May 30, 2012

Protecting Our Greatest Asset: Ratifying the Convention on Biological Diversity

a(broad) perspective

Today’s post, co-authored by CPR Member Scholar Sandra Zellmer  and Policy Analyst Yee Huang, is the fourth in a series on a recent CPR white paper, Reclaiming Global Environmental Leadership: Why the United States Should Ratify Ten Pending Environmental Treaties. Each month, this series will discuss one of these ten treaties. Previous posts are here.

Convention on Biological Diversity
Adopted and Opened for Signature on June 5, 1992
Entered into Force on December 29, 1993
Number of Parties: 193
Signed by the United States on June 4, 1993
Sent to the Senate on November 20, 1993
Reported favorably by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 29, 1994

Biodiversity is the range of variations in all forms of life, from the genetic level to the species level to the ecosystem level. This diversity of life sustains all processes on the planet, built up over the several billion years of the planet's existence. It has intrinsic as well as aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual values, and an economic value too. The diversity of plants and animals has contributed to more nutritious diets, an increased human lifespan, and treating treatable illnesses. Economists estimate that humans derive trillions of dollars’ worth of ecosystem services such as water retention and filtration from wetlands, air purification from trees, and agricultural productivity from healthy soils. Losing biodiversity means a devastating loss for current and future generations.

At present, 60 percent of the world’s ecosystem services are being degraded or over-exploited. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the situation “could grow significantly worse during the first half of this century.” To combat the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, conservation strategies at the local or national level are nowhere near sufficient. It’s a global problem, and international partnerships are essential to addressing it.

By the mid-1980s, the need for broad international cooperation to safeguard the biodiversity of all animal and plant species and their habitats had become apparent. The United States led the effort to get the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) off the ground and into the diplomatic arena. For nearly a decade, the United States continued to work in support of the CBD through several different administrations of both political parties.

The three primary objectives of the CBD are to conserve biodiversity, to use biodiversity in sustainable ways, and to access and share the benefits (such as new pharmaceuticals) from biological resources. The CBD strives to meet these goals by having the parties to the treaty integrate conservation and sustainable use into their decision-making processes to avoid or at least minimize adverse impacts to biodiversity. Parties retain discretion in determining how to do this, and the CBD explicitly states that they should use “customary and local efforts as appropriate.”

The CBD was opened for signature at the 1992 Conference on Environment and Development. The Secretary General of the United Nations identified the CBD as one of 25 core treaties “most central to the spirit and goals of the Charter of the United Nations.” Today, more than 190 nations have signed and ratified the CBD—almost every country in the world. The United States is one of only three countries that is not a full party to the treaty, and the only one to sign the treaty but not ratify it.  The United States signed the treaty in June 1993, and it was sent to the Senate for its advice and consent in November 1993, as the Constitution requires. Although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended Senate approval of ratification by a bipartisan vote of 16-3, the full Senate has never acted on the CBD.

Ratification would put the United States in a better position to help strengthen the laws and policies of biodiverse regions and would give it a seat at the table for negotiations at upcoming Conferences of the Parties.  The United States would also protect its own biodiversity by participating in international actions to protect the marine environment, control invasive species, mitigate and adapt to climate change, and coordinate enforcement efforts against biopiracy, poaching, and illegal habitat destruction. While ratification would create an incentive for the United States to fortify and synthesize its own domestic biodiversity-related programs, it would require no new federal laws.

One of the most powerful arguments for embracing the CBD’s conservation objectives was stated succinctly by Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson: “Useful products cannot be harvested from extinct species.” The Obama Administration should prioritize the CBD as a key treaty requiring immediate ratification. In turn, the Senate should act quickly to provide its consent.

Sandra Zellmer, CPR Member Scholar; Robert Daugherty Prof. of Law, University of Nebraska College of Law. Bio.

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