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[LONDON] A group of biodiversity experts has urged against new research initiatives to measure progress towards meeting a UN target of reducing the rate of global biodiversity loss.

The rate of loss should be measured using existing databanks, rather than by commissioning new research, according to one conclusion to emerge from a three-day meeting in London last week of 120 environmental scientists and development professionals from 46 countries.

As time was short, “let us not reinvent the wheel,” said Cristian Samper, chair of a scientific advisory council to the UN Environment Programme. Samper said, for example, that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation already possessed a reliable set of indicators on deforestation between 1990 and 2000.

Similarly, the World Conservation Union in Switzerland could be asked for access to its annual ‘Red List’ of threatened species, and the International Plant Genetics Resources Institute in Italy could be a source of data on biodiversity loss at the level of genes. In neither case was new information needed.

The target of reducing “significantly” the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 was agreed by ministers attending the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last August. The Summit, however, did not specify the meaning of the word ‘significantly’, nor did it suggest a year from which progress could be measured.

Delegates at the London meeting, which was organised by a clutch of UN agencies, suggested 1990 as a possible baseline year. They also agreed to develop up to 10 indicators representing three levels of biodiversity: species, ecosystem and genetic.

The decision not to commission new research should not need the formal endorsement of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity – a process that could take up to two years, Samper said.

Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the UN convention, agreed. But he acknowledged that this could be a controversial move, as some of the convention’s member states are likely to want a bigger say in the choice of biodiversity indicators and the data sources used to compile those indicators.

However Zedan said that if delegates waited for the final endorsement of governing bodies of participating UN organisations, there would be too little time to achieve the target.

More than 150 countries have ratified the biodiversity convention, which pledges to conserve, use sustainably and share the benefits from the world’s biological diversity. Despite this commitment, scientists have seen no change in the worldwide trend of disappearing species – most of which are in the developing world.

Charles McNeill, biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction advisor at the UN Development Program’s headquarters in New York, acknowledged that in the past development agencies did not regard biodiversity conservation as a priority.

But he said this has now changed, adding: “No self-respecting strategy to achieve the Millennium Development Goals would dare to overlook biodiversity issues.” Heads of state agreed the eight poverty reduction goals at a UN summit in 2000.

‘2010: The Global Biodiversity Challenge’, was funded by the governments of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The meeting was sponsored by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre of the UN Environment Programme, and the UN Development Programme.

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