Diary clash for world food and biodiversity talks

The inconvenient truth about biodiversity is that its greatest riches are located in countries least able to fend off exploitation by outsiders.

And the inconvenient truth about the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is that it’s haunted by the ghost of its own acronym. Fear of that phrase “common but differentiated” – the euphemism for financial transfers from rich to poor – stalks the corridors of the Hyderabad Conference of the Parties (COP11).

Ministers arriving for the high-level segment starting tomorrow face the customary lengthy agenda. Of the 15 items, three will form the substance of their business, of which one alone will dictate the success or failure of the event. That one is of course all about money.

The other two are unlikely to pose too many difficulties, presuming that no one chooses to dwell too much on their shortcomings.

Progress on ratifying the important 2010 Nagoya Protocol (on Access and Benefit-Sharing of Genetic Resources) has been slow. However, the threshold necessary to become law was never likely to be reached before the next COP scheduled for 2014. And little can be done about the share of this particular business activity conducted by corporations based in the US – whose government has never signed up to the CBD, let alone this upstart Protocol.

Implementation of the Strategic Plan 2011-2020 and progress towards the Aichi Biodiversity Targets have also been dilatory. National action plans are expensive to prepare for poorer countries. Developed countries have sat on the haunches of their old plans, exposing the flaw in presuming that 193 independent plans will add up to the new global targets.

My own country has an updated plan but UK economic policy appears to be unaware of its existence. We’re edging towards a fresh round of habitat destruction through road-building, new airport runways and high-speed rail on green-field tracks, such is the lack of imagination in tackling recession.

The COP11 outcome text devoted to “financial resources and financial mechanism” is surely doomed to impotence, not so much because of pinched exchequers in western capitals as the damp squib of the Rio+20 summit in June. The shadow of failure to identify a model for financing sustainable development will hang over this first set-piece UN environmental conference since Rio+20.

Delegations will labour over the detail of ideas such as integrating the value of ecosystems into national accounting and decision-making. But the big chance for radical green economics came and went in June. Very few ministers in Hyderabad have authority to make financial commitments beyond the inevitable flurry of support for this and that conservation project.

There’s one big caveat to my gloomy prognosis. The CBD family of negotiators surprised us last time at COP10 in Japan. The Nagoya Protocol and the Aichi Targets were fabulous achievements given the post-Copenhagen mood about the UN process.

The CBD atmosphere seems slightly less fractious than climate change conferences. It might be the absence of the US from the negotiations or, dare I say it, the relatively lightweight presence of NGO activists.

There’s a degree of irony, therefore, in my view that a breakthrough on finance depends on making connections with the world outside the Hyderabad bubble. The coincidence of starting the CBD ministerial component on World Food Day, continuing in parallel with the Rome meetings of the Committee on World Food Security, can’t escape scrutiny.

The central tension in the debate on global food security – industrial farming versus agro-ecology recommended for small farmers – is as much about biodiversity as food. Those small farmers need financial assistance too. Why are two sets of ministers heading for separate meetings?

It’s easier to expose these absurdities than to suggest how to remedy them. But I can observe that “mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society” is the first goal of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 approved in Japan.

Perhaps the CBD negotiators should find ways to practice in the international domain what they preach to individual governments.


background briefings on Biodiversity