Thursday, June 05, 2008

UN summits - all talk and no action

Another week, another United Nations-sponsored summit. Another failure to act. The food summit is just ending in Rome with no effective plan to come to the aid of the increasing numbers of people in the developing world who are going hungry because of rising prices and shortages.

From food to biodiversity, it’s the same story. Three species die out every hour of every day. Yet governments who have just finished a 12-day conference on biodiversity could not reach agreement on measures to halt the destruction of species and habitats. Another week, another UN summit. Another failure to act.

There was acknowledgement that the UN Convention on Biodiversity’s previous targets will not be met and the only “achievement” was to set up more working parties and to say in the final statement signed by 122 government ministers, that "biological diversity is being destroyed by human activities at unprecedented rates".

Martin Kaiser, head of the Greenpeace delegation summed up the conference: "The UN biodiversity summit inches forward like a snail while animals and plants are being wiped out at great speed.” In fact, it was so meaningless that some organisations are reconsidering whether to attend in future. Joy Hyvarinen, international treaties adviser at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: “After 10 years of these meetings there is no impact I can discern on slowing down the destruction of the natural world, but they have set up a wonderful bureaucracy for discussing it.”

Deforestation was largely ignored as an issue, under pressure from countries led by Brazil and Indonesia. Tropical forests are home to an estimated 50% of all life on the planet. These are the areas where tigers, orang-outang, Asian elephants, rhino, river dolphins, toucans – are at risk, not to mention thousands of other plants, animals and insects whose names we may not know, but which form crucial links in the web of life on the planet.

A major report on the economic impact of loss of biodiversity published to coincide with the conference, points out that a business as usual scenario will mean many eco-systems will be “damaged beyond repair”, and that by 2050:

· 11% of remaining wild areas would be lost, chiefly as a result of conversion for agriculture, the expansion of infrastructure, and climate change
· almost 40% of the land currently under low-impact forms of agriculture could be converted to intensive agricultural use, with further biodiversity losses
· 60% of coral reefs could be lost - even by 2030 - through fishing, pollution, diseases, invasive alien species, and coral bleaching due to climate change.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity review assesses financial consequences in the hope of galvanising governments to act. It says that human activities are causing almost £40bn-worth of damage to land-based ecosystems each year. And without dramatic changes, all of the world’s fisheries will have collapsed within 50 years, leaving a billion people who rely on fish protein facing starvation.

During the conference, the US government helped to clarify the reasons for this global failure to act. They finally agreed to place the polar bear on their endangered species list but added that protecting it must not stand in the way of economic development in its habitat. So in the end it is all about putting profit first.

After the biodiversity marathon, Bonn is now hosting the latest round of UN-sponsored global climate change negotiations. These will no doubt have similar results. Global summits of capitalist politicians fronting for global business are a total waste of space. The planet and its people cannot afford to fritter away any more time. These empty UN talking shops need to be replaced with democratically-controlled, people’s global forums that will develop strategies to end the power of the global corporations to wreck the planet in pursuit of private profit. Then human activity could start to make a positive difference.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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