Cape Town Conference Warns Against Ignoring Global Biodiversity Loss

Scientists and policy makers are joining forces this week in Cape Town to address the growing problem of global biodiversity loss. DIVERSITAS, the international program hosting the Cape Town conference, will address questions on the future of biodiversity conservation. Now that we have the science to back up our observations, the DIVERSITAS panel will ask, what are we going to do about it as a global community?

Loss of animal and plant life has been on the scientific "radar" for years, but scientists' responses to the data are changing. Increasing numbers of scientists are joining with interdisciplinary teams in the hopes their research can be translated to tangible policy change, focusing on biodiversity loss as it relates to the world economy and the UN Millennium Development Goals to improve the lives of the world's poorest and most vulnerable communities.

Georgina Mace, Vice-Chair of the DIVERSITAS program, reflected this new melding of environmental protection with human rights. "Biodiversity is fundamental to humans having food, fuel, clean water and a habitable climate," she said.

Mace also acknowledged the intrinsic value of healthy ecosystems, saying "It is hard to imagine a more important priority than protecting the ecosystem services underpinned by biodiversity."

Use of the phrase "ecosystem services" reflects the growing point of view that biodiversity loss is equivalent to economic loss. It is difficult to quantify ecosystem services, but saving a place for the environment in the world economy could help lawmakers and industry leaders shift their views and actions toward the environment.

Two of the main topics to be addressed this week in Cape Town attempt to answer questions surrounding ecosystem services: how can we economically quantify the impacts humans have on the environment, and what are biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation worth? The program will also address possible economic incentives for the prevention of habitat destruction.

One of the clearer examples of ecosystem degradation as related to economic loss is the "major freshwater biodiversity crisis," according to Klement Tockner of the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin. Tockner says healthy freshwater ecosystems aid in water purification, disease regulation, agriculture and more. Tockner has done research on carbon sequestration in freshwater ecosystems, finding that about seven percent of the carbon humans emit annually is now absorbed by aquatic systems and their species. The seven percent can be quantified and directly related to health.

Anne Larigauderie, Executive Director of DIVERSITAS, reflected on the growing need to put a tangible value on biodiversity. "Ecosystem services are difficult to value, which has led to policy neglect and the irreversible loss of species vital to a well-functioning environment," she said.

Georgina Mace summed up the overriding feeling of the program in Cape Town, saying, "Meaningful action should have started years ago. The next best time is now."