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'We Are Destroying Life on Earth,' UN Conference Claims

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A recent U.N. biodiversity study said global environmental damage caused by human activity in 2008 totaled $6.6 trillion. (UNEP)

A U.N. biodiversity conference aims to address a simple problem: "We are destroying life on Earth," said the head of the U.N. Environment Program.

The world cannot afford to allow nature's riches to disappear, the United Nations said on Monday at the start of a major meeting to combat losses in animal and plant species that underpin livelihoods and economies. The U.N. cited the worst extinction rate since the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago, saying it's a crisis that needs to be addressed by governments, businesses and communities.

A U.N.-backed study this month said global environmental damage caused by human activity in 2008 totaled $6.6 trillion, equivalent to 11 percent of global gross domestic product.

Despite the U.N.'s fear that biodiversity may be at risk, scientists over the past decade have identified new species at an unprecedented rate. The 2008 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study First Contact in the Greater Mekong reported that 1,068 species were discovered or newly identified by science between 1997 and 2007 -- averaging two new species a week. And the Census of Marine Life -- an ambitious, 10-year project to catalog the diversity of the world's oceans -- recently concluded, having identified more than 6,000 potentially new ocean-going species. 

Scientists have a growing understanding of the wealth of life on Earth, and the conference argues that our diversity is being threatened. The two-week U.N. meeting faces an uphill battle as it tries to institute sweeping steps to protect and restore ecosystems such as forests, rivers, coral reefs and the oceans that are vital for an ever-growing human population. Issues of funding will be a key problem delegates will need to iron out -- both who pays for the program and who reaps the rewards of the world's biodiversity.

Delegates from nearly 200 countries are being asked to agree to new 2020 targets after governments largely failed to meet a 2010 target of achieving a significant reduction in biological diversity losses, a goal set at the last biodiversity conference in 2002. And one of the same issues that led to failure the first time around could jeopardize this meeting: money.

Developing nations say more funding is needed from developed countries to share the effort in saving nature. Much of the world's remaining biological diversity is in developing nations such as Brazil, Indonesia and in central Africa.

"Especially for countries with their economies in transition, we need to be sure where the (financial) resources are," Eng. B.T. Baya, director-general of Tanzania's National Environment Management Council, told Reuters.

"It's not helping us if you set a lot of strategic targets and there is no ability or resources to implement them," Baya said. Poorer nations want funding to protect species and ecosystems to be ramped up 100-fold from about $3 billion now.

"What the world most wants from Nagoya are the agreements that will stop the continuing dramatic loss in the world's living wealth and the continuing erosion of our life-support systems," said Jim Leape, WWF International director-general.

One of the issues certain to prove contentious: The WWF and Greenpeace called for nations to set aside large areas of linked land and ocean reserves.

"If our planet is to sustain life on Earth in the future and be rescued from the brink of environmental destruction, we need action by governments to protect our oceans and forests and to halt biodiversity loss," said Nathalie Rey, Greenpeace International oceans policy adviser.

Another area of contention: how to deal with the economic benefits of biodiversity, notably the success of big pharmaceutical companies. The conference will try to set rules on how and when companies and researchers can use genes from plants or animals that originate in countries mainly in the developing world.

Developing nations want a fairer deal in sharing the wealth of their ecosystems and back the draft treaty, or "access and benefit-sharing" (ABS) protocol. For poorer nations, the protocol could unlock billions of dollars -- but some drug makers are wary of extra costs, squeezing investment for research while complicating procedures such as applications for patents.

Conservation groups say failure to agree on the ABS pact could derail the talks in Nagoya, including agreement on the 2020 target that would also set goals to protect fish stocks and phase out incentives harmful to biodiversity.

Japan, chair of the meeting, said agreement on an ambitious and practical 2020 target was key.

"We are nearing a tipping point, or the point of no return for biodiversity loss," Japanese Environment Minister Ryu Matsumoto told the meeting.

"Unless proactive steps are taken for biodiversity, there is a risk that we will surpass that point in the next 10 years."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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