Saving the World’s Biodiversity
Thomas Lovejoy first coined the term "biodiversity" in 1980. (Heinz Center)
An international meeting on biodiversity just wrapped up in Nagoya, Japan. On the agenda: coming up with a treaty to protect the world’s most threatened species and habitats. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Thomas Lovejoy, senior advisor to the president of the UN Foundation, about the negotiations.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. When it comes to international environmental negotiations there are good cops and bad cops. COP is UN speak for Conference of the Parties-- major summits where delegates gather to hammer out international treaties.
Last December’s COP in Copenhagen is an example of bad COP; negotiators failed to come up with a binding agreement on climate change. For the past two weeks, delegates have been meeting in Nagoya, Japan hoping for a good COP. The Conference of Parties is trying to come up with an agreement to save the world’s biodiversity.
Joining me from the summit to discuss “good cop, bad cop” is Thomas Lovejoy. He’s the Senior Advisor to the president of the UN Foundation. Hi Professor.
LOVEJOY: I’m delighted to be with you.
GELLERMAN: So have the negotiations in Nagoya been good COP or bad COP? Good meeting or bad meeting?
LOVEJOY: So I seem to get different opinions about that. There are those who will feel the targets should have been set higher. There will be those who will be happy that it got as far as it did, all the negotiations who are surrounded by just a fabulous amount of energetic, committed, far looking activity.
GELLERMAN: What are the targets? What are the goals?
LOVEJOY: So the whole set of goals about how a nation can access the benefits of another nation’s biodiversity, think of a potential cancer drug in the middle of, say, the Congo rainforest—you know, what are the rules around that? And the other targets are in many ways the most important ones. The ones that guarantee that those benefits will still be there to be access and shared. And, that revolves around how much of the planet is under some strict form of protection whether on the land or in the oceans.
GELLERMAN: The idea that the benefits are there and that they’re going to be sustainable and sharable presumes that we going to be able to keep biodiversity as diverse as it is.
LOVEJOY: Precisely. And, you know, sometimes, watching the negotiations you wonder whether people will realize that. If you are going to take forever to negotiate the access terms then there are just going to be fewer benefits to be accessed and shared.
GELLERMAN: I heard that we are losing more species today then have ever been lost since the time of the dinosaurs.
LOVEJOY: That’s true and it certainly true in the history of our own species. So, the last time that there was a massive extinction on earth was when the dinosaurs exited. If we keep on the trends that we’re on, we’ll be basically creating the same kind of scenario.
GELLERMAN: Now, there are people, and I’ve met them, I’ve been to the Amazon for example, the indigenous people who have lived in these biologically rich zones. And they use things that I’d never seen and scientists had never seen, and they have tremendous value.
LOVEJOY: I mean it’s extraordinary what indigenous peoples are able to use from nature. And, you know, we already use some of those things like ‘kirari’ which we use as a muscle relaxant in major abdominal surgery. So the real issue is how do you actually recognize the right to that knowledge that the indigenous people have so that they get some economic return as benefit.
And there’s a lot of worry in the world, particularly in developing countries, that really smart corporate scientists or others are going to swoop in and snatch up the knowledge and make a lot of money. And there will be no return for the indigenous people and that’s call ‘bio-piracy’. The reality is that there are very few real examples of bio-piracy, and in the end, the real bio-piracy is the people who are destroying biodiversity and making it impossible for those benefits to ever be accessed or shared.
GELLERMAN: Well, how do you monetize the value of biodiversity?
LOVEJOY: It’s not so much monetizing as valuing. New York City, a few years back, is a great example of this. The watershed which produced water that was so good that, when I was a kid, that you just noticed when you took a drink of water right out of the tap. That deteriorated the watershed to the point where the EPA was going to require the city to cough up eight billion dollars to build a water treatment plant.
And then somebody got smart and said, ‘you know, I bet you if we restored this watershed and restored the biodiversity, we could do it as a permanent solution for much less cost.’ And that is precisely what happened.
GELLERMAN: So the environment has value that’s not readily apparent except when we really need it.
LOVEJOY: And, well, that’s right. Or when you begin to pull the rug out of it. There’s a wonderful phrase that I heard at the COP, which is ‘humanity does best where nature flourishes.’ You know, we’ve done the experiment that shows what happens when you don’t do that and it’s called Haiti. That’s what happens when you strip the biology out of a country.
GELLERMAN: Now this is the COP ten. You’ve had ten of these going back twenty years and only now are they dealing with this stuff substantially, it seems to me.
LOVEJOY: I think what’s driving it today is a greater sense of urgency than before because people can see a lot of this biodiversity beginning to slip away. That finally makes you focus and spend less time negotiating and more time thinking about how to actually protect the biology of the planet and indeed the human future.
GELLERMAN: Thomas Lovejoy is a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University.
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