Envoys from around the world will discuss how to reverse the alarming rate of plant and wildlife loss, but compensation disputes between industrialized and developing nations make the meeting's outcome far from certain.
Rainforests and tropical areas are important to biodiversity
The United Nations has said the world could be confronting the most dramatic loss of animal and plant life since the dinosaurs vanished some 65 million years ago.
The international body called on nations, businesses and non-government organizations meeting from Monday in Nagoya, Japan to address the crisis of declining biodiversity.
"In Japan we have a unique opportunity to get everyone - governments, businesses and the public - on board to address the crisis facing life on earth," said Julia Marton-Lefevre, director general of International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The diversity of life on Earth was being lost at the fastest rate ever seen, Japanese Farm Minister Michihiko Kano said ahead of the major international meeting on biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan, which runs until October 29.
"The loss of biodiversity is developing in the fastest pace ever," he said. "It is our responsibility to carry over a rich biodiversity to the next generation."
Red alert for species loss
Some 30 percent of amphibians are in danger of extinction
Delegates to the 193-nation Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will discuss how to pay for the "equitable sharing" of the benefits from natural resources. The talks will also attempt to set a new target for preserving plant and animal species threatened by human activity.
Some 21 percent of all known mammals, 30 percent of known amphibians and 12 percent of known birds are under threat, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Habitat loss, hunting and climate change are among the central reasons for the decline in biodiversity.
The UN named 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity and one of the UN's Millennium Development Goals calls for "significantly" halting wildlife loss by 2010.
Yet it was a goal that no country managed to achieve in the past decade, despite increasing awareness of the extent of the problem.
New biodiversity targets
The meeting in Japan is scheduled to set a new 20-point plan of diversity goals for the next decade.
The targets under discussion include cutting pollution, halving the loss and degradation of forests and other natural habitats, making the public aware of nature's resources and ensuring that agriculture and aquaculture are sustainably managed.
The 2020 goals are an improvement over the previous set of goals because they address the root causes of biodiversity loss as well as biodiversity's sustainable use, according to Charles Perrings of Arizona State University, who led an international team of scientists to develop a strategic approach to the 2020 targets.
"Often there are no real instruments for protection, and those that do exist have no teeth," Perrings said of the rules to protect biodiversity. "There are lots of reasons, reasonable ones, for people making private decisions that lead to biodiversity loss, but they cost us all collectively."
A UN-backed study published this month put the international price tag on environmental damaged caused by human activity in 2008 at $6.6 trillion (4.7 trillion euros), or 11 percent of the global gross domestic product.
Companies say royalties would send up the price of medicine
Solid scientific data
In addition to new goals, the conference will also address the implementation of to a top-level panel to provide policymakers with scientific assessments of biodiversity - similar to those provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Called IPBES, or Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the institution would put a value on the Earth's species at the global and regional level.
IPBES' creation, however, came into doubt in September when developing nations pressed rich countries for payments for the use of genetic "patrimony."
Countries rich in diverse plant and animal species, including Brazil, India and Colombia, are seeking an agreement on access to their genetic assets, and have warned that this issue could be a deal-breaker for other issues at the talks.
They want a more equitable system for exploiting discoveries based on their native species or traditional medicines.
A protocol on access and benefit sharing could unlock billions of dollars in royalties for them, but pharmaceutical companies, agri-businesses and industrialised nations' governments are worried that new rules will increase costs and complicate procedures like patent applications.
Author: Sean Sinico (Reuters, AFP)
Editor: Nathan Witkop