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Green Week - why nature matters, and why research plays a key role

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas addressed the opening Green Week conference on 30 May with a speech entitled, 'Why Nature Matters'. In it he reiterated the concern that, 'stopping the loss of biodiversity and limiting climate change are the two most important challen...

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas addressed the opening Green Week conference on 30 May with a speech entitled, 'Why Nature Matters'. In it he reiterated the concern that, 'stopping the loss of biodiversity and limiting climate change are the two most important challenges facing the planet'. He also outlined the key role for research in the Biodiversity Action Plan to address both these issues. Commissioner Dimas pointed out that while climate change very effectively grabs the headlines, biodiversity loss is an equally serious, and related, loss. He grabbed his audience's attention with some alarming statistics on biodiversity loss. 'The global rate of extinction is at least 100 times the natural rate, and an estimated 34,000 plant and 5,200 animal species face extinction. This means one in eight of all bird species, one quarter of all mammals and one third of all amphibians are endangered. Scientists are not exaggerating when they refer to the sixth great planetary extinction. The last was 65 million years ago and saw the departure of the dinosaurs,' he said. To address this, Commissioner Dimas referred delegates to the action plan adopted by the Commission earlier in May, and gave two compelling reasons for placing biodiversity loss at the top of the political agenda: 'The first is that nature has an intrinsic value,' he said, 'because ecosystem degradation is often irreversible and species loss is always so, when we destroy nature we are depriving future generations of options for their survival and development. This is not only irresponsible behaviour - it is also unethical. 'The second reason is that nature is the foundation for our quality of life,' he continued, 'We must be honest and accept that there is a widely held - and entirely wrong - perception that nature protection comes at the cost of economic development. Correcting this myth is the main theme of the Commission's Communication. Its key messages are that our prosperity is underpinned by healthy ecosystems and that ecosystems - both in the EU and worldwide - are far from healthy. They are, in fact, in dangerous decline.' The UN defined four 'ecosystem services' in its 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. These are taken for granted, but are two-thirds in decline: - Provision of goods, such as food, fibres, fuel and raw materials; - The regulation of the air we breathe and the planet's water systems; - Regulation of fertility of the soil and reproduction of plants; - Cultural benefits of wildlife and natural spaces. In practice, the decline in these 'ecosystem services' result in the depletion of natural resources, for example, the near extinction of once-common fish such as cod, or the damage to natural habitats that would have mitigated the effects of natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina or the Asian tsunami. 'These are the front page examples,' Mr Dimas said. 'And there are many more cases that are less grand in scale and less sudden in their occurrence [...] but, when taken together, represent a major drain on our economies.' The Commissioner went on to explain that the loss in genetic resources is literally incalculable - evolution means that the way in which a species develops is necessarily unknown as it occurs in the distant future. We do not know what we are losing. These 'ecosystem services' have more impact than one might first think. UK research concluded that activities based around the natural environment contribute a staggering 100 billion euro per year to the British economy. In Costa Rica, eco-tourism is the country's biggest earner. Commissioner Dimas introduced a moment of reflection when considering the Chinese economic miracle. 'Twenty years of unchecked growth means that some 20 per cent of land is affected by soil erosion. 75 per cent of lakes and almost all coastal waters are classified as polluted. 90 per cent of grasslands are degraded,' he said. Clearly, economic miracles come at a price. Back in Europe, which has some of the most polluted land in the world, steps to address degradation of habitat go back to the 1970s. The NATURA 2000 initiative joined Europe's natural spaces to provide an area that will be 'the EU's largest territorial entity - larger than any member state'. The Action Plan provides the EU with a blueprint to go forward in four ways - to look beyond 2010, to set-up a mechanism for EU research-based advice to inform future decisions, to identify areas for future research and finally, to launch a debate into the future of nature. Commissioner Dimas summed-up by saying that biodiversity needs to rise in the lists of priorities in Europe. 'This is the reason why I have chosen to dedicate this year's Green Week to the subject of biodiversity. I would therefore like to finish by inviting you all to listen, and contribute during the events over the next four days - and to take away with you at the end of the week the message that biodiversity matters,' he said.