Save the tiger and make a killing, UN tells the world

Biodiversity report hopes to persuade nations that protecting species is a money-spinner

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Saving the Earth's biodiversity from the crisis engulfing it will cost far less than letting it disappear, a radical new report will reveal tomorrow.

The rapid global decline of species and habitats is depriving the planet of enormous and essential economic benefits, which in some cases will be impossible to replace once they are gone, according to the TEEB report, which is being unveiled at the United Nations biodiversity conference in Nagoya in Japan.

The report – the acronym of which stands for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity – aims to do for the planet's increasingly threatened wildlife and ecosystems what the celebrated Stern report of 2006 did for climate change – to show that the economics of the problem are vital and that the costs of not solving it will be far greater than taking action.

This year it has become evident that the international community's target of halting biodiversity loss across the world by 2010 has not remotely been met – in Britain, as elsewhere – and that losses of species are continuing largely unchecked. Habitats crucial for human survival, either directly or not, such as coral reefs and rainforests, are also under pressure everywhere.

One in five plants, one in five mammals, one in seven birds and one in three amphibians are now globally threatened with extinction. Conservationists hope that the TEEB report, the lead author of which is the London-based Indian banker and economist Pavan Sukhdev, may finally convince the international community to take the threat to the world's natural systems and species seriously – as it is very much in their interest to do so.

Three years in preparation, the report is based on the increasingly influential idea of "ecosystem services", which highlights the fact that a rainforest, for example – far from being just a wildlife theme park – plays a vital role in producing oxygen and fresh water for human society and in storing the carbon emissions which we produce and which are causing global climate change.

Many other threatened ecosystems and species – from mangrove swamps to honey bees – provide similar essential services which, in the past, have been taken entirely for granted.

There have already been five preliminary TEEB reports, addressed to economists and ecologists, local governments, policymakers, business and citizens. The final synthesis of these studies, entitled Mainstreaming The Economics of Nature, is being unveiled at Nagoya tomorrow.

The report is expected to say that the ratio of the costs of saving ecosystems to the benefits of doing so range from 1:10 right up to 1:100.

Dr Sukhdev has already echoed Lord Stern's celebrated remark that climate change was "the greatest market failure ever" – because the costs of the damage were not reflected in the price of what caused it, such as burning coal. He said earlier this year that the destruction of the natural world was "a landscape of market failures" because the services of nature were nearly always provided for free and so not valued until they were gone. It is widely hoped that TEEB will be "The Stern Report for biodiversity" and transform attitudes to saving the natural world at the highest level in governments.

The UN Convention of Biodiversity (CBD) was signed in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro – the same meeting which saw the signature of the UN climate convention. Yet while the climate treaty and its concerns have now risen to the top of the international agenda, the issue of biodiversity loss has been very much the poor relation, in terms of international politics.

The abject and widespread failure to meet the 2010 target is evidence enough. It is not an issue that has been given any real priority.

The hope now is that the 193 countries meeting in Nagoya will agree a new strategic plan to halt biodiversity loss, with 20 tough new targets for 2020, ranging from the halting of overfishing and drastically reducing deforestation to bringing down pollution worldwide and making a major effort to control invasive alien species, which has emerged in recent years as a major threat.

Yet to do this effectively will cost billions, if not trillions, of dollars, not least because – as was highlighted in last week's Living Planet report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – much of the planet's worst biodiversity loss is happening in the poorest countries, which cannot afford, for example, extensive networks of properly-policed protected areas alone.

The conference will seek agreement on exploring new and innovative ways of raising money for biodiversity and ecosystem management, including from the private sector.

The economics of nature

Mountain gorillas in Uganda

A very basic example of the economics of biodiversity being used for benefit is shown by the government of Rwanda and its management of tourists who wish to see the country's mountain gorillas. Visits in the forest of the Volcanoes National Park are strictly limited to parties of eight at a time but even so, 20,000 tourists go "gorilla trekking" every year, getting close to the animals in the wild for fees of $500 a time, which gives the Government $10m dollars a year in hard foreign currency. For a fraction of this cost, Rwanda carefully protects its gorillas, using its army to safeguard tourists and prevent the local people in Africa's most densely populated country from expanding into the gorillas' habitat and eventually killing them – as they otherwise certainly would. The gorillas are saved, and are a revenue earner year after year.

Rainforests

Rainforests are being cut down for a one-off harvest of timber – yet their potential value as stores of carbon, providers of fresh water, soil stabilisation, eco-tourism and food, fuel and fibre, is immensely greater. The TEEB report estimates that an investment of $45bn in protected areas could secure nature-based services worth $5 trillion per year.

Tigers in India

A key example of the economic potential of biodiversity failing to be realised is that of India's tigers. India has not properly protected this species, which could be an enormous tourist revenue earner, and from an estimated total of 100,000 in 1900, the population is now officially listed at a little over 1,400, although many experts believe the true number may be half of that. While tigers are threatened by human incursion into their habitat and depletion of prey species, the main reason for their tumultuous decline has been the failure to stop the illegal trade of tiger parts for traditional Chinese medicine.

Coral reefs

Coral reefs are being destroyed through overfishing, coral harvesting for tourist curios, pollution and rising sea temperatures. Yet the TEEB report estimates that 500 million people depend on them and the ecosystem services they provide, ranging from coastal defence to fish nurseries, are worth up to $170bn annually.

The study that revealed extent of species destruction

The extent of the threat to the world's wildlife and ecosystems was vividly underlined in May with a chilling official report from the UN.

The third edition of Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3), produced by the Convention on Biological Diversity, confirmed that the world had failed to meet its target to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.

And it said that natural systems that support economies, lives and livelihoods across the planet were "at risk of rapid degradation and collapse" unless there was "swift, radical and creative action to conserve and sustainably use the variety of life on Earth."

The Outlook warned that massive further loss of biodiversity was becoming increasingly likely, and with it, a severe reduction of many essential services to human societies as several "tipping points" are approached, in which ecosystems shift to alternative, less productive states from which it may be impossible to recover.

Potential tipping points analysed for GBO-3 included:

* The dieback of large areas of the Amazon forest, due to the interactions of climate change, deforestation and fires, with consequences for the global climate, regional rainfall and widespread species extinctions.

* The shift of many freshwater lakes and other inland water bodies to eutrophic or algae-dominated states, caused by the build-up of nutrients and leading to widespread fish kills.

* Multiple collapses of coral reef ecosystems, due to a combination of ocean acidification, warmer water leading to bleaching, overfishing and nutrient pollution; and threatening millions of species.

The Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, said there were key economic reasons why the 2010 biodiversity targets were not met. "Many economies remain blind to the huge value of the diversity of animals, plants and other life-forms and their role in healthy and functioning ecosystems from forests and freshwaters to soils, oceans and the atmosphere.

"Humanity has fabricated the illusion that we can get by without biodiversity or that it is peripheral to our contemporary world: the truth is we need it more than ever on a planet heading to over nine billion people by 2050."

The CBD Executive Secretary. Ahmed Djoghlaf, said: "We continue to lose biodiversity at a rate never before seen in history – extinction rates may be up to 1,000 times higher than the historical background rate."

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