Dr Chris Lyal studies insects in the Natural History Museum's Department of Entomology, where his speciality is the largest of all beetle groups, the weevils. As well as his research work he is the UK National Focal Point for the Convention on Biological Diversity's Global Taxonomy Initiative and for several years worked as a Programme Officer for the CBD Secretariat. He has visited many different countries both for research and while working with people on biodiversity policy and capacity-building issues.
Over the past 20 years there has been a lot of interest in ‘biodiversity’ – the variety of animals, plants and microorganisms on Earth, their genetic makeup and the ecosystems in which they live. There have been peaks and troughs – a peak with the massive excitement globally at the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ in 1992, when the world’s leaders seemed to pick up the biodiversity flag, and troughs with continued threats to ecosystems from rainforests to seabed, and no clear turning point to a more secure future.
So what happened to the tide of optimism generated in Rio? We got a ‘Convention on Biological Diversity’ out of it, but what has it done, and what will it achieve at its next major meeting in Nagoya? At one level, the Convention (‘CBD’) has achieved a vast amount. With 192 signatory countries, plus the European Union, it is the largest Environmental Convention. It has 42 legally-binding provisions, and its major biennial meetings (the Conference of the Parties – ‘COP’) have taken nearly 250 detailed 'Decisions' about how the CBD should be implemented and what should be prioritised. These have led to a great deal of work across the world, and money directed to biodiversity issues. On the other hand, hardly anybody seems to have heard about it or, if they have, they have only a hazy idea of what it does.
The CBD is a policy process, a forum where global agreement can be reached and policies adopted. However, these policies (the COP ‘Decisions’) are for national implementation, and are not legally binding. Under the CBD “States have … the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies …”. Biodiversity does not belong to all humanity as it did before Rio, but belongs to the countries in which it exists. The CBD cannot fund implementation, and does not have staff to take part in ‘hands-on’ biodiversity work. Thus projects tend not to be clearly labelled ‘CBD’ and it is difficult to see what CBD policies are achieving. The policies themselves are written in complex language, and are far from ‘user-friendly’ to most of us.
CBD policies are not just about conservation, but are in support of the three equally-important objectives: Conservation, Sustainable Use, and Fair and Equitable Access to the Benefits arising out of the utilization of Genetic Resources of Biological Diversity. In terms of general understanding, ‘conservation’ is pretty easy, and many people stop there. ‘Sustainable use’ is rather more complex, especially when we are not very clear about what that use is. In fact ‘use’ encompasses everything from aesthetic enjoyment to spiritual support to food and water provision to pollination and a whole range of other ‘environmental goods and services’ – the life support system of good old ‘Planet Earth’. In that framework ‘sustainable’ might mean anything from ‘exactly as it is now / was at some time in the past’ to ‘enough to allow us to survive’. In fact, since the issue is rarely discussed in a comprehensive way, the decisions on what action to take to ensure sustainability are rarely addressed and even more rarely put into practice. I’ll come back to benefits from genetic resources in another post, because the nub of the matter is discussion, understanding and action.
In Nagoya the CBD COP will meet for the tenth time. As with previous COPs, hundreds of government servants and others will spend the first week hammering out the details of new Decisions. In the second week environment ministers will join the stew to deal with any national political issues that can’t be addressed by the other attendees and then agree the final texts. One of the major outcomes will be a new Strategic Plan for the CBD, including targets for 2020. Whether those targets can be met depends entirely on how willing people across the world are to prioritise them against other policies, and to tell Government how much time, money and effort should be directed towards meeting them. This has been an issue all along; Government may agree to CBD policies but can only implement them – bring the necessary benefits to biodiversity (and us!) – if voters want this to happen. If we do not fully understand what these policies are, or even know they exist, there is little chance that Government can take the next important steps.