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Last month's Nagoya summit on biodiversity reached some important agreements. The challenge is to ensure that they are fully implemented.

What a difference a year makes. One year ago, those clamouring for strong international action to combat the effects of global warming were optimistically looking forward to a high-level meeting in Copenhagen they hoped would launch a new global commitment to reducing carbon emissions.

By contrast, defenders of biodiversity have had an uphill struggle generating political support and had to face up to the uncomfortable fact that they were likely to fail to reach an ambitious target they had set at the beginning of the decade to achieve "a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss" by 2010.

The Copenhagen meeting fell far short of expectations. And many fear that little of significance will emerge from the next meeting of signatories of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which takes place next month in Cancun, Mexico.

However, last month's meeting of signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), held in the Japanese city of Nagoya, was an unexpected success. In particular, it led to several key agreements on concrete steps needed to stem the global decline of natural species and their habitats.

Access and benefit sharing

The road ahead, however, remains uncertain. Everything now depends on the commitments made in Nagoya being put into practice. And that cannot be guaranteed, particularly at a time when the effects of the global financial crisis continue to be keenly felt.

Take, for example, one of the key documents agreed in Nagoya, namely an agreement in principle on how the benefits arising from the commercial exploitation of genetic resources should be shared with the communities that discovered their useful properties.

Ever since the CBD was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro almost 20 years ago, giving countries the right to "national sovereignty" over such resources while enshrining the principle of benefit sharing, there has been uncertainty over how these commitments should be put into practice.

Indecision has frequently led to stalemate, with scientists unable to carry out legitimate research into genetic resources due to a lack of the necessary permissions, and communities left frustrated by the failure of promised benefits to materialise.

Hopefully the agreement reached in Nagoya will change all that. The so-called protocol on access and benefit sharing (ABS) — which still requires ratification — sets out clear procedures that signatories are expected to implement, to ensure both that obstructions to researchers are minimised, and that commercial benefits from the results of this research, for example, from patents granted to pharmaceutical companies, are properly distributed.

But the agreement still places considerable responsibility on individual countries to ensure that effective implementation takes place.

Achievable targets

There is a welcome realism, too, about new targets for reducing biodiversity loss, spurred by the argument that the natural world provides a range of "ecosystem" services — such as water purification — that the UN's Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity initiative calculates are worth US$2,000 to US$5,000 billion a year.

Despite the clear economic gains from preventing the further loss of such systems, the embarrassing failure to achieve the previous target was partly the result of its relative lack of precision, making it difficult for individual countries to put the target into operation.

Learning from their previous mistakes, delegates at the Nagoya summit agreed to goals that are more realistic, and thus more achievable. For example, consensus was reached on an explicit commitment to 20 concrete targets, such as halving the loss of natural habitats — including forests — by 2020, and increasing the amount of land designated as nature reserves from 13 to 17 per cent over the same period.

Similarly, it was agreed that the proportion of the world's marine and coastal areas designated as reserves will be increased from one to ten per cent. And to help ensure such commitments are met, individual countries agreed to produce binding national targets by 2012. But even that does not guarantee they will be achieved.

Grounds for optimism

Inevitably, perhaps, some were less than enthusiastic about the outcome of the Nagoya summit. Environmentalist groups, for example, had wanted stronger commitments (such as legally binding compliance regimes), with critics complaining that reducing the value of the natural environment to a set of economic statistics showed an unwelcome willingness to let financial factors dominate the discussion.

The details of how benefit-sharing will work in practice remain unclear, although it seems likely that companies using genetic resources will be required to contribute to an international fund to finance research and projects aimed at protecting biodiversity in developing countries.

African countries felt their negotiating powers had been weakened by delegating responsibility on a national, rather than regional or continent-wide basis. And it is far from certain the developed world will come up with the financing needed to ensure the agreements reached in Nagoya are fully implemented.

Nevertheless, there are grounds for optimism. A clear path ahead for preventing further unnecessary biodiversity loss has been laid out and agreed. It is now essential that developed and developing countries alike make the financial and political commitments required to move along it.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net