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Will the Proposed Solutions Achieve Sustainable Scale?

Existing Treaties A Good Start
The three main international treaties dealing with the issue are important steps in protecting biodiversity. They are:

The Convention on Biological Diversity
This Convention is a legally binding agreement for the more than 175 nations that ratified it since 1992. It is the first global agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and has three main goals:
  1. The conservation of biodiversity
  2. Sustainable use of the components of biodiversity
  3. Sharing the benefits arising from the commercial and other utilization of genetic resources in a fair and equitable way.
Many Strong Points
The Convention stands as a landmark in international law, formally recognizing that the conservation of biodiversity is “a common concern of humankind” and is an integral part of the development process. The agreement covers all ecosystems, species, and genetic resources. It links traditional conservation efforts to the economic goal of using biological resources sustainably. It sets principles for the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources, notably those destined for commercial use. 
The Convertion also covers the rapidly expanding field of biotechnology, addressing technology development and transfer, benefit-sharing and biosafety. Importantly, the Convention is legally binding; countries that join it are obliged to implement its provisions.

The Convention reminds decision-makers that natural resources are finite and sets out a sustainable use philosophy for the 21st century. Past conservation efforts were aimed at protecting particular species and habitats. The Convention recognizes that ecosystems, species and genes must all be used for the benefit of humans, and in a way that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity.

The Convention also formally establishes the importance of the precautionary principle and acknowledges that substantial national and international investments are required to conserve biological diversity. It also acknowledges that conservation will bring us significant environmental, economic and social benefits.

The Convention has accomplished a great deal by reshaping the international community’s approach to biodiversity.  It is an approach characterized by:

It has brought together, for the first time, people with very different and wide-ranging interests.

The Convention’s success depends on the combined efforts of the world’s nations. The responsibility to implement the Convention lies with the individual countries and, to a large extent, compliance will depend on informed self-interest and peer pressure from other countries and from civil society.
The Convention has created a global forum under the auspices of the Convention’s ultimate authority, the Conference of the Parties (COP). This governing body reviews progress under the Convention, identifies new priorities, and sets work plans for members. The COP can make amendments to the Convention, create expert advisory bodies, review progress reports by member nations, and collaborate with other international organizations and agreements.

Some Weak Points
Many challenges still lie ahead. After a surge of interest in the wake of the Rio Summit where the Convention was proclaimed, progress has been slow. Attention to environmental problems was distracted by a series of economic crises, budget deficits, and local and regional conflicts.
Despite the promise of Rio, economic growth without adequate environmental safeguards is still the rule rather than the exception. The rate of species extinction and endangerment continues to rise.

Some of the major challenges to implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity and promoting sustainable development are:

The big question is whether the protection of biodiversity generated by the Convention can happen quickly enough to overcome the increasing losses. Strengthening the Convention with additional resources, and acting on the inherent contradiction between continued economic growth and biodiversity loss are essential to closing the gap between the gains and losses.

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The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora   
This is the oldest of the treaties on biodiversity, having come into force in 1975.  It seeks to protect some 30,000 species involved in international trade, and has the support of most countries. 
Various national governments have enacted legislation to protect designated species within their borders, and to date there has not been a single designated species that has gone extinct. 
The task is to extend this level of protection to species that do not have obvious commercial value, but which may nevertheless provide critical life support services for humans or other species.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
This Protocol is a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity and came into force September 2003, with ratification from 50 countries. This Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from potential risks that may be posed by living modified organisms (LMOs, also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs), resulting from modern biotechnology.

Many Strong Points
The protocol establishes transparency and an advance informed agreement procedure for ensuring that countries accepting shipments of LMOs are provided with prior written notification and information necessary to make informed decisions before agreeing to the first import of LMOs that are to be intentionally introduced into the environment. Those shipments will have to be identified in accompanying documentation as LMOs with specification of the organisms’ identity and characteristics and with a declaration that “the movement is in conformity with the requirements of the Protocol.” Shipments of LMO commodities intended for direct use for food, feed or processing will have to be identified in accompanying documentation as “may contain” LMOs and as “not intended for intentional introduction into the environment.”

The Protocol deals primarily with GMOs that are to be intentionally introduced into the environment, such as seeds, trees or fish, and with genetically modified farm commodities, such as corn and grain used for food, animal feed or processing.
The Biosafety Protocol clearly recognizes that genetically modified organisms “are different and therefore require a different treatment;” it requires global regulation to prevent contamination of conventional seeds and organisms.  This position supports the approach advocated by the European Union and is in direct contradiction to policies held by some countries, such as the United States, which hold that GMOs are not different from the conventional plants and animals from which they are derived.

Some Weak Points
The international notification system under the Protocol does not replace national biosafety legislation, and stricter national legislation regarding biosafety is still needed in the countries that support the Protocol.  Many countries have still not joined, and some, such as the United States, continue to oppose the Protocol through their support of free trade in biotechnology.  The United States also opposes GMO labeling making it difficult for consumers to make informed choices.
The Protocol focuses on the intentional introduction of GMO material, leaving a loophole for the unintentional introduction of such materials.  Once introduced, the results are unpredictable and difficult if not impossible to reverse; and could open the door to further intentional transfers. Stronger measures to prevent unintended transfers, with stiff penalties for violations, would provide greater biosafety protection.
Sustainable Scale Doubtful Even with Treaties
Despite the many strong points of the existing treaties, it is doubtful whether they will achieve sustainable scale. As is the case with many environmental treaties, these are voluntary and lack meaningful enforcement mechanisms.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has resulted in several countries passing legislation protecting species within their borders, criminalizing violations of the treaty.  However, this is far from universal. 
Perhaps even more important is the fact that none of these treaties sets out clear goals in terms of reducing biodiversity loss. The Protocol on Biosafety, which seeks to protect biodiversity from the potential risks of living modified organisms, is particularly at risk, as large corporations continue to promote genetically modified organisms. 
Various governments, including the United States, do not support the Protocol and few nations have enacted legislation strict enough to effectively enforce it. (See Quick Facts for a brief description of some of the continuing failures of these treaties).
The fact is that biodiversity loss is continuing to occur, and the rate of loss is not declining.  More and more species are becoming at risk, and few are being removed from the endangered list.  The key obstacle to these treaties being more effective is the dominance of economic growth over almost all other considerations.
As some studies shows (see Scale Problem), there is an inherent contradiction between economic growth and protecting biodiversity.  This contradiction pits an artificial cultural “necessity" (economic growth) against a real biological necessity (biodiversity), where the physical size of the former threatens the sustainability of the latter. The self-harm that is an inevitable result of allowing economic growth to continue as it has in the past is not yet fully appreciated. Fortunately there are a variety of solutions available to this dilemma (see Additional Solutions and Attractive Solutions).

Selected Reading

1The Convention on Biodiverisity
Convention Text. United Nations Environment Programme.
2The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
Text of the Convention. CITES Secretariat.
3Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
Text of Protocol. United Nations Environment Programme.

Daly, Herman & K. Townsend (eds.). Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Pimm, Stuart et al. “The Future of Biodiversity.” Science New Series, 296.5222 (21 July 1995): 347-350.

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