The accelerating disappearance of Earth's species of both
wild and domesticated plants and animals constitutes a fundamental threat to
the well-being and even the survival of humankind, warns the founding Chair of
a new global organisation created to narrow the gulf between leading
international biodiversity scientists and national policy-makers.
In Norway to address an elite gathering of 450 international
officials with government responsibilities in the fields of biodiversity and
economic planning, Zakri Abdul Hamid offered his first public remarks since
being elected to head the new Intergovernmental Science-Policy
Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) - an independent body
modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Dr Zakri, a national of Malaysia who co-chaired 2005's
landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and serves also as science advisor to
his country's prime minister, cited fast-growing evidence that "we are
hurtling towards irreversible environmental tipping points that, once passed,
would reduce the ability of ecosystems to provide essential goods and services
The incremental loss of Amazon rainforest, for example,
"may seem small with short-sighted perspective" but will eventually
"accumulate to cause a larger, more important change," he said.
Experts warn that ongoing climate change, combined with land use change and
fires, "could cause much of the Amazon forest to transform abruptly to
more open, dry-adapted ecosystems, threatening the region's enormous
biodiversity and priceless services," he added.
"It has been clear for some time that a credible,
permanent IPCC-like science policy platform for biodiversity and ecosystem
services is an important but missing element in the international response to
the biodiversity crisis," Dr. Zakri told the 7th Trondheim Conference on
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment "demonstrated that
such an intergovernmental platform can create a clear, valuable policy-relevant
consensus from a wide range of information sources about the state, trends and
outlooks of human-environment interactions, with focus on the impacts of
ecosystem change on human well-being. It showed that such a platform can
support decision-makers in the translation of knowledge into policy.
"The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment provides our
baseline," he said. "The IPBES will tell us how much we have
achieved, where we are on track, where we are not, why, and options for moving
forward. It will help to build public support and identify priorities."
The structure of IPBES mimics that of the IPCC but its aims
go further to include capacity building to help bridge different knowledge
"IPBES will reduce the gulf between the wealth of
scientific knowledge on declining natural world conditions, and knowledge about
effective action to reverse these damaging trends," he said.
diversity is in decline
Some scientists have termed this the "sixth great
extinction episode" in Earth's history, according to Dr. Zakri, noting
that the loss of biodiversity is happening faster and everywhere, even among
He underlined findings by the UN Food and Agriculture
Organization that genetic diversity among livestock is declining.
"The good news is the rate of decline is dropping but
the latest data classify 22% of domesticated breeds at risk of
extinction," Dr. Zakri said.
Breeds become rare because their characteristics either
don't suit contemporary demand or because differences in their qualities have
not been recognised. When a breed population falls to about 1,000 animals, it
is considered rare and endangered.
Causes of genetic erosion in domestic animals are the lack
of appreciation of the value of indigenous breeds and their importance in niche
adaptation, incentives to introduce exotic and more uniform breeds from
industrialised countries, and product-focused selection.
Among crops, meanwhile, about 75 per cent of genetic
diversity was lost in the last century as farmers worldwide switched to
genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties and abandoned multiple local
varieties. There are 30,000 edible plant species but only 30 crops account for
95% of human food energy, the bulk of which (60%) comes down to rice, wheat,
maize, millet and sorghum.
"The decline in the diversity of crops and animals is
occurring in tandem with the need to sharply increase world food production and
as a changing environment makes it more important than ever to have a large
genetic pool to enable organisms to withstand and adapt to new
conditions," he said.
Biodiversity and the
Sustainable Development Goals
According to Dr. Zakri, the most important outcome of last
year's Rio+20 international environmental summit of nations was agreement to
set new multi-year global objectives to succeed the Millennium Development
Goals (2000 - 2015).
Biodiversity is expected to feature prominently in the new
"Sustainable Development Goals."
For specifics, Dr. Zakri commended the Aichi Biodiversity
Targets, already established through the Convention on Biological Diversity,
which contain five strategic priorities and 20 specific targets internationally
agreed for achievement by 2020, beginning with public awareness of the value of
biodiversity and the steps people can take to conserve and use it sustainably.
"The Aichi Targets are an important contribution to the
SDG process and it is up to us to ensure that they are fully considered,"
"I would argue, though, that advancing towards equity
and sustainable development requires us to go beyond. We need to meet the
fundamental challenge of decoupling economic growth from natural resource
consumption, which is forecast to triple by 2050 unless humanity can find
effective ways to 'do more and better with less.' There are no simple
blueprints for addressing a challenge as vast and complex as this but it's
imperative we commit to that idea.
"We also need measures of societal progress that go
beyond Gross Domestic Product. We need the kind of vision embodied in the
Inclusive Wealth Index being pioneered by Sir Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge
University, Anantha Duraiappah at IHDP, and Pushpam Kumar at UNEP. As they have
convincingly argued, enlightened measures of wealth that include natural
capital, not just output like GDP, offers a real portrait of sustainable
development," he added.
"The idea that natural capital should be measured like
this makes many nervous. And I agree that many of the services the environment
provides, like clean water and air, are irreplaceable necessities.
"In theory, however, the undoubted value of these
natural treasures should be reflected in their price, which should rise steeply
as they become scarcer. In practice, natural assets are often hard to price
well, if at all. Although this work is still in its infancy, it is worth
recalling that GDP has only been measured for the last 70 years. And that
originally it was a far cruder metric than today. The reality over many decades
and the recent experience with the MDGs demonstrate all too clearly the limited
success that even legal biodiversity-related commitments have in the absence of
some sort of metric that speaks to other sectors and interests involved in the
development process. We need to urge more economists to do the hard but
valuable work of pricing the seemingly priceless. Ensuring these ideas are
properly reflected in the SDGs could provide the type of support and