CAPE TOWN, South Africa, October 13, 2009 (ENS) – The world will not achieve its agreed target to stem biodiversity loss by next year, the International Year of Biodiversity, say experts in Cape Town for a science conference on the variety, abundance and conservation of plants and animals.

The target was agreed at a conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in April 2003. Some 123 world ministers committed to “achieve, by 2010, a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the local, national and regional levels, as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth.”

“We will certainly miss the target for reducing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 and therefore also miss the 2015 environmental targets within the UN Millennium Development Goals to improve health and livelihoods for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people,” says conference speaker Georgina Mace of Imperial College, London.

“Species extinction rates are at least 100 times those in pre-human times and are expected to continue to increase,” says Mace, vice-chair of the international DIVERSITAS program, opening its four-day Open Science Conference with 600 experts from around the world.

“It is hard to image a more important priority than protecting the ecosystem services underpinned by biodiversity,” says Mace, who develops criteria for listing species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and co-ordinating biodiversity inputs to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. “Biodiversity is fundamental to humans having food, fuel, clean water and a habitable climate. Yet changes to ecosystems and losses of biodiversity have continued to accelerate.”

All primates, all cetaceans whales and dolphins, all big cats such as leopards and tigers, all bears, all elephants, and all rhinoceroses are at risk as evidenced by their listing by the Cconvention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

In Cape Town, scientists will preview the release next year of a report by the UN Convention on Biodiversity called the Global Biodiversity Outlook, to include a major focus on catastrophic biodiversity “tipping points,” which complicate predictions. Such thresholds, if breached, will make global change impacts difficult to control, and slow and expensive to reverse.

“A great deal of awareness-raising is still much needed with respect to the planetary threat posed by the loss of so many species. The focus of biodiversity science today, though, is evolving from describing problems to policy relevant problem solving,” says Stanford University Professor Hal Mooney, who chairs DIVERSITAS.

“Experts are rising to the immense challenge, developing interdisciplinary, science-based solutions to the crisis while building new mechanisms to accelerate progress,” Mooney says. “Biodiversity scientists are becoming more engaged in policy debates.”

Since 1992, even the most conservative estimates agree that an area of tropical rainforest greater than the size of California has been converted mostly for food and fuel, but Mace says the situation is not hopeless.

“There are many steps available that would help but we cannot dawdle,” she says. “Meaningful action should have started years ago. The next best time is now.”

At the conference this week, scientists will advance planning to create a science-based global biodiversity observing system called GEO-BON to improve coverage and consistency in observations at ground level and via remote sensing.

GEO-BON head and DIVERSITAS vice-chair Professor Robert Scholes, says, “GEO-BON will help give us a comprehensive baseline against which scientists can track biodiversity trends and evaluate the status of everything from genes to ecosystem services.”

Others are creating an international mechanism to unify the voice of the biodiversity science community to better inform policy making, its function similar to that of the International Panel on Climate Change.

In Nairobi last week, environment ministers from around the world considered the creation of this body, called IPBES – the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – which would require UN General Assembly approval.

In Cape Town, biodiversity scientists will pool their knowledge in an attempt to stem the collapse of freshwater ecosystems. They warn that this “silent crisis” is making freshwater species “the most threatened on Earth.”

Massive mismanagement and growing human needs for water are driving freshwater species into extinction at rates four to six times higher than their terrestrial and marine cousins, according to conference experts.

Klement Tockner of the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin says that while freshwater ecosystems cover only 0.8 percent of the Earth’s surface, they contain roughly 10 percent of all animals, including more than 35 percent of all vertebrates.

“There is clear and growing scientific evidence that we are on the verge of a major freshwater biodiversity crisis,” says Tockner. “However, few are aware of the catastrophic decline in freshwater biodiversity at both local and global scale. Threats to freshwater biodiversity have now grown to a global scale.”

The problem puts billions of people at risk as biodiversity loss affects water purification, disease regulation, subsistence agriculture and fishing. Some experts predict that by 2025 not a single Chinese river will reach the sea except during floods, with tremendous effects for coastal fisheries in China.

Tockner says freshwater ecosystems and their species also absorb and bury about seven percent of the carbon humans add annually to the atmosphere, affecting regional carbon balances.

“Freshwater ecosystems will be the first victims of both climate change and rising demands on water supplies,” Tockner says. “And the pace of extinctions is quickening – especially in hot spot areas around the Mediterranean, in Central America, China and throughout Southeast Asia.”

A study published earlier this month shows that one-fifth of Mediterranean dragonflies and damselflies are threatened with extinction at the regional level as a result of increasing freshwater scarcity, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“It is likely things will only get worse for these unique species as climate change and increased water demand take their toll,” says Jean Pierre Boudot, member of the IUCN Dragonfly Specialist Group and co-author of the report.

Other conference presentations include assessments of the ecological and economic risks of the rising global trade in wildlife, many of which carry potentially harmful diseases. The United States alone imported almost 1.5 billion live animals between 2000 and 2006, experts say, with inadequate regard to the risks involved.

Scientist Peter Daszak of the Wildlife Trust, based in New York, says the emergence of new human diseases from wildlife such as HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola, and H5N1 bird flu is a threat to public health and conservation and also to the global economy.

Such deadly diseases impede wildlife conservation as pressure builds to eradicate reservoir populations and cause disruption to agriculture and trade, tourism and other key economies, he says.

“The single outbreak of SARS cost US$30-50 billion and a truly pandemic H5N1 avian flu outbreak would cost an estimated US$300-800 billion,” says Dr. Daszak.

He says disease emergence and spread can be predicted based on human environmental and demographic changes.

Other scientists will focus on biodiversity and climate change, exploring how biodiversity loss impacts rates of natural carbon sequestration and carbon cycling on land and in the ocean.

Scientists will warn that bioenergy and artificial carbon sequestration projects should be preceded by greater understanding of the environmental pressures these will create.

The conference will conclude with a plenary session, chaired by leading expert Lijbert Brussaard, of Wageningen University, The Netherlands, on ways to reconcile the competing Millennium Development Goals of protecting biodiversity, reducing world hunger and alleviating poverty.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.