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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Belgian Presidency Conference: ''Biodiversity in a Changing World''

International Convention Centre Van Rysselberghedreef, Citadelpark

Ghent, 8-9 September 2010

Dear Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen

First I would like to thank the Belgian Presidency to organise this conference which take place at the right moment.

I'll start with one sentence which could replace this whole speech…to give you a flavour of the underlying philosophy of our post-2010 biodiversity policy:

"We can't afford to mess up…because a good planet is hard to find".

These aren't my words, but they are true ones. And to understand just how true they are, we have to think about one word above all others: change.

But what change? And what impact has this had on biodiversity?

Most of us know the answers to these questions. We know that changes brought about by us are taking their toll on biodiversity throughout the world. The third Global Biodiversity Outlook published in May tells us that this situation is showing no signs of changing. We definitely owe an apology to ecology.

And it is the usual suspects that are doing the damage. Maybe you don't want to hear them again…but this is a picture we simply cannot ignore.

Natural habitats are being carved up and destroyed by rapidly expanding urban areas, the extension of transport networks and the clearing of land to make way for agriculture. Pollution from multiple sources is degrading ecosystems. Our increasing need for the goods and services provided by nature is threatening species. The introduction of alien invasive plants and animals are having devastating impacts on native species. And then there is climate change, which is already affecting species and ecosystems and will continue to do so in the decades to come – with unpredictable and potentially devastating consequences.

In regions like Europe, centuries of population growth, urbanisation and rising income levels have significantly changed the natural environment. And although our population levels have more or less levelled out, we continue to consume about twice as much as our land and seas produce. And there are no signs of any change in this trend.

We live in the concentric circles of sophisticated global supply chains, which maintain our need and our love of resources. This means that we are increasingly dependent on the natural capital of other countries and continents. But theirs, like ours, is finite, and we Europeans are not alone in our dependence on the resources of others.

We are living on borrowed time - borrowed because we live in a world where the biggest changes are no longer taking place in the industrialised nations of Europe and America. They are taking place in the developing world. Rising income levels have pulled millions of people out of poverty. This is clearly a good thing. But there are unwelcome side effects, such as the rising ecological footprints in a growing number of countries. Our mistakes should not be repeated, but to be clear, they have all the right for better life. Both should be taken into account while searching for answers.

This situation of excess and dependence is clearly untenable in the long run. And we have already exceeded our planet's capacity to maintain our current consumption and production patterns.

Ladies and Gentlemen

What were you doing on 21 August this year? I was – like many of you I suspect – on holiday. Did you know, however, that according to the Global Footprint Network, the 21 August 2010 was a sad milestone? It was "Earth Overshoot Day": the day in which we exhausted the planet's ecological budget for the year. Every day since then, we are increasingly and ecologically overdrawn…we have overshot the planet's capacity to provide for us. We live – and as we know, many of our economies – , especially in these crisis times, on credit. And this credit will have to be paid once.

And because we are so far 'in the red', we urgently need to start seeing the loss of biodiversity for what it is: a fundamental indicator of the unsustainability of our societies.

This is not some kind of unfortunate and unavoidable collateral damage in our development process. Our natural environment can only be pushed so far. Once we exceed a certain point, we compromise our own well-being. The ecosystem "tipping points" that scientists speak of today are massive and real enough to be cause for global concern. Depleted fish stocks…global deforestation, from the Amazon to the Congo to Southeast Asia….the melting polar ice sea, the disappearance of the coral reefs upon which millions of people depend for their livelihoods. Are we really getting the message?

And in many ways, we are at a turning point right now: either we start to consider biodiversity conservation an integral and essential part of our future development, or we risk compromising our future altogether.

Well, it would be fair to say that the news isn't all bad. And there are signs that the 'winds of change' may be turning slightly in our favour. Because a few trends, at least, are positive.

The first is our increasing recognition of the economic value of nature’s assets. The TEEB study, which is led by one of today's speakers Pavan Sukhdev, is demonstrating the importance of valuing and putting the right price tag on natural capital. Only by doing this can we make sure that investments are directed at maintaining and enhancing rather than exploiting and destroying, natural capital.

The second, the recent international agreement reached in Busan, South Korea [which will hopefully find the support of the UN General Assembly when it meets in a few days], showed that an Intergovernmental science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services – like an IPCC but for biodiversity - should be set up. This is good news because we need solid, credible scientific information about biodiversity and ecosystem services not only to inform decision-making, but to make sure that we can integrate good biodiversity policies into other related areas.

The third positive sign of change is the increasing recognition of the links between biodiversity and climate change. We won't reach our climate change objectives if we fail to reach our biodiversity objectives – and vice-versa. Just as biodiversity is affected by climate change, biodiversity also affects the climate. Climate and biodiversity policies are in many ways two sides of the same coin. Understanding that our objectives in both policy areas are inter-related is a first step towards ensuring that the measures and actions we take deliver co-benefits for both.

Three reasons to be cheerful, I hope you agree.

Next month in Nagoya a new global strategic plan of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity is expected to be adopted. This plan should ensure that by 2020, biodiversity is conserved, used sustainably and that the benefits arising out of the use of genetic resources are shared fairly and equitably.

The draft of this strategic plan provides a framework of goals and targets that focus on addressing the most critical drivers of biodiversity loss, the most vulnerable ecosystems and species, and the most crucial measures required to ensure that biodiversity concerns are adequately integrated into other sectoral activities.

Over 190 countries are Party to the Convention. This means that once adopted, the strategic plan with its 20 targets will have almost universal scope. Scope is one thing, but to ensure near-universal coverage, however, the plan must be translated into the national strategies and action plans of all Parties to the Convention. This must begin as soon as possible.

The European Union is already a step ahead of the game. We are not immune to change and we have let ourselves be guided by those winds I mentioned a few moments ago

We started earlier this year, to mark the beginning of the International Year of Biodiversity; and adopted a new EU biodiversity target for 2020. Our target recognises that we need to do more than merely stop biodiversity loss. We need to go beyond that, and restore biodiversity and ecosystems to the furthest extent possible. This is the only way we will be able to not just improve the status of many species and prevent further extinctions. And, by the way, by restoring certain ecosystems, such as wetlands, we can also enhance our capacity, and that of other species, to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change.

And of course restoring ecosystems brings benefits beyond those directly tied to species conservation. There are clear opportunities to be had also from an economic and social perspective. I don't mean opportunities for those who think that the words "business" and "environment" only refer to the manufacturing or banking sectors. There is plenty of room for the environment in business.

For one, by restoring ecosystems we ensure that we and generations to follow can benefit from the goods and services that ecosystems provide in the decades to come. At the same time, by improving the status of biodiversity found on our land and in our seas, we can reduce our dependence on biodiversity and ecosystem goods and services from elsewhere. Ecosystem restoration and the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity will be a vital part of our strategy to direct Europe's economy onto a more resource-efficient path. This will also help us meet the commitment set out in our new target to step up our contribution to averting global biodiversity loss.

And, of course, ecosystem restoration can help us meet our climate change objectives, since many natural ecosystems help mitigate climate change and provide natural defences against its impacts.

In other words, ecosystem restoration is not a narrow sticking plaster on a niche problem. It can serve multiple objectives, and often in a much more cost-efficient manner than solutions offered by technology.

We are now developing our own EU strategy to allow us to reach our 2020 target. Evidently, the global strategic plan will also serve as inspiration, but this strategy needs to respond to our European context, just as other Parties to the Convention will implement the global strategy according to their national priorities and capacities.

And in Europe, it's all about 'change' again. Because several changes are underway in the European Union that offer real opportunities to make a new start for biodiversity policy in Europe – a new start that will put us on the right track towards reaching our 2020 target.

I'm talking about the upcoming reform of two crucial policies that have very significant implications for biodiversity: namely, the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. These are crucial both from the perspective of their impacts on biodiversity and as potential sources of financing for biodiversity conservation and restoration.

Advertisers and marketing executives are always telling us about 'once in a lifetime opportunities'. It has become a old cliché. But this really is one of those times. And it is essential that we seize it - by making sure that we develop and agree, together with the sectors concerned, sub-targets for biodiversity that are specific to their activities. These sub-targets shouldn’t be confined to our biodiversity strategy either; they should ideally be reflected in the revised policies themselves as part of their own objectives.

Whereas a few years ago, such an idea would probably have been unthinkable, today it is both realistic and achievable.

So what has changed?

I think the most fundamental change is the growing recognition that biodiversity is not just about protecting species; it is also about ensuring nature's capacity to deliver goods and services that we all need: farmers, fishermen, …you and I.

It is the recognition that these goods and services, although provided seemingly "for free", actually have economic value, and that losing them comes at a very high price – and that those same farmers, fishermen…all of us…will end up paying a price…perhaps the highest price of all.

That is precisely why I am confident that the changes underway in the EU represent a real opportunity to make a difference. We have to go beyond lip service and truly integrate biodiversity into other policies. I have already alluded to the contribution of biodiversity to climate mitigation and adaptation. We know that ecosystems can provide effective and relatively inexpensive solutions. Forests absorb carbon dioxide. Wetlands serve as natural flood regulators. Dunes and marshes can offer protection from storm surges. But to be effective, they need to be resilient.

So as part of the new EU biodiversity strategy, we will focus a specific sub-target on efforts to increase the resilience of ecosystems, prevent their further degradation and fragmentation, and restore them to the greatest extent possible. This will involve investing in natural capital or "Green Infrastructure" and understanding the spatial planning factors needed to conserve and enhance ecosystems to ensure the continued delivery of services.

Ladies and Gentlemen

I asked you before what you were doing in August this year…but now let me ask you to look forwards, not backwards.

What do you think will be the picture in ten year's time?

I seriously doubt that I will be Environment Commissioner! But I do know what I would like to see. I want to see that our 2020 targets have been met. If not, it will be a world with fewer species, world where we will be ever dependent on the ecosystem goods and services of others. It will mean that we have passed those tipping points with no way of going back. It will mean a bleak and dark future for this fragile planet of ours.

But this bleak vision is the very reason that this conference should send to Nagoya a message of hope and determination - a determination to build a future in which human societies and nature co-exist sustainably.

Because nothing is hopeless while we have hope…while we have life…and while have the will to change.

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