Biodiversity Matters

By Guest Author 22/07/2010

By Professor David Penman

Climate change and the relative lack of agreement from the Copenhagen meeting dominated the environmental, economic and political agenda through 2009 and into 2010. While the outcomes will have significant impacts, positive and negative, on our future climate change is only one part of wider drivers of global change and we need to refocus our efforts to find solutions to issues such as loss of species and habitats.

Back in 1992 the world came together to develop an environmental agenda to try to redress some of the pressures on our resources and biodiversity loss was identified as a key issue that required global cooperation. The outcome was a treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), that recognised that ‘life on earth’ — biodiversity — was threatened from population pressures and resource demands and we needed global cooperation if we were to change the direction of current species loss.

Millennium development goals were set to halt the decline in species and habitat loss by 2010 so this year the world is going to report on progress to a meeting of the CBD in October 2010 in Nagoya, Japan. The emerging consensus is that we will fail in our collective goal so we will need to revitalise efforts and incentives and we in New Zealand will be no exception. There is a reemergence of biodiversity issues as being key to our future, especially in a changing climate.

Biodiversity can make a big difference through opportunities such as forests accumulating carbon, microbes in soil capturing carbon, ocean plankton absorbing carbon, and new microbes in ruminant animals reducing methane emissions from agriculture. Equally climate change will threaten species and ecosystems especially where there are no ‘escape’ pathways. Species may move up and south in the Southern Hemisphere but with so much ocean to our south where to species go but to extinction?

We contend that with only about 0.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions what we do will not make a difference on a global scale. This is not the case for biodiversity. New Zealand is recognised as one of the global ‘biodiversity hot spots’ alongside areas such as the Cape Province in South Africa, the Coral Sea in South East Asia and the Amazon Rain Forest.

We have extraordinarily high levels of endemism — species that occur nowhere else – yet we lead the world in the dominance of introduced plants compared to the numbers of native plants. A factor of over 10 exotic plant species to 1 native plant species is the accepted ratio and of the over 24,000 introduced plants about 10% have become naturalised (living and reproducing without our intervention) and about 10% of those become weeds (plants in the wrong place). We have a ticking ‘time bomb’ of potential weeds already in the country.

We also lead the world in species loss especially of birds and we have large numbers of species and ecosystems vulnerable to extinction. We cannot expect others to save this biodiversity for us — only we can invest to do this. We have some strong science and technologies that are already assisting other countries to save their biodiversity — we need to increase our efforts locally.

Biodiversity is not solely an environmental issue and the preserve of activists and ‘tree huggers’. It is vital to our economy and survival. While our biota might be dominated by introduced species, it is those species that we introduced from other countries that drive our bioeconomy. More than virtually any other country we are dependent for economic survival on very few introduced elements of biodiversity and we have established strong biosecurity to protect those few species against unwanted biodiversity. So biodiversity matters more than ever and climate change is another threat.

Biodiversity is not just conservation or preservation. The CBD has three key elements: conservation of biodiversity and we do lead the world in many areas; access and benefit sharing and this is a very contentious area as we do need access to new crops and animal genes yet countries holding these resources are becoming very reluctant to share their resources as are we; and sustainable development where biodiversity is used for benefit of society.

Biodiversity should be central to the Government’s drive for economic growth, and investment in research, development and education in this area is not just an environmental benefit. The rest of the world is waking up to the realisation that our survival is dependent on many of the species of our planet for the provision of food, clean water, medicines and many other ecosystem services.

The United Nations has declared 2010 to be the International Year of Biodiversity with 22 May to be the International Biodiversity Day with a global focus on the role of ‘invasive alien species’, an issue we are very well placed to lead. Also on 20 September the UN General Assembly Heads of State and Government will have a debate on biodiversity. What will our representatives be able to present on our behalf?

Professor David Penman is the former Chair of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and chairs governance groups of biodiversity-related research projects for Landcare Research