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Can we prevent a sixth mass extinction?

TOKYO -- In the most recent update to its "red list," which evaluates threatened wildlife, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed the Pacific bluefin tuna as a species threatened with extinction.

     In June, the Japanese eel was listed as endangered. The number of threatened wildlife species has now climbed to 22,000, leading some experts to say that in modern times the world has entered its "sixth massive extinction." This raises a question: What is biodiversity?

     The word is often cited for its importance in preservation.

     According to study results released in September by Japan's Cabinet Office, only 16.7% of Japanese said they understand the meaning of "biodiversity." Another 29.7% said they don't know the meaning but have heard the word, while 52.4% said they have never heard the term. Teppei Doke, a member of the Japanese committee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, expressed concern. "In recent years," he said, "this word's exposure has declined."

We're killers

More than 90,000 species of wildlife have been confirmed in Japan alone. In a red list unveiled last year by Japan's Ministry of the Environment, 3,597 species were reported as being threatened with extinction.

     In the 4 billion years since life was born on this planet, living things have evolved in accordance with their environment, and species are said to have increased in number to 30 million. This wide variety of life is interconnected. Living things support one another while maintaining a fine balance. Biodiversity is a way of thinking that values this abundance of life.

     There are three levels of biodiversity. The first is diversity of ecosystems. Ecosystems exist that are made up of species and individuals suited to that particular environment, be it forest, mountain, river, marshy grassland, tidal flat, coral reef or desert.

     Next is diversity of species. A variety of living things reside on our planet, from animals and plants to bacteria. According to biologists, names have been given to some 2 million species.

     Moreover, genes can differ slightly within the same species. As a result, individuals with a variety of characteristics are born, such as those that are able to withstand dry and hot conditions or are unlikely to become ill. This helps maintain the species and is known as genetic diversity.

     If a given species is wiped out, the impact ripples out broadly to the living things that species ate and even to animals at the top of the food chain. If insects that carry pollen were to disappear, the plants that rely on them would lose the opportunity to propagate. Every day, we humans receive from nature many benefits, from food and water to the raw materials for medicine and cleansing of the environment.

     However, biodiversity is in grave peril. In a study published in July in the U.S. scholarly journal Science, a research team from Stanford University in the U.S. concluded that 320 species of vertebrates that lived on land became extinct between 1500 and now, and the number of living things remaining has also diminished by 25% on average. In their analysis, the planet appears to be in the early stages of its sixth mass extinction.

     Why have there been five previous mass extinctions? One leading theory is that enormous changes occurred on a global scale, cataclysms such as large-scale volcanic activity or massive meteor strikes. Some 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs that ruled the Earth disappeared. In each great extinction, it is thought that more than 70% of the planet's species were wiped out.

     Unlike the previous five, today's mass extinction is being caused by human activity. There are a lot of us, and we are overfarming, over-ranching and overfishing. We are also overtaxing the planet by transporting foreign species to new ecosystems. We drive and fly a lot and do other things with fossil fuel. Say hello to global warming.

     According to studies conducted by the U.N. and other groups on a global scale in the early part of the previous decade, the speed with which species went extinct in ancient times was 0.1 to 1 species per thousand species every 1,000 years. In modern times, the pace has accelerated to 100 species. In other words, we are killing off the other forms of life that help us to maintain the Earth's balance 100 times to 1,000 times faster than what the rate used to be.

     The international community knows it has to respond. COP 12, or The Twelfth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity, was held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in October. During the conference, the Nagoya Protocol, which determines the distribution of benefits obtained by utilizing genetic resources, came into effect.

Not progressing

At the conference, the Aichi Targets -- which are supposed to be achieved by 2020 -- were examined. They were divided into 56 categories and evaluated in five stages. It was found that only "bringing the Nagoya Protocol into effect" had been achieved and only four other targets are expected to be achieved, including "conserving at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water."

     To help this dismal state of affairs, it was decided that the amount of funding provided to developing countries needed to double by 2015 from the 2006-2010 worldwide average, and that the resulting level should be maintained through 2020. Agreement was also reached on strengthening cooperation with developing nations relating to human resources cultivation and science and technology. "We believe this will help achieve the Aichi Targets," said Braulio Dias, executive secretary of the Secretariat of the Convention.

     In recent years, a movement to compute the economic value of biodiversity has emerged. Japan's Environment Ministry in May for the first time calculated economic value based on features of habitats and wild scenery that the country's wetlands and tidal flats have. The scale is reportedly on the order of 1.5 trillion yen ($12.5 billion) per year.

     "The economic activity of the top 3,000 companies in the world causes $2 trillion of the value of the global environment to be lost each year," said Pavan Sukhdev, an economist who studies evaluation of economic values. With diversity in living things continuing to be lost, a sustainable world cannot be realized. This suggests that we should aim for a migration to a "green economy" that rewards both environmental preservation and economic development.

Key phrase: Convention on Biological Diversity

This is a treaty created for the purpose of continually using living resources while preserving ecosystems, and equitably distributing the benefits of this. It was adopted in 1992 at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit). Along with the Framework Convention on Climate Change to prevent global warming, it is an important treaty for protecting the global environment. While 194 countries and regions are signatories, the U.S. is not among them.

     Unlike other agreements, such as the Washington Convention, that restrict international trade of wildlife threatened with extinction, the CBD aims for comprehensive preservation of biodiversity. The 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the convention was held in Nagoya in 2010. There, the Aichi Targets, or international goals, and the Nagoya Protocol, a genetic resources listing, were adopted.

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