The Convention on Biological Diversity

Sustaining Life on Earth

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How the Convention on Biological Diversity promotes nature and human well-being


2 - An Agreement for Action

While concern for the environment is constant in history, heightened concern about environmental destruction and loss of species and ecosystems in the seventies led to concerted action.

In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm) resolved to establish the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Governments signed a number of regional and international agreements to tackle specific issues, such as protecting wetlands and regulating the international trade in endangered species. These agreements, along with controls on toxic chemicals and pollution, have helped to slow the tide of destruction but have not reversed it. For example, an international ban and restrictions on the taking and selling of certain animals and plants have helped to reduce over-harvesting and poaching.

In addition, many endangered species survive in zoos and botanical gardens, and key ecosystems are preserved through the adoption of protective measures. However, these are stopgap actions. The long-term viability of species and ecosystems depends on their being free to evolve in natural conditions. This means that humans have to learn how to use biological resources in a way that minimizes their depletion. The challenge is to find economic policies that motivate conservation and sustainable use by creating financial incentives for those who would otherwise over-use or damage the resource.

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) concluded that economic development must become less ecologically destructive. In its landmark report, Our Common Future, it said that: "Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable-to ensure that it meets needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". It also called for "a new era of environmentally sound economic development".

A new philosophy

In 1992, the largest-ever meeting of world leaders took place at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. An historic set of agreements was signed at the "Earth Summit", including two binding agreements, the Convention on Climate Change, which targets industrial and other emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, and the Convention on Biological Diversity, the first global agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. The biodiversity treaty gained rapid and widespread acceptance. Over 150 governments signed the document at the Rio conference, and since then more than 187 countries have ratified the agreement.

The Convention has three main goals:

  • The conservation of biodiversity,
  • Sustainable use of the components of biodiversity, and
  • Sharing the benefits arising from the commercial and other utilization of genetic resources in a fair and equitable way

The Convention is comprehensive in its goals, and deals with an issue so vital to humanity's future, that it stands as a landmark in international law. It recognizes-for the first time-that the conservation of biological diversity 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. It 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 not infinite and sets out a new philosophy for the 21st century, that of sustainable use. While past conservation efforts were aimed at protecting particular species and habitats, the Convention recognizes that ecosystems, species and genes must be used for the benefit of humans. However, this should be done in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity.

The Convention also offers decision-makers guidance based on the precautionary principle that where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat. The Convention acknowledges that substantial investments are required to conserve biological diversity. It argues, however, that conservation will bring us significant environmental, economic and social benefits in return.

Some of the many issues dealt with under the Convention include:

  • Measures and incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.
  • Regulated access to genetic resources.
  • Access to and transfer of technology, including biotechnology.
  • Technical and scientific cooperation.
  • Impact assessment.
  • Education and public awareness.
  • Provision of financial resources.
  • National reporting on efforts to implement treaty commitments.