Today, Saturday 29th December, is the 20th anniversary of the coming into force of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This anniversary is not generally commemorated, as the UN prefer to promote International Day for Biodiversity on 22 May instead each year. Nonetheless, it’s instructive to use today to remember that the international diplomatic process has been in train for two decades, and to consider its effectiveness.
The 20 years of the Convention has seen biodiversity depletion continue unabated, and although there have been numerous individual success stories and some signs of hope, the general trend remains the same : a steady slide towards an Eremozoic future. Those binding decisions which have been agreed by the Convention conferences have been disappointing in scope, and meaningful global agreements which might seriously tackle the biodiversity crisis have been elusive. From that point of view, the CBD has failed.
In its favour, the Convention has been an important focus of international awareness, and does at least put the issue of biodiversity conservation on the diplomatic agenda – the intention is there, in black-and-white, in the text of the Convention. Furthermore, the CBD has spawned various targets which set out measurable goals for “biodiversity indicators“, although I don’t see most of them being met; as biodiversity continues to be ravaged, it’s arguably a good thing to have the UN admitting, in terms of definite criteria, that it’s happening, and that governments are incapable of implementing their own plans to tackle it. At least that would reinforce the urgency of the problem, and the scale of change required.
The frustration remains that the convoluted process of conferences, protocols, targets and so on are, in the main, failing to do the job. There is a strong impression that, although the CBD is legally binding, it is not taken as seriously as certain other UN Conventions when it comes to compliance. There is also the notable omission of the USA on the list of ratifying nations, which otherwise includes nearly every territory on earth. It says something about how seriously the most powerful country on the planet takes the CBD process when it consistently refuses to ratify and implement it.
US President Barack Obama has a reputation for being relatively sympathetic to environmental concerns – not difficult considering his predecessors! He has been honoured by having several new species named after him during 2012, including a darter fish, Etheostoma obama, a californian trapdoor spider, Aptostichus barackobamai, and an extinct lizard, Obamadon gracilis (which didn’t survive the previous mass extinction 65million years ago); he’s also previously had a lichen, Caloplaca obamae, named after him.
These species will, naturally, be unaware of their link to the most powerful politician on earth (and Obamadon gracilis, of course, is now, forever unaware of anything). The taxonomists who chose the names surely did so, at least in part, with the intention of attracting attention and awareness of their new discoveries (not least from the US political establishment itself). We don’t know how these newly discovered “Obama species” will fare over the next 20 years of the CBD; but, in common with the less-glamorously named majority of species, they’re likely to need all the good fortune they can get. A more meaningful badge of conservation committment for Obama than these cute namings would be to prioritise persuading the US Senate and Congress to ratify the CBD, and then, crucially, to start to make that mean something.