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Saving biodiversity

April 24, 2009

Environment ministers from the G8 industrialized nations and developing economies sealed a deal Friday to slow species loss around the world. But the countries failed to make headway on climate change negotiations.

A lowland gorilla in Congo
A charter was signed pledging to tackle deforestation and illegal wildlife tradeImage: AP

Saving the world's biodiversity and agreeing on a way forward on climate change negotiations had topped the agenda at the three-day international environment meeting in Syracuse, Italy. But ministers attending were only able to tick one of those boxes.

An elusive global warming pact still looks unlikely anytime before a UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December, when it is hoped a global strategy for the post-Kyoto Protocol era can be laid down.

G8 industrial countries and major developing economies meeting on the island of Sicily signed a charter pledging to tackle deforestation, curb illegal trade in wildlife and boost research into the rate of species loss.

Extinction rates are currently running at around 1,000 times their natural pace, with three species vanishing every hour, according to UN statistics.

Time running out

Achim Steiner
Achim Steiner was unconvinced leaving the Syracuse meetingImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"We set objectives on biodiversity for 2010 ... but unfortunately we have all recognized they have not been met," said Italian Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo, who hosted the summit.

"We are all convinced of the urgency ... of intervening to safeguard our biodiversity," she said.

The head of the UN Environment Program, Achim Steiner, said several significant hurdles still needed ironing out. These included setting targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and financing the greening of developing countries.

Key nations, he said, are coming to the realization that time is running out ahead of the UN talks in Copenhagen.

"I leave Syracuse very much concerned that there is no clear pathway to resolving the gaps that remain," he said.

Details please

Kim Carstensen, director of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Global Climate Initiative, said after the meeting that the charter on curbing biodiversity loss sends out a clear message on the importance of biodiversity, but was lacking in details.

"It's a political signal of a will that is higher than I think we've seen before at this level, and that I think is positive," he said. "But in terms of actual implementation, it's not at all at the level of an action plan, or funded, which would also be nice. And which would be needed as a next step going forward.

He remarked that ministers’ agreement that action to move toward a low carbon economy was needed now rather than later could be an important signal for the coming talks in Copenhagen.

Differences of opinion

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, meets with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao
Developed and emerging economies will both need to come to the tableImage: AP

The G8 grouping of rich nations, along with emerging economies such as China, Brazil and India, agreed at the meeting that climate change and species extinction were linked, and emphasized the economic value of preserving biodiversity.

But the game of chicken between industrialized and developing nations over who should foot the bill for plans to mitigate or even reverse climate change looks unlikely to end. Carstensen said big differences remained on financing technological improvements and meeting targeted emissions cuts.

"We need countries like Japan, Canada, Russia and the US to come out and say what exactly is it that we want to contribute," he said.

"We need to see a stronger and more articulated political will on the side of developed countries to move this really forward."

Reimund Schwarze, head of climate change policy at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, said emerging economies like China will have to make sacrifices too.

"China not only has to move ahead, it has to accept the fact that in the very long run they will be in the role of giving financial aid to other countries," he said.

The leaders of 16 major economies are due to meet in Washington on Monday for further talks aimed at generating political leadership for the end-of-year UN climate change meeting in Denmark.

Environmentalists will hope, by then, that both developed and developing countries will be ready to back up their intentions with concrete actions.

Author: Darren Mara

Editor: Kyle James