The United Kingdom's Biodiversity Commitments
Biological Diversity: Definition
Biological diversity (or "biodiversity") is the variability among living organisms in all habitats including terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part. It includes diversity within species, between species and among ecosystems.
In the evidence received we noted that the term biodiversity appeared to be used to denote different elements, for example to refer to the diversity of life on earth, to understanding it, to conserving or managing it, and also to using it in a sustainable way.
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)
The definition of biodiversity above is based on that presented in Article 2 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the broadest biodiversity convention signed by the United Kingdom. The CBD was signed by over 150 states in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro and ratified by the United Kingdom in June 1994.
The objectives of the CBD are
the conservation of biological diversity;
the sustainable use of its components; and
the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the use of genetic resources.
It is a framework agreement, with its provisions outlining overall goals and policies rather than precise obligations. Individual parties to the convention determine which provisions to implement and to what extent. In this respect it differs from other biodiversity-related conventions to which the United Kingdom is a signatory, which often list species to be legally protected (for examples see evidence from Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)).
The CBD is an umbrella agreement which aims to protect biodiversity by referring to a general belief that the conservation of biodiversity is beneficial to humanity. DEFRA commented that "the CBD is an ambitious treaty of almost limitless scope" (p 91). The breadth of the treaty makes it difficult to establish whether the United Kingdom is fulfilling its commitments. However it is easier to assess the progress against those particular action points and priorities that relate to the CBD that the United Kingdom has adopted and declared.
Some of the United Kingdom's commitments under the CBD are outlined below. We use the Articles of the Convention as a framework and also refer, where appropriate, to subsequent decisions of the Conference of the Parties to the CBD (COP). We have sought to include most major points of relevance to systematic biology in order to provide a context for the discussion in the main body of the report.
Article 6 requires the parties to the convention to develop national biodiversity strategies, plans or programmes and to integrate the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity into other policy areas where relevant. DEFRA cites this Article as the focus of UK action (pp). In response to this requirement the UK Government published Biodiversity: The UK Action Plan (hereafter UKBAP) in January 1994. This established 59 steps as a series of actions against which future progress would be monitored. A UK Steering Group was formed with a broad range of members. It reported in December 1995, establishing criteria for selecting species and habitats of conservation concern and presenting costed action plans for a selection of priority species and habitats. The Government welcomed the report's main recommendations in May 1996.
The Government set up the UK Biodiversity Group (UKBG) as the successor to the Steering Group and asked it to report every five years. Its first report, published in 2001, revised the aims and objectives established by the UK Steering Group. The report has shifted the scope of the UKBAP from its initial broad conception as the United Kingdom's overall response to the CBD to a plan to conserve UK biodiversity.
DEFRA's evidence refers to efforts to bring "a more strategic, comprehensive and co-ordinated approach to bear on implementing the Convention". Alongside the UKBAP there are now also Biodiversity Action Plans for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Each local authority is also required to have a BAP: most have done so but some are still outstanding (pp 92-3).
The progress of the Habitat and Species Action Plans has been variable. According to those responsible for co-ordinating these Plans 54 per cent are showing some progress towards their targets, but biological status (whether extinct, declining in number, no change, or numbers increasing) is yet unknown for most of the habitats and species listed. However, there are signs of recovery in ten per cent of species and twenty one per cent of habitats that were targeted. Some of the habitats that have been targeted by the Action Plans include native pine woodlands and cereal field margins. Species with Action Plans include the Fen orchid, located on fens in East Anglia and the dune slacks in South Wales and the Greater Horseshoe bat, which uses a variety of habitats for breeding, feeding and wintering.
Article 7, the taxonomic impediment and the Global Taxonomy Initiative
Article 7 of the CBD requires the parties to the Convention to identify and monitor biological diversity, particularly those aspects important for conservation and sustainable use. Parties are also required to monitor activity which could have significant adverse impacts on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and to maintain and organise data derived from identification and monitoring activities.
COP 3 identified a "taxonomic impediment": namely a scarcity of sufficient taxonomic skills, resources and information needed to help fulfil the Convention's ... objectives", which prevent Article 7 from being well implemented (DEFRA, p 91). COP 4 launched a Global Taxonomy Initiative (Decision IV/1 D) designed to reverse this impediment. The GTI is intended to encourage governments to provide resources to enhance the availability of taxonomic information and to develop bilateral and multilateral training and employment opportunities for taxonomists, particularly for those dealing with poorly known organisms.
Particular suggestions for action include encouraging parties and authorities responsible for museums and herbaria to invest in the development of appropriate infrastructure for their national collections (paragraph 2). Parties are also encouraged to ensure that systematics institutions are financially and administratively stable. A further suggestion was that parties should look to publishing taxonomic information, literature and checklists in electronic form to make data more accessible. COP 5 urged parties to make establishment or consolidation of regional and national taxonomic reference centres a priority. COP 6 will consider a work programme for the GTI, which the Natural History Museum believes will be endorsed. This will have implications for the United Kingdom in terms of access to data and identification of taxonomic priorities.
Global Biodiversity Information Facility
COP 4 (IV/1 D) advised members of the OECD to endorse the recommendation from the OECD Megascience Forum's Biodiversity Informatics Subgroup to develop a Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). GBIF was established in 2001 as an autonomous international organisation, with participant governments making financial contributions and controlling it through membership of a governing board.
The GBIF is envisaged as an interoperable network of biodiversity databases and information technology tools to enable users to navigate and use the world's biodiversity data to the benefit of economies and the environment. It aims to facilitate the design, implementation and co-ordination of biodiversity data, through promoting their compilation, standardisation, digitisation and global dissemination.
Setting of quantitative targets
COP 5 recognised plant diversity as a common concern of mankind and an essential resource for the planet and decided to consider establishing a global strategy for plant conservation based on clear targets. COP 6 will consider a draft list of targets; these targets include preparing a working list of all known plant species by 2010. If agreed, this will set a new precedent for the CBD, by providing a set of objective targets, the progress towards which could be quantitatively assessed.
Importance of taxonomy to other CBD work programmes
Both COP 4 and COP 5 stressed the importance of taxonomy and building international capacity for taxonomy to the progress and success of thematic work programmes on biological diversity in agriculture, inland waters, forests, and marine and coastal environments.
The UK Government identifies the implementation of Article 7 and the associated decisions as a relatively high priority but noted that resources were "limiting" the United Kingdom in meeting its obligations under this Article. In terms of the its major contributions to fulfilling these obligations DEFRA cites the National Biodiversity Network Trust, the Darwin Initiative, the work of the RBG Kew and the UK's role in GBIF. DEFRA also views as important the United Kingdom's contribution to the prioritisation and focusing of the GTI, including the secondment of a member of NHM staff to the CBD secretariat (p 91).
Other relevant articles
In addition to Articles 7 and 8, DEFRA listed a further four Articles of the CBD which it considered to be of direct relevance to the inquiry:
Article 8In situ conservation;
Article 18Technical and scientific co-operation;
Article 20Financial resources; and
Article 21Financial monitoring.
Three further articles not highlighted by DEFRA are also of particular relevance to this inquiry:
Article 12Research and training;
Article 13Public education and awareness; and
Article 17Exchange of information.
We received a significant amount of evidence expressing concern about the state of systematic biology in universities, and the lack of research and training opportunities in this area (Prof. Parker p 51, Uni. Manchester p 81, Unis. UK p 85). Similarly, evidence highlighted the reliance on volunteers to pursue conservation projects; in order to recruit there needs to be a significant level of public awareness and interest. The exchange of information through providing simple and cost-effective public access to data held in collections of biodiversity, and producing keys and clear checklists of species, also emerged as areas of concern (JNCC QQ 13, 41-2, Invert. Conserv. Trust p 28, NBN Trust p 30).
The UK's second national report to the CBD deemed Articles 8, 13, 18, 20 and 21 to be high priority, and Articles 12 and 17 to be of medium priority. Resources for Articles 8, 12 and 13 were indicated as "limiting", but for Articles 17, 18, 20 and 21 it was deemed that the United Kingdom has "adequate" resources.
18 The meetings of the COP are hereafter referred to as follows; 1994 COP 1; 1995 COP 2; 1996 COP 3; 1998 COP 4; 2000 COP 5; 2002 COP 6. Back
19 The summary is based on documents cited in evidence submitted by DEFRA, chiefly the UK's second national report to the CBD (www.biodiv.org/world/reports.asp), an independent assessment of UK action to implement the CBD (at www.unep-wcmc.org), and the documents which collectively comprise the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Back
20 See the UK's second national report to the CBD. Back