UN Biodiversity Conference diminished by no-show NGOs

I didn’t travel to Hyderabad for last week’s Conference of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) because nobody felt inclined to pay me to cover the event. Nowadays such rejection is almost welcome. Virtual reporting from the comforts of home is a viable substitute, provided you go with the flow of its advantages (no distractions) and its frustrations (unreliable CBD webcasting service).

I was far from being the only absentee. International media gave COP11 a miss, as did the activist global green movement. In spite of – or perhaps relieved by – this lack of attention, the Conference succeeded in delivering a creditable result.

We could argue that the estimated promise of $5 billion per annum for biodiversity plus a few tweaks to the framework of international regulations doesn’t add up to a hill of genetically modified beans in relation to our planetary crisis – but this outcome is as good as it’s going to get until public pressure on governments regains its assertiveness on environmental issues.

As public pressure is the raison d’etre of activist groups such as the Rainforest Action Network and Global Witness, it looks as though the enforcement of multilateral environmental agreements is not perceived to be the optimum campaign path for saving the planet. Is the UN process being abandoned to bumble along in its sub-culture of SBSTTAs and QUELROs?

We’ll be in a better position to answer that question after next month’s COP18 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Doha. This is the big daddy of the three 1992 Rio Conventions; it’s held every year and is traditionally a honeypot for campaigners.

Over the last ten days I’ve certainly encountered the sense of insurmountable political obstacles that might account for the absentee green activists.

Take the core issue of holding governments to account for their legal obligation to provide financial support to poorer countries for action on biodiversity. My usual approach is to expose the utter inadequacy of the amounts on offer by comparing them with official UN cost estimates and/or the astronomical sums that rich governments continue to deploy to bail-out their banks and each other.

The obvious reference point last week was the summit of European leaders which took steps to establish the eurozone rescue fund. The amount marshalled for the fund by the likes of Germany and France is the small matter of 500 billion euros, about $650 billion.

The problem is that we’ve been making these minnow/dinosaur comparisons for the last four years and they don’t make any difference. Environment ministers attending these Conferences have no discretion over financial settlements other than a little reshuffling of foreign aid budgets.

I haven’t studied the detail of the final Hyderabad agreement but I’m sure there will be NGO concerns that the promise of new finance may be fulfilled by relabelling existing aid projects, a device which has bedevilled the similar commitment to “fast-start” climate finance.

This worry about preaching to the powerless extends to the vital reform of economics to take account of environmental values in national and corporate accounting. Although there are real reservations about the UN’s favoured approach, known as The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), no environmentalist could question the overall aim. Dismantling the lunacy of GDP calculations which impose a positive perception of “growth” goes to the heart of sustainability.

But how can a group of non-financial ministers advance the TEEB proposals other than by promising to look into them? – which they did. Campaigners are bound to feel that their efforts might be better targeted at a more senior economic forum such as the G20.

There was a quite different source of frustration that we’re pitching to the wrong bunch of ministers. The Hyderabad Conference coincided with the annual meeting of the Committee on World Food Security, both events seeking attendance of appropriate government ministers. And little more than a month away, the Doha climate change COP18 will drag out another set of ministers.

Yet every week brings a new scientific study demonstrating how biodiversity, climate change and food security are locked together, especially in the cycle of consumption and waste that stamps the footprint of richer countries on the poorer.

During the period of the Hyderabad Conference alone, the UN Environment Programme released a report on the subject of famines, the Global Forest Expert Panel presented a study on climate change and the UN Special Rapporteur on Food Security lashed out at biofuels.

Is it surprising that NGO campaigners doubt the wisdom of investing time in a UN Convention which lacks a mandate to embrace this interdependence?

The NGO movement is partly to blame. How it loves its neat sector compartments, each one demanding to be “mainstreamed” across government policy. We fight each other tooth and nail for a trophy reference in the text of UN agreements. We might help the planet more by acknowledging its complexity in the way we organise ourselves and present our arguments.

In response to fears that the UN process has become superfluous, I try to keep in mind the forces that led to its foundation, especially those to do with prevention of human-induced catastrophe. If the planetary system begins to crack up even more seriously, the UN will be the only show in town.

We were reminded of this halfway through COP11. When the Guardian broke the story of a rogue geo-engineering experiment off the west coast of Canada, it was the UN Convention on Biological Diversity that provided what we all needed – reassurance that the dump of iron sulphate is illegal.

Before deserting the UN process, green activist groups might be wise to remember another of its founding principles – equity between nations in decision-making. The drivers of biodiversity loss and climate change are not just messing up our ecosystems, they’re disproportionately hitting the poorest countries. These UN conferences are as much concerned with rebalancing global injustice as stabilising earth systems.

The Achilles heel of the environmental movement has always been that hint of arrogance in its occasional ordering of planet before people. Disdain for the hard yards put in at conferences of the Rio Conventions puts out the wrong signals.


background briefings on Biodiversity