Technology & Science

Back to the biodiversity drawing board

Environment ministers from around the world are heading back to the drawing board at a conference this week to improve protection of endangered and threatened species —after admitting failure on a previous biodiversity target.
Blanding's turtles are a threatened species of freshwater turtles found along the Ottawa River. ((Gwenael Heyvang))
Environment ministers from around the world are heading back to the drawing board at a conference this week to improve protection of endangered and threatened species — after admitting failure on a previous biodiversity target.

Canada's Jim Prentice is one in a crowd of 193 ministers converging on Nagoya, Japan, for the 10th meeting of parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The CBD was created in 1992 with the goal of preserving the planet's biodiversity. In 2002, the parties to the convention set themselves what seemed like an equally simple goal: reduce the rate of species extinction by 2010.

This year's Global Biodiversity Outlook stated simply that that goal has not been met.

At this year's conference, the parties are setting less ambitious goals. Essentially, they are breaking the one over-arching target down into 20 bite-sized objectives. These include measures on deforestation, sustainable agriculture and overfishing.

Biodiversity is generally defined as the variety of plants and animals and other living things in a particular area or region. Scientists consider it important because plant and animal species interact and depend upon one another for food, shelter, oxygen and soil enrichment.

As species become extinct, biodiversity declines. 

Canada targeted

Environment Minister Jim Prentice says local communities must do their part to protect biodiversity. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))
The negotiations began on Oct. 18 and Canada has already been accused of getting in the way of conservation. On Monday, Canada won a "Dodo of the Week" award from the CBD Alliance, the umbrella group for non-governmental organizations at the conference.

But Prentice, in an interview before he left for Japan, argued that Canada can take pride in some of its biodiversity accomplishments.

"The terrestrial goals that we've set, we've done a great job of working towards," Prentice told CBC News.

He added that Canada has set aside nearly 10 per cent of its land mass to national parks and other protected areas.

That doesn't impress David Coon, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. "We have been stuck in this 20th-century thinking about creating a few national parks," Coon said. 

Instead, he said, governments should be making biodiversity preservation the overriding priority in resource management and urban development.

Local decisions, global consequences

Prentice argues that biodiversity protection is not just up to national governments.

"Municipalities have to share that responsibility," he said. "And, frankly, all of us as citizens have to be interested in protecting the biodiversity of the planet."

Heather Hamilton, executive co-ordinator of the Canadian Biodiversity Institute, agrees that most biodiversity issues are local issues. 

She cited the plight of the Blanding's turtle in the South March Highlands of the Ottawa suburb of Kanata.

The turtle is an threatened species and shares the Highlands with 18 other threatened species. That didn't stop the City of Ottawa from splitting its habitat in half with a road extension.

Coun. Marianne Wilkinson said the city had to make a choice and, if it didn't build there, residents would have had to drive 40 kilometres farther to get into town.

"There was no other place to do it," she said. "Somewhere along the line, you had to cross the South March Highlands."

Now there are plans for a subdivision, which Hamilton said is the kind of thinking the BDC should be working to change. Instead, groups like hers are left to fight these battles, and more often than not, they are losing.

"I'm afraid I don't have great hopes of what will come out of the conference,"  Hamilton said.

"But there's a lot that can be done at the local level. So I guess I take heart that even if the international and national levels aren't going where they need to go and doing what they need to do.

"At the local level we can certainly get a lot done, and that's important."

The biodiversity conference continues until Friday.