Make or Break Year for Biodiversity


Climate change has been described as the biggest market failure of all time – the loss of biodiversity and nature’s economically-important services must surely be running a close second, if not an equal first. Year in and year out, the world economy may be losing services from forests to freshwaters and from soils to coral reefs, with resulting costs of up to $4.5 trillion or more.


By Achim Steiner


Decisive action needs to be taken to reverse these declines or the bill will continue to climb – and with it any hopes of achieving the poverty-related Millennium Development Goals and a sustainable 21st century for six billion people, rising to nine billion by 2050.


In response to the financial and economic crisis, governments mobilized stimulus packages worth over $3 trillion seemingly overnight. Where is the same stimulus and the same coordinated international political response to address the crisis facing our natural and nature-based assets? How can we metaphorically find and follow the white dove that can bring a contemporary Noah’s Ark to a safe and sustainable berth?


The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) – hosted by UNEP and backed by the European Commission and countries including Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom – is an attempt to crystallize and illuminate new answers and assist toward making decisive choices. Its landmark report is to be published in advance of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting later in the year. But many inspiring and potentially transformational facts and figure, alongside more creative management options, are already emerging.


Let me perhaps cite one example that underlines TEEB’s framing of the debate. Subsidized commercial shrimp farms can generate returns of around $1,220 per hectare by clearing mangrove forests. But TEEB says this does not take into account the costs to local communities, totaling over $12,000 a hectare, that are linked with losses of wood and non-wood forest products, fisheries, and coastal protection services.


Nor does the profit to the commercial operators take into account the costs to society of rehabilitating the abandoned sites after five years of exploitation – estimated at over $9,000 a hectare.


  • Coral reefs, whose fishery, tourism, and flood protection services are estimated at between $100,000 and $600,000 per square km, could be conserved for an investment of close to $780 per square km or 0.2 percent of the value of the ecosystem protected.


  • Deforestation contributes close to 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions – $17 billion to over $30 billion annually could halve this amount while securing livelihoods and boosting conservation-related employment in tropical countries.


  • A global marine protected area network, involving the closure of 20 percent of total fishing grounds, could result in profit losses of an estimated $270 million annually.



But could sustain fisheries worth $80–100 billion a year; assist in conserving an estimated 27 million jobs while generating one million new ones and protect food supplies for over one billion people, especially in developing countries whose main or sole source of animal? Some countries are rising to the challenge in part.


  • Planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves in Vietnam costs just over $1 million, but savings on annual expenditures for dyke maintenance are well over $7 million.


  • One in 40 jobs in Europe are now linked with the environment and ecosystem services, ranging from clean-tech “eco-industries” to organic agriculture, sustainable forestry, and eco-tourism.


  • Investment in the protection of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve is generating an annual income of close to $50 million a year, has generated 7,000 jobs, and boosted local family incomes.


2010 – the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity – is the year when the international community pledged to substantially reverse the rate of loss of biodiversity. This has not happened and we continue – through inaction and a failure to manage – to preside over a sixth wave of extinctions. The urgency of a transformational response is underlined by the Global Biodiversity Outlook-3, launched by the CBD.


We are fast approaching “tipping points,” whereby dramatic and irreversible changes may soon occur to coral reefs and also freshwater systems as a result of climate change and the acidification of fertilizers and other nutrients. The public, politicians, and business leaders need to reconnect with the fundamentals that really drive the global economy, livelihoods, and ultimately all our life-support systems.

The next time you buy honey from the supermarket or corner shop, reflect on the fact that the bees and other pollinators are providing services worth perhaps $90 billion a year. The toast and jam at breakfast would also not be there without the worms, beetles, and bugs that make our soils fertile and the multi-trillion dollar agricultural industry possible – the list is long.

There is also an urgent need to bridge the gap between science and policymakers, which is why there has been a great deal of debate surrounding the establishment of an Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Meanwhile, an agreement on a key pillar of the CBD – namely an international regime on access and benefit-sharing of genetic resources – has proved elusive. Negotiations are under way and there is optimism that a regime could be finalized at the CBD’s meeting in Nagoya, Japan, in October.

Currently, in the absence of such a regime, there is increasingly less access to the genetic treasure trove of the South and, thus, fewer opportunities for companies, mainly from the North, to discover new pharmaceuticals, materials, and promising crop strains.

This, in turn, translates into fewer opportunities for developing countries to share in any benefits that might arise – so everyone looses out. Smart market mechanisms and the ability to bring visibility to the true value of nature are perhaps the “missing links” that would lead toward sustainable management.

Unless we place an economic value on biodiversity and ecosystems and the services they provide, we are unlikely to turn the tide in a world fascinated by GDPs, stock markets, and others measures that define contemporary notions of progress.

Biodiversity is, of course, about far more than just dollars and cents, yen, euros, yuan, or Kenyan shillings. But the economic case for sustainable management of our natural capital needs to be made if we are to design a pathway away from degradation, destruction, and extinction. As TEEB is underling, the case is as overwhelming and as compelling as the ones centered on stewardship and the spiritual dimensions of the living world.


Achim Steiner is UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director