UN conference to agree on sharing biodiversity benefits

The UN biodiversity conference meeting in Bonn has achieved a breakthrough on access and benefit sharing ahead, with the aim of ending "biopiracy" within two years, German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Thursday, dpa reported.

"For the first time we have legally binding agreements," Gabriel said, although he acknowledged the voluntary and legally binding parts still needed to be identified.

Work to flesh out a deal to counter biopiracy - the term used to describe the patenting of indigenous remedies by the pharmaceutical industry without payments to the countries where they originate - was proceeding, Gabriel said.

The next UN conference on the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), to be held in the Japanese city of Nagoya in 2010, has been tasked with reaching agreement on the issue.

Developing countries are alarmed that their natural resources, particularly in the form of medicinal remedies developed from indigenous plants, are being discovered by major pharmaceutical companies and patented without any benefits being passed back to the countries concerned.

The 191 countries participating in the CBD also received an interim report on the economic aspects of biodiversity loss, presented by development economist Pavan Sukhdev.

Sukhdev described the undertaking as a "mammoth task," but added: "This is the right thing to do and the right time to do it."

The final report would provide the economic basis for a "new economy" that took into account ecological values not currently reflected in standard economic analyses, he said.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, one of the drivers of the report, noted that little progress had been made on the CBD and attributed this in part to the lack of an economic valuation of biodiversity loss.

"We need to place a value on biodiversity to ensure efficient use," he said, adding this should not be understood as merely looking for new ways to make profits.

But appealing purely to ethical standards had only limited effect.

Asked to put a value on biodiversity loss, Sukhdev said the annual capital loss to the world economy over the first half of this century could come to 3.1 trillion euros (4.8 billion dollars), depending on how future loss was discounted.

Taking just forest biomes, for which considerable data had been collected, Sukhdev said that by 2050, if current policies were continued, the global loss would amount to 6 per cent of gross domestic product.

"This is just in direct and indirect use values - food, water collection, flood prevention and so on... It does not include non-use values, such as ethical values," said the economist who has previously conducted a similar study for the Indian government.

Conference delegates compared the report to the Stern report on the costs of climate change presented to the British government in 2006 which boosted public interest in the issue around the world.

Echoing another theme heard repeatedly at the two-week conference, Sukhdev's interim report found a close link between poverty and the loss of ecosystems.

"We find poverty and the loss of ecosystems and biodiversity to be inextricably intertwined," it said.

The main immediate beneficiaries of ecosystems and biodiversity were the poor, with the livelihoods most affected being subsistence farming, animal husbandry, fishing and informal forestry, it said.

The report called for those who contribute to maintaining sensitive ecosystems to be allowed to share in the benefits.

It was critical of current agricultural policy in the industrialized world. "We need to rethink today's subsidies to reflect tomorrow's priorities," it said.

Continuing along the current path would mean that in the first half of the century, 11 per cent of natural areas would be lost.

In addition, 40 per cent of land under low impact agriculture in 2000 would be converted to intensive agriculture with resultant biodiversity loss, and 60 per cent of coral reefs would be lost.

Since 1900, the world had lost 50 per cent of its wetlands, with the damage in the first half of the 20th century being done in northern countries, while the pressure was now on tropical and subtropical wetlands, it said.

The report called for a radical change in economic methods.

"GDP growth does not capture many vital aspects of national wealth and wellbeing, such as changes in the quality of health, the extent of education, and changes in the quality and quantity of our natural resources," it said.

One of the report's key aims is to provide a policy toolkit for policy makers and administrators. Sustainable development and better conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity needed to be placed on a basis of sound economics, it said.

Some 6,000 delegates from most of the world's countries are attending the conference. Crucially, the United States has not ratified the CBD and is taking no formal part.

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