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Following the Money at COP 10

Countries are divided over conservation funding, but will more money really solve the biodiversity crisis?

One morning a few days ago, I was sitting despondently at my desk in the COP 10 conference center, wondering whether another week of argument between delegates over targets, financial mechanisms, and benefit-sharing would really help bees and butterflies back home. Just then, Nick Nuttall, dapper spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), whirled into the room with a pile of press releases. I flagged him down.

"Nick," I said. "Tell it to me straight. Does what's happening at this UN biodiversity conference matter?"

Nick, of course, launched straight into an eloquent soliloquy on why COP 10 does matter, explaining how international targets motivate countries to act and multilateral financial packages allow them to do so. Then he said something surprisingly candid.

"These are fundamentally trade issues. It's about how we use resources," he said.

He had a point. Biodiversity conservation hinges on changing how we use the world, and in a capitalist system, we use the world largely by buying, selling, and trading parts of it. Changing the way those economic relationships work can help us protect nature. For instance, if city planners knew exactly how much the water filtration, carbon sequestration, and other ecosystem services provided by wetlands were worth, they might pause before letting developers pave them over.

To that end, the UN is on a massive campaign to translate anteaters, frogs, and ferns into dollars and cents. Last week at COP 10, UNEP released a new report on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. The report points out, among other things, that protecting 20-30% of the world's oceans would result in ecosystem services worth up to $6.7 trillion yearly. The goal is to convince policy makers that leaving ecosystems intact often makes more sense than exploiting them to death, then trying to find man-made substitutes for the services they provided.

At least within the scope of the current conference, the UN sales pitch seems to be working. Scarcely a word has been spoken over the past week about each species' inherent value and right to exist, but the conference halls are buzzing with terms like "the value of ecosystem services" and "natural capital."

Fighting for Funds

The problem is, even if developing countries know protecting nature makes sense in the long run, they often lack the money to do so. Seventeen "megadiverse" countries, including Brazil, Kenya, and China, are home to 70% of the world's biodiversity. These countries say they desperately need financial help in order to safeguard their wealth of plants and animals.

Just setting up and guarding the protected areas needed to prevent extinction will cost $15 billion a year, according to a recent study by BirdLife International and Conservation International. Yet biodiversity-related aid has stagnated at about 1.8 billion dollars a year for the past decade. Brazil and others say that unless rich countries fill that gap with new funding for conservation, they won't agree to the ambitious set of conservation targets currently on the table at COP 10.

On the other hand, Canada and the European Union don't seem eager to make hard financial commitments at this meeting, according to NGO observers in the stalled resource mobilization negotiations. That could have to do with the fact that the United Kingdom and other wealthy countries are facing pinched budgets back home, and they've already promised $30 billion in aid by 2012 to forestall climate change.

"Donors agencies are tapped out from Copenhagen," said The Nature Conservancy's Andrew Deutz.

Meanwhile, the United States - which contributes $300 million a year in bilateral assistance for biodiversity conservation - hasn't even ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity. Russell Mittermeier, primatologist president of Conservation International, said that while government and private contributions from the US are substantial, our non-Party status is casting a pall on the negotiations.

"It's the invisible gorilla in the room. It's terribly demoralizing to other countries," he said Sunday.

If more money is promised by the end of this week, it will certainly allow developing countries to set up more nature preserves, which experts agree are critical for halting biodiversity loss. Whether money can reach the deeper causes of biodiversity loss, like population growth and consumption patterns, is another question. Can it get us to change our lifestyles and values? Or, to borrow the language of the Strategic Plan delegates are considering this week, can the "mainstreaming of biodiversity across government and society" really be bought?

I recently posed that question to David Ainsworth, spokesman for the Convention's Secretariat. He laughed, then told me the Secretariat feels the world needs something that can indeed be bought: "A PR campaign for the value of biodiversity." Show politicians, businesspeople, and ordinary citizens that biodiversity matters, give them the tools to change, and they'll stop destroying it. I hope that really is all it takes.

Winifred Bird
Winifred Bird is a freelance journalist and translator focusing on the environment and architecture. From 2005 to 2014 she lived in rural Japan, where she covered the 2011 tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear disaster for publications including the Japan Times, Environmental Health Perspectives, and Yale Environment 360. When she’s not writing she can usually be found in her vegetable garden. She currently lives in the northern Illinois.

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