Globalizing solutions

Mark Collins
suggests a framework of action to move biodiversity up the global agenda

Unless you happen to be a rat or a cockroach, it is hard to see good in globalization. Since the 1940s the trend for species and ecosystems, the world’s ‘biodiversity’, has been persistently downhill, and much of this is due to elements of the globalization process.

Introducing species into exotic habitats, clearing forests to feed demand on other continents, shipping pesticides to every corner of the world – all this is fuelled by global transport and markets. This is not to say that no good can come from globalization: but it is clear that its challenge is getting tougher. Both regulatory and mitigating measures must be taken soon.

WWF’s Living Planet Index – the nearest we have got to developing a Dow Jones index for the living world – produces clear evidence. There has been a 30 per cent decline in the world’s living assets since 1970, and the downward trend is continuing at 1 per cent or more per year. UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook (GEO) confirms a similar picture.

These huge losses in our asset base and quality of life do not lead to the response from world citizens that they deserve – so long as they are happening in someone else’s back yard. Even when the loss of resources, services and benefits deriving from the natural world destroys communities and their economies, the memory soon fades. We move on to make a dollar somewhere else, albeit from a reduced asset base, often leaving an impoverished community in our wake.

A common good
Fishing grounds destroyed in the Atlantic; productive forests mismanaged and burnt in Southeast Asia; mudslides wiping out towns in Central America; rangelands overexploited in Africa – check out GEO 2000 for the facts and figures.

Time and space are running out. Something has to be done, and now. But individual citizens, private companies, and even national governments, seem to find it hard to combat the loss of biodiversity.

Much of biodiversity is a common good. If we are to avoid the tragedy of the commons – uncontrolled and selfish overexploitation – we must combat the unwanted effects of globalization with intellectually robust and well-funded global systems of stewardship and governance. Nations must agree about how globalization can operate within the limits of environmental sustainability.
If we are to avoid the tragedy of the commons we must combat the unwanted effects of globalization

What sort of global framework do we have for managing biodiversity? Is it working? We have a raft of international conventions, on wildlife trade (in force since 1975), wetlands (1975), migratory species (1983), World Heritage Sites (1975) and regional seas. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, 1993) seeks to build shared programmes with these as well as with the treaties on climate change and desertification, which were also approved at the Rio Earth Summit.

But there is a long way to go before we could claim that there is a strategic framework in place. To outside observers, such as in the private sector, it looks pretty muddled. Nations around the world find their implementation and reporting obligations to be disjointed, duplicative and expensive. Many believe that the processes of these treaties have become ends in themselves, with the plight of species and ecosystems a distant and ill-defined target.

Give and take
If there is some truth in this diagnosis, what is the medicine? First we need a strategic plan that engages all the biodiversity-related treaties in a coherent framework of global governance and endeavour. This must be communicated widely to citizens and the private sector, as well as to governments. It will need some give and take between the treaties, and some political will from nations, not all of whom have signed up to the same ones.

Achieving this will certainly need strong scientific and political leadership and sound knowledge of the status and trends in biodiversity. Who can provide this? The CBD never had a scientific panel along the lines of the UNEP/World Meteorological Organization Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice was created to do the job, but it has not proved easy to run it along scientific and objective lines.

We need an International Panel on Biological Diversity, composed of eminent scientists from around the world, and supported by the best sources of information available. Such an idea was discussed at a CBD brainstorming in Oslo last November, and it is catching on. But it needs to have a remit across all the biodiversity-related conventions, not just the CBD.

Strategic integration
The Panel should be charged both with carrying out any needed assessments and with exploring ways for the biodiversity-related treaties to work together in a strategic framework towards agreed scientific priorities. It must be supported by a global network of biodiversity information centres.

At the global level the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) is ready to offer its 20 years of experience in compiling and evaluating information on biodiversity and biological resources worldwide, and aims to enhance global, regional and national capacities to handle it. By mid-2000 WCMC will – in consultation with governments, conservation organizations and other partners throughout the world – be reconstituted as a new UNEP world biodiversity information and assessment centre.

There is already a strong network of Collaborating Centres (including WCMC) under the UNEP process that delivers the world’s best commentary on the environment – the GEO. The network has proved its worth, and needs to be financed and expanded to engage and empower the world’s key centres to deliver knowledge on biodiversity.

The network can be supported by the Biodiversity Conservation Information System (BCIS), a consortium of data-rich non-governmental organizations that are working together to share and mobilize information. Good methodologies, such as WWF’s Living Planet Index, need to be developed further to deliver clear and concise indicators of change.

Globalization is proving costly for the world’s variety of life. The way ahead is to coordinate and focus existing international tools of governance and stewardship to create synergy, clarity of purpose and value for money. We must communicate the biodiversity agenda clearly and precisely so that citizens and private companies can understand what is needed. At the same time we must enhance the quality of our scientific knowledge by building and empowering regional and national biodiversity research and information centres. Analytical tools and indices will be needed to translate the information into knowledge, and there must be an international panel to provide the necessary leadership and strategic focus  

Mark Collins is Chief Executive of the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge, United Kingdom.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Critical crossroads | Genetically engineered crops... | Sustainable solutions | Protect elephants | Getting it together | CITES: 2000 and beyond | At a glance | Competition | Interpol alert | Deep waters, high stakes | Tall trees and bottom lines | Globalizing solutions | Global Biodiversity... | Walking on the wild side... | Voices of the Earth | Millennium massacre

Complementary articles in other issues:
GEO 2000 (Small Islands) 1999
Vernon Heywood: Mapping the way of life (UNEP 25) 1997
The Global Environment Outlook (UNEP 25) 1997
Herbert Girardet: Giant footprints (Human Settlements) 1996
Üner Kirdar: Doorstepping the millennium (Human Settlements) 1996
Arthur Lyon Dahl: Measuring the unmeasurable (Human Settlements) 1996