Divisions over Biodiversity Protocol: A Visit to the Ecological Battlefield

By Christian Schwägerl in Nagoya, Japan

Can the international community reach a turning point in nature conservation? A UN conference in Nagoya, Japan this week may determine how our planet's resources are used in the future. Germany could have played an important role, but its environment minister left the meeting after only one day.

The United Nations conference in Nagoya: Will humanity succeed in uniting on natural conservation goals? Zoom
REUTERS

The United Nations conference in Nagoya: Will humanity succeed in uniting on natural conservation goals?

Is the international community prepared to agree on common goals? Representatives in Nagoya, Japan, for the United Nations summiton the Convention on Biological Diversity were hoping to provide a sign of hope for threatened rain forests, coral reefs, fish stocks around the world -- and for the billions of people who live in endangered ecosystems. Without an agreement, though, the summit may be a farce, according to some environmental organizations -- rather like the recent climate summit at Copenhagen. Some even warn of a collapse of international environmental politics if there is a collective failure to address the second greatest ecological challenge after climate change -- the conservation of habitats, species and genetic resources.

German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is aware of the importance of the summit. "A failure in Nagoya would be a broad setback for international environmental and climate protection policies," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

On Wednesday a new study provided further evidence of the threat: It found that 20 percent of vertebrates are endangered or threatened with extinction. The researchers are already referring to the sixth mass die-off in the planet's history.

At the opening of the main round of negotiations on Wednesday, Japanese Environment Minister Ryu Matsumoto warned against losing more time. During each minute that we spend negotiating, he said, the planet loses natural diversity. But no agreement has been reached yet on the key issues. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a video message that the international community has so far failed at nature conservation. Erosion and inadequate resources lead to costs of up $1 billion a year. Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment program (UNEP), discussed the opportunities for a worldwide "green economy," but also warned that the United Nations should not become a symbol for inaction.

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Röttgen originally wanted to stay in Nagoya for a whole week but left again after only 24 hours. He even missed the beginning of the high-level segment, when heads of state and environment ministers from all over the world started to make appearances at the summits's plenary. He flew back to Berlin on Wednesday morning in preparation for a vote in parliament on Thursday on the German government's energy policy, which is expected to see an extension of the lifespan of the country's nuclear power plants. (Nuclear stations are currently slated for closure under German law.)

In his nearly 24 hours in Nagoya, Röttgen participated in a panel of environment ministers on forest protection, meeting with counterparts from Brazil, Namibia and other countries. "The negotiations are moving forward, but there are still numerous sticking points," he said. He also appealed to developing countries to show a willingness for compromise. Those who have "rich biological diversity," he said, "would be poorly advised to use environmental policy to flex their muscles in a show of power," he said. "That didn't lead to good results in Copenhagen."

The countries present in Nagoya have all recognized the need for global nature conservation, but they are pursuing starkly different interests. Developing nations are expecting incentives to protect and care for their biological treasure troves. For their part, rich industrialized nations are seeking to keep the costs for that as low as possible given the recent global economic crisis and current austerity measures across the EU. In addition, Europe is oscillating between promoting itself as a pioneer when it comes to environmental issues and pushing through its own cut-throat interests, like those of the pharmaceuticals industry -- which in turn leads to criticism from environmental organizations.

The goal of negotiations is to achieve breakthroughs on three issues:

  • A new "strategic plan" should set ambitious goals for global protection of nature between 2011 and 2020. That includes a minimization of fishing, a considerable effort to stop deforestation and a prevention of the extinction of species.

  • A plan to provide billions of euros to finance conservation projects. Increasingly, the focus is on fundamentally changing economies rather than on creating insular conservation areas. "We need to assist the economic agencies to measure 'natural wealth'," World Bank President Robert Zoellick said on Wednesday. "The value of services we derive from ecosystems shouldn't be assumed to be zero."

  • A Nagoya Protocol is also intended to create the conditions under which, for example, a country with rain forests receives compensation from a Western pharmaceutical company that is developing medicines using its tropical plants.

But conflicting positions are also a defining element of the end phase of the conference. Many developing nations want to see industrialized nations forced to pay retroactively for the medicines and technical materials that they have produced for years using organisms from their territories. But industrialized nations have categorically rejected this demand.

A Dispute over Profits

The issue of how profits will be distributed in the future also remains decisive. Industrialized nations want to pay a relatively small contribution for raw substances. But developing nations want a share of all profits generated with the help of the natural materials obtained from their countries, which would result in far-reaching profit-sharing measures. The gulf between the two positions remains massive.

A similar dispute over pathogens is also a stumbling block in negotiations. Developing nations are calling for a share of future pharmaceutical profits that stem from vaccines derived from, for example, an African virus. In this regard, German Environment Minister Röttgen sees a threat to efforts to rapidly respond to plagues or epidemics. The priority, he says, must be to combat illnesses. "Human lives must be saved first," he says, "the division of profits later."

But there has been some progress at the conference on a number of details. An agreement has emerged on the creation of a global Council of Biodiversity that would have similar responsibilities as the global climate change body IPCC. There is also movement in terms of money. Despite its current budget emergency, Britain has made a considerable pledge. Japan has also said it would make additional funds available.

"There will only be a strategic plan with ambitious goals for global natural conservation between 2012 and 2020 if we can first reach an agreement on an ABS Protocol and appropriate financial pledges from the rich countries," said Environment Minister Röttgen. "ABS" stands for "access and benefit sharing. It would regulate the sharing of profits and it's been described as a contract against biopiracy.

But the agreement would have to be reached by Friday.

Negotiations Hit Another Stumbling Block

On Thursday, negotiations also came to a halt, and environmental organizations warned that the most important issues could remain unresolved in the closing statement. "Every day, pharmaceutical concerns and other companies use genetic and biological resources from developing nations without doing anything in return," said German environmental activist Christine von Weizsäcker. "We finally need clear rules on how proceeds can be divided and violations punished."

Negotiations in Nagoya appear to be further complicated by the fact that many delegations at the summit don't appear to have the full mandates of their government to make substantial pledges on economic issues. Some of the topics are usually addressed at other institutions, like the World Trade Organization (WTO). However, the United States -- which is fully represented at the WTO -- isn't at the UN summit because the government in Washington hasn't signed on to the Convention on Biodiversity.

Meanwhile, environmental protection organizations are accusing the United States of applying pressure behind the scenes to prevent a solution in Nagoya. The decisions made in Nagoya could also have an impact on the EU -- in the areas of agricultural and energy subsidies, for example. EU Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potocnik said it would be a considerable step if the conference voted to phase out environmentally damaging subsidies. "It would definitely spark a discussion in the EU on how we can get rid of these subsidies," he said.

The consensus problems in Nagoya also reflect the fact that UN conservation officials are seeking a far greater role in global policymaking than they have so far. "We are in the process of penetrating deeper into the classic economic areas like subsidies, trade rules and patent rights," said UNEP chief Achim Steiner. "And not all countries are prepared for the fact that this nature conservation conference, in truth, is evolving to have a major economic effect."

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