Was the UN Convention on Biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan from October 18th to 30th a success? Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

Within minutes of the Japanese Environment Minister, Ryu Matsumoto ending the  10th Conference of the Parties (COP 10) to the UN Conference on Biodiversity (CBD),  on  October 30th 2010, commentators were highlighting its successes and failures.  Though the meeting received very little media attention in Ireland or Britain due to the wall-to-wall coverage of the financial crisis, the issues which were debated at Nagoya could not be more important.  What is at stake is the future of life on Earth. Numerous studies from scientists paint a grim and challenging picture.  One such study is entitled The Evolution Lost report. It was prepared by a group of 100 leading zoologists and botanists and published on the eve of the Nagoya conference. It found that populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined world wide by an average of 30 per cent in the past forty years.

The scale of the destruction can only be truly appreciated when viewed from the perspective of biological time.  The last time such an extinction spasm happened was 65 million years ago at the end of the Mesozoic (Middle Life) era. Most researchers agree that the Mesozoic Era ended, at least in part, because of the impact of an asteroid in what is now the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. The current extinction is not due to external factors, but to one creature within the biosphere – humankind.  We do not set out directly to cause the extinction of other species. However, our increasing numbers and escalating demands has led to widespread deforestation, the conversion of many habitats to agricultural land, the over exploitation of many species, especially in the oceans. All of this has had a devastating impact on the rest of life on earth.

The Convention on Biodiversity emerged from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.  Its objective is to protect biodiversity and to ensure that there is a fair and equitable distribution of any financial benefits derived from biological and genetic resources.  The Nagoya meeting wrestled with these questions and ratified the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits (ABS). Initially, governments from the global North and especially Northern biotech and pharmaceutical corporations were opposed to sharing the benefits of biological resources with countries from the global South, where the biological and genetic resources originated. They feared that lawsuits might be brought against them for some products which they developed based on biological resources from countries in the South.  Under the Nagoya Protocol a multi-billion dollar fund will be set up to compensate countries in the Global South for any benefits which accrue from the commercial use of their biological resources. The Protocol is potentially worth billions of dollars to countries which are rich in biodiversity and could act as an incentive for them to protect the biodiversity of their forests and marine resources.

The Nagoya meeting also drew up a strategic plan to conserve biodiversity in the period between 2010 and 2020.  The delegates from the 193 countries agreed to protect 17 percent of the land area of the world and 10 percent of the oceans by  2020.  At the moment,  about 13 percent of the land area of the world and only 1 percent of the oceans are protected areas.  Details of the roadmap to achieve the above targets by 2020 are quite vague and critics say that the targets are not ambitious enough.

The Guardian columnist, George Monbiot dismissed  the agreement. He wrote that the targets governments were asked to adopt were nothing more than “aspirations for achievement at the global level.” According to him, the ‘flexible framework’ means that countries can do as they will, with no threat of sanctions if they fail to meet targets.[1] Monbiot also points out that only one third of the countries which have signed the Convention were represented by their environment minister.  For example, John Gormely, the minister for the environment in the Irish government, did not attend even though he is the leader of the Green Party. The United Kingdom was represented by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Caroline Spelman.

At Nagoya, as in all such conventions , the cost of commitments is always close to the surface.  Unfortunately, richer countries were slow to produce their cheque books at Nagoya.  Japan, the host nation, offered to contribute $2 billion to help developing nations protect their biodiversity. Britain and France mentioned paltry sums.  Counties have two years in which to draw up credible funding plans in order to reach the conservation targets. The paucity of financial resources to protect biodiversity led Jim Leape, the director general of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to complain that, “We were disappointed that most rich countries came to Nagoya with empty pockets – unable or unwilling to provide the resources that will make it possible for the developing world to implement their ambitious targets.”[2] He did, however, welcome the overall deal despite its limitations.

The most important limitation of all, of course, is the fact that the United States, the richest country on the planet, has not signed the UN Convention on Biodiversity.  Organisations of civil society and Churches in the U.S. need to lobby their government, so that it signs the CBD immediately.

Despite claiming to be a pro-Life Church, the Catholic Church has very little teaching on biodiversity.  Biodiversity only merits one half of a paragraph in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and the concern is completely homocentric.  No 466 states that, “the environmental value of biodiversity, (which) must be handled with a sense of responsibility and adequately protected, because it constitutes an extraordinary richness for all humanity.” Eight hundred years ago, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that each creature has the ability to represent the goodness of God in a unique way. Therefore the extinction of species does not merely impoverish the biosphere, it also diminishes our understanding of God. Today, the vast majority of creation theologians argue that species have intrinsic value, in other words value in themselves and not merely because they can be of benefit to humankind. In responding to the present ecological crisis the Catholic Church urgently needs to develop a viable theology of creation.



[1] George Monbiot, “We’ve been conned. The deal to save the natural world never happened.” The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cif-green/2010/nov/01/deal-to-save-the-natural-world-never-happened.

[2] Jonathan Watts, “Fifth of vertebrates ‘at risk of extinction’” The Guardian, October 27th 2010, page 15.


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