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The world was so engrossed in the US presidential election campaign - only to later shift its attention to the leadership change in China - that it almost turned a blind eye to the 11th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, held in Hyderabad, southern India, from Oct 8 to19.
Perhaps the world might have ignored the CBD even without the US presidential election round the corner, for it considers dealing with the US financial and the European Union debt crises a thousand times more important than trying to save 400 species from extinction.
More than 400: that is the number of plants and animals that have been added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "Red List" of species at risk of extinction. The list was compiled as more than 70 environment ministers met at the Hyderabad conference. The updated and widely referenced IUCN list, which monitors biodiversity on our planet, shows that 20,219 species are now at risk of dying out.
The IUCN "Red List" has 65,518 species, which means that almost one-third of them face extinction, with 4,088 of them critically endangered, 5,919 endangered and 10,212 vulnerable.
The list, released at the CBD in Hyderabad, shows that 83 percent of Madagascar's 192 palm species - a source of food and building material for the poor - face extinction. Among the threatened species are the Sichuan Taimen, a fish species endemic to China, and the large Egyptian dab lizard.
More alarmingly, the list shows that 25 percent of the world's mammals, 13 percent of birds, 41 percent of amphibians and 33 percent of reef-building corals are at risk of extinction.
No form of life on Earth stands on its own. Instead, each form of life is supported by, and in turn supports, other living things. If we lose one species, we lose an important part of an ecosystem; we lose not only a plant or an insect, but also the service it provides to humankind.
In the broader sense, this is what biodiversity is all about. Biodiversity is a measure of the health and variety of plants and animals in an ecosystem and their genetic variation. Some of the benefits that humans and all other life forms get from biodiversity are air quality, climate, water purification, disease control, biological pest control, pollination and prevention of erosion. The larger the number of species in a given area, the higher its biodiversity and the better its overall ecological health will be.
The Hyderabad conference was held two years after 193 UN member countries met at the 10th CBD conference in Japan to approve a 20-point plan to reverse the alarming decline in plant and animal species that humans depend on for food, shelter and livelihood by 2020. Experts say that as much as $440 billion per year would be needed (compared with the current $10 billion) to meet the targets for reversing biodiversity loss in the next eight years.
But where will that sort of money come from? Most of it has to come from the advanced countries, of course. That, however, seems a very difficult proposition because most of the advanced countries are struggling with a financial or debt crisis. Besides, the advanced world may not be too eager to fund the work even if it has the money, because biological assets are predominantly in developing countries. It's a different matter that the major beneficiaries of their ecological services are the advanced countries.
The year started with scientists from the University of Copenhagen saying political will, based on solid scientific knowledge, is needed to overcome the biodiversity crisis and ensure a safe future for the planet. They said this during discussions with 100 researchers and policy experts from European Union countries in January on how to organize the future UN Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services - equivalent to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The conclusion comes when species extinction and degradation of ecosystems are proceeding rapidly and the pace is accelerating. We are losing species 100 to 1,000 times faster than the natural extinction rate.
The year is now on its last leg, when China has become the first country to accord ecological civilization as much importance as economic, political, cultural and social civilizations, raising hopes that it will initiate the change needed to reverse the trend of biodiversity destruction.
The author is a senior editor with China Daily.
(China Daily 11/20/2012 page8)