biodiversity dossier.