According to experts convening in Cape Town for a landmark conference devoted to biodiversity science, the world will miss its agreed target to stem biodiversity loss by next year.
The goal was agreed at the 6th Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in April 2003. Some 123 world ministers committed to "achieve, by 2010, a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the local, national and regional levels, as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth."
"We will certainly miss the target for reducing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 and therefore also miss the 2015 environmental targets within the U.N. Millennium Development Goals to improve health and livelihoods for the world's poorest and most vulnerable people," says Georgina Mace of Imperial College, London, and Vice-Chair of the international DIVERSITAS program, which is convening its 2nd Open Science Conference Oct. 13-16 with 600 experts from around the world.
"It is hard to image a more important priority than protecting the ecosystem services underpinned by biodiversity," says Prof. Mace. "Biodiversity is fundamental to humans having food, fuel, clean water and a habitable climate."
"Yet changes to ecosystems and losses of biodiversity have continued to accelerate. Since 1992, even the most conservative estimates agree that an area of tropical rainforest greater than the size of California has been converted mostly for food and fuel. Species extinction rates are at least 100 times those in pre-human times and are expected to continue to increase."
However, she adds, "the situation is not hopeless. There are many steps available that would help but we cannot dawdle. Meaningful action should have started years ago. The next best time is now."
The DIVERSITAS conference, to be opened by UN Under-Secretary-General Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP, will call for new more science-based targets.
"A great deal of awareness-raising is still much needed with respect to the planetary threat posed by the loss of so many species. The focus of biodiversity science today, though, is evolving from describing problems to policy relevant problem solving," says Stanford University Prof. Hal Mooney, DIVERSITAS Chair.
"Experts are rising to the immense challenge, developing interdisciplinary, science-based solutions to the crisis while building new mechanisms to accelerate progress. Biodiversity scientists are becoming more engaged in policy debates."
Five roundtables between top science and policy specialists are scheduled on key issues such as efforts to create a science-based global biodiversity observing system (GEO-BON) to improve both coverage and consistency in observations at ground level and via remote sensing.
Says DIVERSITAS vice-chair Prof. Robert Scholes, who heads both GEO-BON and the local organization of the Cape Town conference: "GEO-BON will help give us a comprehensive baseline against which scientists can track biodiversity trends and evaluate the status of everything from genes to ecosystem services. The lack of such information became acutely apparent during preparation of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and in formulating the CBD's 2010 targets."
Others, meanwhile, are creating an international mechanism to unify the voice of the biodiversity science community to better inform policy making, its function akin to that of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In Nairobi Oct. 5-9, environment ministers from countries the world over will consider the creation of such a body, called IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), which would require UN General Assembly approval.
Interdisciplinary work underway to address key issue areas also include:
How to demonstrate and quantify the economic costs and impacts on human welfare globally and locally due to biodiversity loss and ecosystems degradation (being conducted under the TEEB Initiative);
How to understand, manage and conserve ecosystem services including, for example, the creation of economic incentives to prevent habitat destruction;
How to share the benefits from the use of genetic resources fairly and equitably; and
How to improve research institutions and the international stewardship of biodiversity.
Silent crisis: freshwater species "the most threatened on Earth"
Massive mismanagement and growing human needs for water are causing freshwater ecosystems to collapse, making freshwater species the most threatened on Earth with extinction rates 4 to 6 times higher than their terrestrial and marine cousins, according to conference experts.
Klement Tockner of the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Berlin, says that while freshwater ecosystems cover only 0.8% of the earth's surface, they contain roughly 10% of all animals, including more than 35% of all vertebrates.
"There is clear and growing scientific evidence that we are on the verge of a major freshwater biodiversity crisis," says Prof. Tockner. "However, few are aware of the catastrophic decline in freshwater biodiversity at both local and global scale. Threats to freshwater biodiversity have now grown to a global scale."
The human implications of this trend are "immense," he adds, because freshwater species in rivers, lakes, ground waters, and wetlands provide a diverse array of vital natural services - more than any other ecosystem type.
The problem puts billions of people at risk as biodiversity loss affects water purification, disease regulation, subsistence agriculture and fishing. Some experts predict that by 2025 not a single Chinese river will reach the sea except during floods with tremendous effects for coastal fisheries in China.
Prof. Tockner says freshwater ecosystems and their species also absorb and bury about 7% of the carbon humans add annually to the atmosphere.
"Although small in area, these freshwater aquatic systems can affect regional carbon balances," he says.
"Freshwater ecosystems will be the first victims of both climate change and rising demands on water supplies. And the pace of extinctions is quickening - especially in hot spot areas around the Mediterranean, in Central America, China and throughout Southeast Asia."
"Despite their pivotal ecological and economic importance, freshwater ecosystems have not been of primary concern in policy making," adds Prof. Tockner. "Only recently did the European Union take the initiative to improve this situation through the EC Biodiversity Strategy. And in the U.S., recent Supreme Court decisions have made wetlands and small streams more vulnerable to loss."
Prof. Tockner, with colleague Charles Vörösmarty of the City University of New York, will present research at one of 25 conference symposia and invite fellow scientists to help formulate clear government policy recommendations and future research priorities.
Other conference presentations will cover issues ranging from biology to economics and international law, with emphasis on the positive benefits of conservation.
Showcased topics include:
Assessments of the ecological and economic risks of the rising global trade in wildlife, many of which carry potentially harmful diseases. The USA alone imported almost 1.5 billion live animals between 2000 and 2006, experts say, with inadequate regard to the risks involved;
The release next year of a report by the UN Convention on Biodiversity called the Global Biodiversity Outlook, to include a major focus on catastrophic biodiversity "tipping points," which complicate predictions. Such thresholds, if breached, will make global change impacts difficult to control, and slow and expensive to reverse.
Biodiversity and carbon: How biodiversity loss impacts rates of natural carbon sequestration and carbon cycling on land and in the ocean. Efforts are underway to understand how levels of biodiversity correspond to atmospheric carbon levels throughout Earth's history in order to better predict the impact of biodiversity on today's rising carbon dioxide concentrations. Other scientists will warn that bioenergy and artificial carbon sequestration projects should be preceded by greater understanding of the environmental pressures these will create.
With respect to biodiversity and human health, scientist Peter Daszak of the US-based Wildlife Trust, says the emergence of new human diseases from wildlife such as HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola, and H5N1 avian influenza is a significant threat not just to public health and conservation but also the global economy.
Such deadly diseases impede wildlife conservation as pressure builds to eradicate reservoir populations and cause disruption to agriculture and trade, tourism and other key economies.
"The single outbreak of SARS cost US $30-50 billion and a truly pandemic H5N1 avian flu outbreak would cost an estimated US$300-800 billion," says Dr. Daszak.
He argues that disease emergence and spread can be predicted based on human environmental and demographic changes that underlie the emergence of these diseases.
"Such studies may ultimately allow us to identify the likely region of origin of the next zoonosis and provide strategies to prevent disease emergence and spread."
The conference will conclude with a major plenary, chaired by leading expert Lijbert Brussaard, of Wageningen University, The Netherlands, on ways to reconcile the competing Millennium Development Goals of protecting biodiversity, reducing world hunger and alleviating poverty.
"Ecosystem services are difficult to value, which has led to policy neglect and the irreversible loss of species vital to a well-functioning environment," says Anne Larigauderie, Executive Director of DIVERSITAS.
"It's important for experts to simply exchange the results of their latest research, but the goal of this conference is to collect insights of practical use to policy makers, and to demonstrate the social benefits of investment in species conservation," she says.