Accounting for ecosystem services to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

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Photo Credit, Neil Palmer (CIAT) “The Páramo ecosystem of southwestern Colombia”

This post originally appeared on Sense & Sustainability on December 9, 2015.

When 193 world leaders gathered in New York this last September to agree on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, fittingly entitled “Transforming Our World“, the atmosphere was one of celebration and great optimism. After all, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (and 169 targets) that are included in the new Agenda have been developed under conditions that are much different from those that led to adoption of the Millennium Development Goals back in 2000, when the latter were criticized due to the absence of a clear action plan, lack of previously defined means of implementation and monitoring, and the largely arbitrary set of challenges they sought to address.

First of all, the comprehensive, far-reaching commitments enshrined in “Transforming Our World” logically required a huge amount of preliminary groundwork and behind-the-scenes bargaining that in turn allowed the draft agreement to be in place well in advance of the Sustainable Development Summit. In addition, the entire process was punctuated by increased emphasis on the urgency to mobilize the financial, institutional and technological resources needed to implement the SDGs and establish an effective monitoring framework, as shown by the inclusion of a specific goal concerned with the revitalization of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development (Goal 17), the endorsement of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development, and the colossal work on data and indicators that is being put forth by the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators. Finally, the SDGs themselves have the ambition to be indivisible, that is, to acknowledge that economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability can not to be pursued in isolation if mankind is to embark on a sustainable development trajectory; and universal, as the burden of their implementation (as well as the risks of a failure) will clearly fall upon the international community as a whole.

In this perspective, it is important for countries to set their priorities straight right from the outset, making sure that none of the goals is left behind even when geographical disparities and different capabilities will inevitably lead to uneven progress in their achievement. As a matter of fact, although some commentators have already argued that we shall only focus on those measures which will prove more cost-effective in the face of limited resources, the creation of fragmented pathways for the implementation of the SDGs would actually undermine the entire process, and the separation of social and environmental targets in particular would prove disastrous in the long-term.

The problem here is the same that led Goal 7 of the MDGs, which was tasked with ‘ensuring environmental sustainability’, to become one of the greatest failures of that agenda: it is way more difficult to convince governments and communities to invest in the protection of ecosystems and adopt policies that regulate the exploitation of natural resources than it is to tackle extreme poverty and advance human rights, where progress apparently yields more visible -and immediate- results.

Think of biological diversity, for example. Target 7.B of the MDGs explicitly recognized in 2000 that a surge in protected areas was needed to preserve ecosystems, species of flora and fauna that inhabit them, and their contribution to human societies. Yet that target, which the vast majority of countries had in the meantime pledged to achieve by 2010 by committing to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, still remains largely unmet. Should this be of some concern to us, if the meantime we lift people out of poverty and create more opportunities for developing countries?

The long-eluded answer to this question is a simple one: it should, because without halting biodiversity loss and safeguarding the integrity of the biosphere we actually won’t be able to do the latter. Indeed, while it is very common (and legitimate) to reduce the question of conservation to one of compassion towards living beings, our relationship with nature is one of (inter)dependence, not stewardship. Through their complex structure and functioning, ecological systems are in fact the building blocks upon which societies have developed since human beings first appeared. Discounting their value is a sure way for policy-makers to neglect the contribution of such systems to the well-being not just of future generations, but of present ones as well. In other words, it is due time we move towards a systematic accounting of ecosystem services and integrate it into national and local policies and processes.

This is not a new idea at all. Broadly defined as the direct and indirect benefits that ecological systems provide to humanity annually, ecosystem services have been conceptualized and assessed by researchers for several years now, even if there is still much to do in terms of refining methodologies and overcoming scientific uncertainty. In 1997, for instance, a seminal study led by ecological economist Robert Costanza estimated that US $33 trillion per year is the average value of these renewable goods and services (most of which are directly related to the role of living organisms within their ecosystem, such as nutrient cycling, pollination, biological control, food production, raw materials, genetic resources, and so on), and that figure was recently raised to US $125-145 trillion per year when Costanza used updated data to revise his own assessment. The same paper also hypothesized that the global loss of ecosystem services caused by land use change may already be costing somewhere between US $4.3-20.2 trillion/yr, depending on which unit values are used.

Yet, countries have so far been reluctant to incorporate this way of thinking into their development and poverty reduction strategies, planning processes, national accounting, and reporting systems, as mandated in 2010 by the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Even if some examples of local and national policies, whether resulting in the appointment of specific advisory bodies (like the UK Government’s Natural Capital Committee) or the establishment of partnerships with organizations and programs such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity initiative, indeed point in this direction, achieving the SDGs will necessarily require more than that, and will especially entail placing biodiversity into the mainstream framework for decision-making through an unprecedented focus on the role of data for sustainable development.

In order to do so, accounting for the flow of ecosystem services at the global, national, and local level must become a central concern for the implementation of Goals 14 and 15 of the new Agenda. Adopting Target 15.9, which essentially reiterates Target 2 of the Aichi Targets, was one first step. Making sure that the indicators proposed within the umbrella of the Inter-agency Expert Group keep track of the number of national plans and processes that integrate the values of biodiversity and ecosystems (although there was no agreement over this point during the latest meeting of the Group) will be another. The most important role, however, is going to be played by international platforms like the newly-established IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), which will be tasked with strengthening science-policy interfaces and building capacity for the effective use of science in decision-making at all relevant levels: without their contribution, and the necessary willingness on the part of countries to participate in such processes, renewable natural capital will continue to decline at an alarming rate, and the likely consequences for human well-being of are all but certain to be dire.

References

  • Costanza, R et al., ‘The Value of the World’s Ecosystems and Natural Capital’ 387 Nature 253
  • Costanza, R et al., ‘Changes in the Global Value of Ecosystem Services’ (2014) 26 Global Environmental Change 152
  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Current State and Trends (Washington DC: Island Press, 2005)

Statement on COP21 participation

Conférence des Nations Unies sur les changements climatiques - COP21 (Paris, Le Bourget)
Conférence des Nations Unies sur les changements climatiques – COP21 (Paris, Le Bourget)

The Paris Agreement is a done deal. Despite its foreseeable shortcomings, it is a global climate agreement that will shape transformational pathways of change for our economies and societies in the next decades and beyond. Every young individual around the world should read this text, or learn more about it from the excellent reviews that are already available online (one of my favorites here).

Personally, I am glad and honored to have spoken in a few side events at COP21 this past week to highlight issue of biodiversity conservation within the new climate change regime and to promote the active involvement of youth in the implementation of the climate agenda. I was also extremely pleased to attend the Global Landscapes Forum on December 5-6, which highlighted the many linkages that exist between ecosystems and climate change and showed the importance of building broad coalitions of governments, business, and civil society to address the challenges that landscapes are facing everywhere on our planet.

As the Project Leader for Solutions Initiatives at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network – Youth, I have come in contact with many young people from around the world whose brilliant and tireless work on climate change only awaits to be recognized and supported by institutions, experts, and investors at all relevant levels. In 2016, we will continue to streamline such work in every forum and to help them implement and scale their transformative ideas and solutions.

Senzanome1

#KnowYourGoals – A Campaign for the SDGs

Twitter_headerLast July 28th, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Youth Network announced ‪#‎KnowYourGoals‬ – a global campaign to bring awareness of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to communities all over the world!

In partnership with oikos and Project Everyone, #KnowYourGoals calls upon everyone – organisations and individuals – to host an event during the month of September.

The aim of these events will be to explore the SDGs and most importantly, WHY they are important. SDSN Youth will host the events on its website and provide you with all the resources you need to make your event a success!

Find out how you can participate by visiting http://www.sdsnyouth.org/knowyourgoals.

Comments on Goal 9 of the UNSDSN draft report Indicators for SDGs

An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development
SDSN Leadership Council, An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development (2013)

After the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network unveiled its Action Agenda for Sustainable Development in June 2013, suggesting ten operational priorities for the post-2015 development agenda and proposing 10 goals (the so-called Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs) with 30 associated targets to replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) , intensive work has been conducted by the 12 Thematic Groups in order to identify proper indicators to help monitor and assess progress in the implementation of those goals. The result of this process is Indicators for SDGs, a new draft report which “presents an integrated framework of 100 indicators within the framework of the goals and targets proposed by the SDSN”. Public consultation has been encouraged at all levels to improve the draft version, and the deadline for submitting comments extended to March 28, 2014. You can find the draft report here (but also tweet about it using #indicators2015).

In this broader context, University of Siena has decided to take part in the discussion, drawing up a document of suggestions and observations aimed at integrating the SDSN report, to which professors and researchers within the Ne.S.So. board all contributed according to their respective areas of interest, and to which I also participated with a set of proposals focused on possible indicators for Goal 9 (Secure Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity, and Ensure Good Management of Water, Oceans, Forests and Natural Resources). The comments I wrote were included with some modifications and cuts in the submitted form, as a result of the excellent assembly work completed by Prof. Simone Bastianoni and his group (Ecodynamics); nonetheless, I am pleased to share an extended version of my personal contribution (one that includes some background and a few explanations on the points made), as we all wait for the final version of ‘Indicators for SDGs’ which will hopefully take our proposals into account. Don’t forget, I look forward to hear from you about it.

1. Goal 9 of the SDGs

Within the proposed Sustainable Development Goals and Targets, Goal 9 is concerned with “securing ecosystem services and biodiversity, and ensuring good management of water, oceans, forest and natural resources”. If pursued effectively, this goal basically requires that “biodiversity, marine and terrestrial ecosystems of local, regional, and global significance are inventoried, managed, and monitored to ensure the continuation of resilient and adaptive life support systems and to support sustainable development”, in accordance with the Aichi Biodiversity targets. At the same time, it implies that “water and other natural resources are managed sustainably and transparently to support inclusive economic and human development”1.

Goal 9 is also partitioned in 3 separate but interconnected targets:

Target 9a) Ensure resilient and productive ecosystems by adopting policies and legislation that address drivers of ecosystem degradation, and requiring individuals, businesses and governments to pay the social cost of pollution and use of environmental services.*

Target 9b) Participate in and support regional and global arrangements to inventory, monitor, and protect biomes and environmental commons of regional and global significance and curb trans-boundary environmental harms, with robust systems in place no later than 2020.

Target 9c) All governments and businesses commit to the sustainable, integrated, and transparent management of water, agricultural land, forests, fisheries, mining, and hydrocarbon resources to support inclusive economic development and the achievement of all SDGs.*

As stressed by the Action Agenda for Sustainable Development, a specific goal devoted to the protection of biodiversity and ecosystem services it provides is justified by the fact that “ecosystems, such as rainforests, mangroves, coral reefs, wetlands, drylands, and grasslands underpin human life on Earth, through provisioning services (e.g. food, clean water, energy, medicines), regulating services (e.g. climate, air quality, pollination, coastal storm protection), support services (e.g. soil formation), and cultural services (e.g. educational, religious, tourism)”2, 3. Today, such ecosystems are almost everywhere experiencing processes of heavy degradation, caused by pollution, eutrophication, climate change, overharvesting of resources and so on, while biodiversity loss is occurring at an unprecedented rate in the history of life on earth; a profound modification in the management and governance of the way mankind interacts with these support systems is thus needed to ensure sustainable development challenges are met throughout the four traditional dimensions of this concept (see fig.1).

Fig.1: Contribution of Goal 9 of the SDGs to the four dimensions of sustainable development. Adapted from SDSN Leadership Council (2013) An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development

However, it is not to be forgotten that substantial linkages exist between Goal 9 and the other SDGs, and especially Goal 6 (Improve Agriculture Systems and Raise Rural Prosperity), Goal 7 (Empower Inclusive, Productive and Resilient Cities) and Goal 8 (Curb Human-Induced Climate Change and Ensure Sustainable Energy), which will also have to be put into action in order to achieve development within planetary boundaries and fully secure biodiversity and ecosystems, as a consequence. This is something I consider in my comments (see infra).

2. Indicators for Goal 94

The SDSN draft report on the indicators for the post-2015 development agenda proposes, inter alia, the following indicators:

– for Target 9a: Ocean Health Index at the national level (more info here), Red List Index by country and major species group (here), Protected Areas Overlays with Biodiversity (here), Area of Forest Under Sustainable Forest Management as a Percent of Forest Area (here). More indicators that apply to Target 9a are covered under other Targets, i.e. Annual change in forest area and land under cultivation (Target 6b), while additional tools are left for countries to consider, such as with regard to the implementation of spatial planning strategies for coastal and marine areas or the use of destructive fishing techniques.

– for Target 9bOcean Health Index at the regional level, Red List Index for internationally traded species, Proportion of Fish Stocks Within Safe Biological Limits (see here), Protected Area Overlays with Biodiversity (regional and global); additional indicators for countries may include Abundance of Invasive Alien Species and Area of Coral Reef Ecosystems and Percentage Live Cover.

– for Target 9c: Proportion of Total Water Resources Used, Publication of Resource-Based Contracts, Access to Land in Rural Areas, Publication of All Payments Made to Governments Under Resource Contracts; additional indicators may include Improved Land Ownership and Governance of Forests.

As my main areas of interest currently lie within the Targets 9a-b, my observations are mostly concerned with indicators provided for those two.

3. Comments on Goal 9
3.1 Factoring habitat loss in 

Fig.2: Global urbanization and biodiversity hotspots, 2025. Orange dots are population in millions, light/dark blue patterns are biodiversity hotspots.
Fig.2: Global urbanization and biodiversity hotspots, 2025. (projected) Orange dots are population in millions, light/dark blue patterns are biodiversity hotspots. Source: UN & Conservation International 2012

Habitat loss, mostly caused by agricultural expansion, urbanization and infrastructure development, today accounts for the primary cause of species extinction and thus of biodiversity loss5. In order to secure ecosystem services it is then vital to simultaneously track down the drivers of habitat destruction; while Target 6b already provides for and indicator of the Annual Change in Forest Area and Land Under Cultivation, there is no mention in the report of the need to monitor urban expansion and other infrastructure development, with the former “occurring fast in areas adjacent to biodiversity hotspot and faster in low-elevation, biodiversity-rich coastal zones than in other areas”6, with more than 60 percent of the area projected to be urban in 2030 that has yet to be built7 and the latter also representing a foremost threat for habitats,  migratory species and genetic diversity.

Such an indicator (i.e. Annual Change in Wild and/or Protected Habitats and Land Under Urban and Infrastructure Development) could be made object of disaggregation at the regional and national level to better cope with different geographical and demographic contexts (i.e. infrastructure development in developing countries might in some cases call for a specific attention to balancing human rights such as access to electricity, water supplies, sanitation etc. and conservation considerations).

3.2 Fighting Wildlife Crime to Protect Biodiversity 

The goal of securing ecosystem services through the adoption of policies that address drivers of ecosystem degradation could require a parallel commitmment to protect biodiversity and wildlife per se, in order to be fully effective. Today, wildlife crime within the international trade of endangered species still represents one of the key drivers of biodiversity loss, as does legal overharvesting, with the two respectively believed to be worth $160bn and from $10 to 20bn dollars in 20108; adopting the Red List Index as an indicator, while necessary to monitor the species’ biological status, does not monitor the implementation of policies to safeguard or improve that same status as well.

The development of specific indicators could then provide a direct measure of the level of compliance that exists within the international community: as a suggestion, they might include the Volume of Funds (in the forms of international aid, fraction of national budget, or support provided for IGOs such as INTERPOL) utilized by governments to fight wildlife crime and implement international policies, the Annual Variation in Seizures of illegal biological material and the Number of Reported Cases of IUU Fishing in the High-Seas. In addition, as biodiversity hotspots in developing countries are often threatened by armed conflicts9, Goal 9 could ‘borrow’ the symmetrical indicator presented for Goal 1 (Refugees and internal displacement caused by conflict and violence) in the form of an indicator that measures Populations Negatively Affected by Civil War and other forms of violence.

3.3. Assessing environmental change on a warming planet

Fig.3: Per Cent of Live Corals. Source: CBD (2010) Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, adapted from Butchart et. al (2010) Science
Fig.3: Per Cent of Live Corals. Source: CBD (2010) Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, adapted from Butchart et. al (2010) Science

The contribution of climate change to biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation is a matter of primary importance10, expected to threaten with extinction approximately one quarter or more of all species on land by the year 205011, yet almost impossible to quantify effectively, especially at the global level and on a limited timescale. Nonetheless, at the regional and national level, where impacts of warmer temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns etc. are usually heavily studied and monitored, the development of specific indicators could help better assess the relation between those two issues and determine the extent to which ecosystems get modified overtime.

As a suggestion, Shifts in Species Range and/or Trophic Level (with a special focus on keystone species and, in general, on target species for which higher-quality data and assessment methods exist) caused by modifications endured by the food web or by other forms of environmental change attributable to climatic variations (i.e. coral bleaching events, widespread mortality, effects upon shell-forming organisms12) alone or in conjunction with other drivers, could provide the basis for such and indicator13.

3.4. Monitoring sustainability in global fisheries

Fig.3: Proportion of Fish Stocks Within Safe Biological Limits. Source: FAO 2013
Fig.4: Proportion of Fish Stocks Within Safe Biological Limits. Source: FAO 2013

Indicator 83, which refers to the Proportion of Fish Stocks that are Within Safe Biological Limits, could be integrated through an evaluation of the Proportion of Fish Captures (out of the amount of total catches) that come from Sustainably Managed Stocks and/or Stocks that are Within Safe Biological Limits, to monitor the impact of sustainable practices/fisheries on global fisheries production (and not just biological status by itself). Additional indicators on the subject could include the Temporal Variation in Capacity-Enhancing Subsidies (that is, public subsidies of all forms that enhance vessels’  capacity to catch fish) destined to the fisheries sector, which amounted to 20bn dollars in 200914, a measurement of the Decline of Keystone Species caused by overfishing (also a cause of ecosystems degradation) and the Proportion of Seafood Converted into Fishmeal for Aquaculture out of global catches. The last indicator could be particularly needed in the future, as the worldwide increase in the production of carnivorous species has determined an increased use of fishmeal, fish oil and low-value fish in aquaculture15 which in turn results in increased pressure on targeted stocks and entails a net-loss in the amount of seafood available for human consumption.

It is to be noted that the portion of capture fisheries used to produce fishmeal will be about 17 percent by 202116, declining by 6 percent compared with the 2009–2011 average owing to the growing demand for fish for human consumption. However, in 2021 fishmeal production should be 15 percent higher compared with the 2009–2011 average16 (though almost 87 percent of the increase will derive from improved use of fish waste), a rise which causes further concerns on the sustainability of a supply chain that is already facing a dramatic decline of global fish stocks.

*****

On March 14, Thematic Group 8 of the SDSN (Forests, Oceans, Biodiversity, and Ecosystem Services) has launched a public consultation on its first draft report. The deadline has been set for April 14; you can find out more and read the current version here.

_______________

* Targets marked need to be specified at country or sub-national level
1 SDSN Leadership Council (2013) An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development; p.31
2 SDSN Leadership Council, ibid.; p.21
3 See the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment for more details
4 SDSN Leadership Council (2014) Indicators for SDGs draft report; pp. 110-121
5 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) Ecosystems and Human Well Being: The Biodiversity Synthesis (World Resources Institute, Washington DC); p.10
6 Elmqvist et al. (eds.) (2013) Urbanization, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: Challenges and Opportunities: A Global Assessment; p.2
7 Elmqvist et al. (eds.) (2013) ibid.; p.410
8 cited by Gillespie (2011) Conservation, Biodiversity and International Law (Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.); p.196
9 Hanson et al. (2009) Warfare in Biodiversity Hotspots (Conservation Biology. Vol 23, Issue 3); pp.578-587
10 for a general overview see CBD (2010) Global Biodiversity Outlook 3; pp.8-13
11 Malcolm et al. (2006) Global Warming and Extinctions of Endemic Species from Biodiversity Hotspots (Conserv Biol. Vol 20, Issue 2); pp.538–548
12 IPCC (2007) Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (Cambridge University Press)
13 For an example of linkages between climate change and alteration in the food web, see Bond and Lavers (2014) Climate change alters the trophic niche of a declining apex marine predator (Glob Change Biol, unedited)
14 Sumaila et al. (2010) A bottom-up re-estimation of global fisheries subsidies (Journal of Bioeconomics 12); pp.201-225
15 Rana et al. (2009) Impact of rising feed prices on aquafeeds and aquaculture production (FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper No. 541. Rome, FAO)
16 FAO (2012) The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2012; p.189

Europe’s woes? Look in the mirror

by Dario Piselli, Greening USiena coordinator

As we anticipated a few days ago, I (acting as the coordinator of Greening USiena) participated to a public meeting with European Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potočnik last friday. The initiative, which took place at Stazione Leopolda in Pisa, focused on the challenge of achieving a sustainable use of resources within the European Union, and was aimed (like other similar events that occurred in Naples, Rome and Turin) at encouraging a mutual conversation between EU institutions, citizens, students and associations of the member states on different issues which are seen as key ones for the future of Europe.

Several topics were touched during the 2-hour debate, such as the need to abandon our current model of development if we are to meet the challenge of a sustainable society, the shortcomings of the industrial production of goods (including the urgency for longer life-cycles, better waste disposal and so on), the relationship between EU environmental policies and global sustainable development, green chemistry, rural areas’ role in globalization and, obviously, the short circuit that exists between the ongoing economic crisis, green investments and the protection of ecosystems. There was, however, a far-reaching (yet underrated) hurdle which kept recurring through all the talks, as it did not consist in a conceptual issue, but rather in a methodological one: the negative impact of member states’ positions on Europe’s environmental legislation.

Indeed, while on one hand the meeting was falsely reassuring (in the way that all such initiatives are, provided that their goal is to 546022_238983459580236_1944687831_ninject public opinion with some sort of confidence towards european institutions’ pursuit of common good, despite the fact that they usually involve simple Q&A sessions), on the other it looked extremely helpful and effective in stressing how sometimes (thanks in part to the ongoing economic crisis) we end up misrepresenting the sources of Europe’s recent (and endemic) woes. In other words, as Mr. Potočnik put it (and as we often seem to forget), the European Commission’s role merely consists of proposing legislation, not adopting it, the latter being a power that pertains to the Council of the Ministers and, sometimes, to the Parliament. So, if we are to find a guilty, maybe we should start cleaning up our own houses by thinking to how member states (i.e. our native countries!) have long mismanaged the opportunities that the EU membership gave them and to how they are now blocking crucial progress on several environmental issues in the name of parochial interests.

Examples of this behavior, some of which surfaced during the meeting, are countless: from Italy’s chronic delay in the implementation European directives (such as in the case of common waste treatment’s rules) to UK’s veto on a recent proposal which aimed at banning the agricultural use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been proven lethal to bees population, going through the ferocious battle that continues to surround the debate on Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy‘s reforms, Europe’s fading influence on international climate change talks (not to mention its failing Emission Trading Scheme)  and, last but not the least, a general lack of willingness to encompass sustainability policies into economic development as a way of changing a seemingly rock-solid paradigm of growth.

I am not going to comment in deep on those matters, since it will probably take more than an op-ed to do so, but nevertheless I believe that the given picture portrays the nature of the problem quite well: the Commission, which here and there has tried to do its best on4537287107_6d29c904a7_b many pressing issues (historically, it even was one the first institutions to be vocal about the shortcoming of Western model of development), has basically no power if member states decide to dodge reasoned arguments and embrace domestic interests instead. This is why very good reform proposals are constantly watered down when they reach the Council, and this is also why -in Mr. Potočnik’s words- Commissioners must usually avoid adopting bold commitments when they know that such measures will surely be rejected by a sufficient number of countries: considering that every state has its multitude of lobbies (most of which are enterprises that receive EU subsidies but don’t want to invest in sustainable practices in return), domestic interests, political gains to make, it is easy to see that environmental regulations come at a heavy cost most of the times.

In the end, if we want to address Europe’s woes (not only in the environmental field) we must realize that the Union is strong as long as its member states are credible, implement environmentally-sound national policies and then brandish them in order to lead on the international level. That is, we must look in the mirror and ask ourselves why ‘green’ governments which do so are nowhere to be found.

A look at CITES’ procedures and effectivity

by Dario Piselli, Greening USiena coordinator

Since one of the most incendiary CITES meeting ever has wrapped up in Bangkok earlier this week, an in-depth look is needed in order to have a clear picture of how the conservation measures adopted by the Plenary could influence the international trade of those species that have been driven on the brink of extinction by their economic value and to better understand if the Convention’s procedure for listing really helps science-based arguments prevail over special interests. This is not merely a ‘policy’ issue, but rather an environmental one, since CITES’ positions reflect the stance of the entire international community coming down to the very survival of endangered species and given that a better implementation mechanism could achieve dramatic success and prevent an excessive exploitation of earth’s natural resources and biodiversity. As it happens with other intergovernmental bodies and conventions, in fact, control over the implementation of undertaken measures is the more difficult part to address in the whole process, especially considering that it is alternatively conducted at the national level (thus providing the means for unwilling countries to ‘escape’ commitments), too undetermined and ‘international’ (thus requiring mutual agreements between the involved States) or even almost impossible to monitor due to intrinsic reasons (think of high-seas and IUU -illegal, unreported, unregulated- fishing, for instance).

Before starting to address CITES’ procedures and the enforcement of its conditions, however, I should provide readers with a basic framework of the treaty’s operation, as well as with a few data on the international wildlife trade total volume and its impact on biodiversity and the environment.

In 2009, the estimated global imports value was over USD323 billion, and this figure excludes the vast and unregulated market of china-internet-wildlife-crackdownillegal wildlife trade, which -according to multiple sources- accounts for several billion dollars as well1. Wildlife trade, even the one that takes place within national borders, finds its primarymotivating factor in profit, ranging from local and small-scale activities (in the Fiji, those involved in the collection of marine specimens can expect a monthly income of USD452, compared to an average wage of USD502) to multinational companies and smugglers, and is driven by the global demand of food, healthcare (and not just traditional medicine), clothing, sport trophies, fuel, building materials and so on. In other words, there is good possibility everyone of us is involved in at least one aspect of the international wildlife trade (think of the timber used to make your floor or roof, which also has a 30% chance of coming from illegal logging3), most of the time without even knowing about it.

Given the size of wildlife products’ global market, it almost sounds obvious to say that wildlife trade accounts for a big part of the loss of world’s biodiversity, sometimes making pair with climate change, habitat loss and pollution. This kind of loss is not only threatening the survival of endangered species (which, if seen on moral grounds, could be a concern itself), but also putting food security and the income means of poor countries in jeopardy, as well as contributing to the environmental crisis (by both altering the ecosystems’ equilibria and using unsustainable methods to collect wildlife) and stealing natural resources’ sovereignty.

The Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) is an international treaty which was originally signed in 1973 to take a strong, worldwide stand against wildlife over-exploitation. In many ways, it can be said that it has achieved moderate success in the protection of world’s most endangered animals and plants but, on the other hand, fallacies are still present in its listing procedure and in the enactment process, and it is those fallacies that need to be addressed in order to improve the conservation status of many species which have seen their numbers shrink, almost to the point of extinction, in the last few years.

CITES operates by inserting endangered wildlife in the treaty’s three appendices, which amount to different protection levels; today I am jaglogabout to discuss the first two of them. Appendix I encompasses “all species threatened with extinction which are or may be affected by trade” (about 1200), including jaguars (panthera onca), tigers (panthera tigris), many species of whales, primates, birds and so on; for these plants and animals, international trade can be authorized just for non-commercial purposes, where the term ‘authorization’ refers to the possession of export and import permits granted by Scientific and Management Authorities of the involved states. Trade in the Appendix II species has to obey to much less stringent rules instead, as commercial purposes are permissible and an import certificate is not required; this appendix shall include “all species which although not necessarily now threatened with extinction can become so unless trade in specimens of such species is subject to strict regulation in order to avoid utilization incompatible with survival”4.

That said, it is relatively easy to understand why, without a a science-based listing procedure and a sound, national monitoring over the implementation of trade restrictions, inserting a species into one of the treaty’s appendices can be largely irrelevant, especially in those cases where the interaction of habitat loss and poaching(i.e.: tigers or rhinoceros are still critically endangered despite being listed in the Appendix I) or a single country’s bias (i.e.: China and Japan’s behavior towards shark and whale conservation ismanta_gillsinfluenced by the economic value of their market) represent insurmountable obstacles to international law and its implementation. The Bangkok meetinghaving been incensed for the inclusion of five sharks species, manta rays and some hardwood trees species in CITES’ Appendix II, public opinion and governments should be aware that its landmark votes are just the beginning of a path, and not the final result of the protection process, which needs to be strictly overseen and assisted by seizures, sanctions, national policies and transnational anti-crime operations in order to be effective. Looking at the global picture, and considering that a) up to 100 million sharks get killed each year5, b) around 3,300 manta rays endure the same destiny (primarily for their gill rakers)and c) as I noted earlier, 30% of world timber imports is likely to come from illegal logging, effectivity is definitely the key word in this field.

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TRAFFIC, http://www.traffic.org/trade/
TRAFFIC, Dispatches No.23, February 2005, p.4
UNEP, Green Carbon: Black Trade Report
CITES, Convention Text
Boris Worm et al., Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks(2012)
Damian Carrington, Manta Rays: how illegal trade eats is own lunch (The Guardian, 05.03.2013)

Other references

T.Gehring and E.Ruffing – When Arguments Prevail Over Power: The CITES Procedure for the Listing of Endangered Species (2008)

Bowman, Davies, Redgwell – Lyster’s International Wildlife Law (2010)