The Price of Survival: What Would It Cost to Save Nature?

By Philip Bethge, Rafaela von Bredow and Christian Schwägerl

How much is the Earth worth to us? At a global conference in Bonn, Germany, representatives of 191 nations are discussing a revolution in conservation. By making a highly profitable business out of saving forests, whales and coral reefs, environmentalists hope to put a stop to a dramatic wave of extinctions.

The envoy from Europe can hardly believe his eyes. Butterflies the size of dessert plates are fluttering around his nose. Orchids hang in cascades from towering trees. Hornbills sail across the treetops. The tropical air is filled with the saturated scent of growth and proliferation.

Biologists have already tracked down more than 10,000 plant and 400 mammal species in the Congo basin. These plants and animals are part of the world's second-largest uninterrupted rainforest, one of the planet's most potent carbon storage systems. Indeed, it is for precisely this reason that Hans Schipulle, 63, is tramping around in the wilderness near the Sangha River on a humid morning in the Central African Republic.

"This forest stores carbon dioxide, and thus helps to slow down global warming. It regulates the global water supply and holds valuable pharmaceuticals," says Schipulle, a veteran environmentalist who works for the German government. "We must finally realize that these are services that are worth something to us."

Schipulle is in the region on a sensitive mission. Since December, he has headed the Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP), a group founded by Americans, Europeans and the countries along the Congo River. The alliance aims to prevent the Congo basin from being plundered and transformed into oil palm and coffee plantations by mid-century. The Congo rainforest is still largely in one piece, but investors from around the world have already discovered the region's potential for big business -- ore, diamonds, plantations and lumber. But Schipulle and his partners have other plans for the Congo basin. They want international financial institutions or the world community to fork over money to preserve the rainforest as it is today. The threat of clear-cutting poses a double risk for the world. First, destroying the Congo rainforest would eliminate one of the earth's most important cooling systems. Second, the carbon dioxide (CO2) released as a result of slash-and-burn agriculture would further accelerate global warming.

Bayanga, a nearby village, is living proof of the traditional conflict between protecting the environment and fighting poverty. Until recently, its residents benefited from the destruction of the rainforest. A sawmill in Bayanga provided employment for 370 people, but the mill was shut down after Schipulle and his alliance presented an urgent appeal to the government in the capital Bangui to prevent a dubious logging company from being allowed to overexploit 4,520 square kilometers (1,745 square miles) of forest.

It was a small victory for nature, but village residents still need work and income. An eco-tourism project sponsored by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) has created jobs for only 94 people so far, providing the community with about €10,000 ($15,500) in annual revenue -- but not enough to reduce poverty.

How can Schipulle explain to the people of Bayanga what their forest means for the rest of the world? Is it really possible that eco-tourism, environmentally responsible forestry and coffee plantations along the fringe of the future protected forest regions will be capable of feeding the men, women and children of the village?

An Emissions Trading Market for the Congo Rainforest

Schipulle firmly believes in this vision. The World Bank already plans to incorporate the entire Congo basin into its Forest Carbon Partnership program. The Washington-based organization wants to enter the emissions trading market with the CO2 stored by the Congo rainforest. Because deforestation in tropical regions is responsible for about 20 percent of climate change, protecting the forest is synonymous with protecting the climate -- and the world community is increasingly willing to pay a lot of money to make that happen.

The possible rescue of the Congo rainforest is only one of many examples. A new age of conservation is dawning. For the first time, a value is being assigned to forests, plants and coral reefs, a value that makes them worthy of protection. It is nothing short of a paradigm shift in the environmental movement.

Romantic notions about nature and the environment aside, governments, conservationists and scientists are posing new questions, the answers to which will shape the future of mankind: How much is the Earth worth? Can the value of its diversity be quantified? How much should taking inventory of the planet be worth to us? Finally, who should foot the bill for decades of mismanagement at nature's expense?

Officials from around the world are currently addressing these crucial concerns at a United Nations conference on bio-diversity in Bonn, Germany. Representatives from 191 nations and roughly 250 environmental, conservation and development aid organizations are focusing on ways to stop the loss of species and natural habitats. Dozens of draft resolutions, many of them controversial despite being formulated in the dry language of international diplomacy, are under review. Even the name of the gathering belies its importance: the Ninth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

At issue in Bonn is no less than the future of the planet and man's dramatic failure to leave a livable earth to his children. Wilderness, species, habitats and ecosystems are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. From one day to the next, human beings wipe out between three and 130 species, depending on which estimate you go by. Each year, virgin forest one-and-a-half times the size of Switzerland falls victim to logging. Moors are disappearing, rivers are being forced into concrete channels and erosion is transforming mountainsides into wasteland.

A Nail in the Coffin for the Amazon Rainforest?

Agriculture is taking up an ever larger portion of the Earth, especially now that plants are no longer grown solely as food, but also -- like sugar cane and oil palm -- to produce biofuel. Just last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel signed an energy agreement in Brasilia with Brazilian President Lula da Silva. Under the agreement, Brazil can continue to supply Germany with biofuel as long as it complies with certain environmental standards. But for many environmental protection groups, the deal is merely another nail in the coffin for the Amazon rainforest.

In addition, the destruction of nature and global warming tend to reinforce one another. When sea levels rise and mangrove forests disappear, coastlines become more exposed to the elements than ever before. As carbon dioxide continues to acidify the oceans, the calcium structures of corals, snails and mussels become brittle.

At issue is the survival of exotic species like the red-headed vulture, the Banggai cardinalfish, the Gulf of California harbor porpoise, the Santa Catalina rattlesnake and the Indian gharial. But the survival of mankind as a species is also at stake, as the example of the recent cyclone in Burma illustrates. If the mangrove forests that once protected the Burmese coastline had been intact, the flooding would likely have been much less devastating.

Without corals, many types of fish would not exist, because reefs protect fish as they mature. The flora and fauna of the oceans hold potential cancer drugs worth, according to economists' estimates, as much as $1 billion (€645 million) a year.

Many of the things humanity considers costly and desirable are also part of biodiversity, such as turbot fillets, teak garden furniture and caviar from Russian sturgeon. But we also value the song of the nightingale, the scent of lilac, a view of untamed mountains, empty meadows and dense jungles.

The parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), well aware of these riches, hope to "significantly" slow down the loss of eco-systems and species by 2010. But what exactly does this "sufficiently fuzzy objective" mean, Jochen Flasbarth, head of nature protection at Germany's Environment Ministry (BMU) asks sarcastically?

At the Bonn conference, about 6,000 experts are debating exactly that question. Ideally, they will bring meaning to what might otherwise be empty words and phrases, but in the worst case scenario the conference will end in little more than bland declarations of intent. The parties can only adopt resolutions in consensus, and there are no mechanisms to apply pressure to obstructionists.

Despite the potential difficulties, some of the approaches being taken at the conference are at least promising:

  • One of the goals is to create a global network of sanctuaries with representative habitats.
  • Using the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as a model, the delegates hope to establish a panel of experts for the biodiversity convention that brings together representatives of the scientific and political communities.
  • The agenda calls for the fair balancing of interests between developing countries, with their abundant diversity, and the industrialized nations, which want to exploit these resources.
  • The experts intend to search for new mechanisms to pay for the protection of diversity. Without new sources of funding, all negotiation can be nothing but empty talk.

"This conference deals with economic interests," says German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel. According to Gabriel, it is critical that we assign "a measurable cost to the loss (of environment)," or else we run the risk "of deleting data from nature's hard drive." Chancellor Merkel has already indicated that she will announce a significant increase in German government funding for the protection of the world's forests when she appears at the conference next Wednesday. Norway, which invests $500 million (€323 million) a year, is her benchmark. Back home, the government in Berlin is urging German states, responsible for domestic environmental protection issues, to allow 10 percent of forests owned by states and municipalities to return to nature.

Environment Minister Gabriel also plans to present the initial results of a study, initiated in collaboration with the European Union, on the global costs of species and habitat loss. According to an excerpt SPIEGEL has obtained of the document -- titled "The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity" -- the loss of biodiversity costs the world 6 percent of global gross domestic product. Poor countries are the hardest-hit. The annual cost of species and habitat loss amounts to as much as half of their already modest economic strength.

"Protecting diversity is much cheaper than allowing its destruction," says Indian economist Pavan Sukhdev, who Gabriel and EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas convinced to head the study. Biodiversity -- and efforts to preserve it -- could in fact become an enormous business in the future. The new conservationists hope to sell intact forests because they store the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2). They also expect to see drugs developed from creatures like the cone snail and corals produce handsome profits in the future. The last oases of diversity are also expected to attract more and more well-heeled eco-tourists.

"Bonn has to push for a breakthrough," says Achim Steiner, the head of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). To this day, according to Steiner, the promises made at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 16 years ago, where both the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity were born, have "not been kept or have been systematically broken."

Biodiversity is more than just the diversity of plant and animal species. It also encompasses the entire cornucopia of habitats, as well as the genetic information that lies hidden, as a biological treasure, in many organisms that have yet to be studied. Experts estimate that the planet's inventory includes between 10 and 20 million species of animals, plants, fungi and microbes. This diversity is not evenly distributed, however. Life is concentrated in so-called hot spots, which include regions like the Mediterranean coast, the tropical Andes and the Philippines.

And the future of diversity is not bright. Take Germany, for example. According to a study published in April by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), titled "Facts about Nature 2008," 36 percent of all animal species studied in Germany are threatened. More than two-thirds of German habitats are considered threatened. Nature reserves make up only 3.3 percent of the country's land mass. Every day, 113 hectares (279 acres) of land disappear under asphalt and concrete.

The global situation is equally alarming. Last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red listed 16,297 plant and animal species as threatened, including almost a third of all amphibians, one in eight bird species and almost one-fourth of all mammal species. To develop its list, the IUCNB evaluated more than 41,000 species. The ones on its threatened list make up close to 40 percent of the total.

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