‘Protecting Biodiversity Is Critical to Mankind’s Survival’

published in Der Spiegel Online International on 23 May 2008


‘Protecting Biodiversity Is Critical to Mankind’s Survival’

Protecting endangered species is as important to the survival of mankind as protecting the climate, says Klaus Töpfer. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, the former head of the United Nations Environment Program talks about the value of nature, failed efforts to protect endangered species — and whether mammoth conferences make any sense.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you expect from the United Nations biodiversity summit in Bonn?

Klaus Töpfer: So far we have not managed to pay as much attention to protecting endangered species as to climate change. Unlike protecting the climate, the issue of protecting endangered species lacks something comparable to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together research and politics. The Nobel Prize that the IPCC received for its work was well deserved.



SPIEGEL ONLINE: That would be another high-ranking UN panel. But isn’t it time to finally implement the goals


Töpfer: That’s precisely the reason we need less paper and more concrete political decisions. The protection of species is not some luxury item by Gucci or Hermès, for people who have no problems.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What exactly do you mean?

Töpfer: Protecting biodiversity is just as important and critical to the survival of mankind as stabilizing the climate. Species protection and climate are interdependent. I am a great supporter of bionics …

SPIEGEL ONLINE: … in which nature can provide us with role models for technological innovations, such as surfaces for aircraft or the perfect structural design …

Töpfer: … and this diversity in nature, this genetic diversity, is not available for free. We, as industrialized nations, have already sinned enough, and we have significantly reduced biodiversity in our countries. But now we expect the poor, less developed countries of the world to preserve their rainforests, mangrove forests and coral landscapes for us at no charge.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But German farmers receive subsidies for preserving and caring for natural landscapes.

Töpfer: That’s completely correct. It’s a service they provide for society. This makes it all the more incomprehensible that we would expect the poorest of the poor to do the same, but for free.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: We see these subsidies as an alibi — us spending millions to protect the rainforests so that we can preserve our standard of living. Isn’t that called greenwashing?

Töpfer: By no means is it greenwashing. It is payment for important services that contribute to our prosperity. This is why it’s important to add financial appraisals of the services of nature to the biodiversity convention. What is the value of forests as carbon dioxide sinks or of primeval forests, with their great biodiversity, for the pharmaceutical industry? Knowledge about natural medicine, for instance, is not protected. It’s difficult to protect something if it doesn’t have a price.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But when you were the head of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), based in Nairobi, Kenya, you had six years to implement this new assessment of nature.

Töpfer: And quite a lot was achieved. In its “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,” UNEP was the first organization to address the valuation of a wetland, for example. This can be more valuable than a new dam. We know the market price of a tree trunk from tropical countries. But the processing of that tree trunk, which creates jobs, takes place in the highly developed countries.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the context of the Kyoto Protocol, countries with abundant forests are already eligible to receive real money if they preserve their forests, because in doing so they capture pollutants. Is this the right approach?

Töpfer: So far, payments for preserving forests are by no means adequately regulated in the Kyoto Protocol. As a rule, we need such valorization programs in species protection. I hope that the UN summit will set clear signals in this regard.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That sounds very broad. Isn’t it eco-colonialism, asking others to preserve the environment for us?

Töpfer: I don’t see it that way. Here’s a simple example: In the 1980s, the (German) state of Baden-Württemberg introduced something called the water pfennig, which was added to prices when cooling water or groundwater was used. This meant that farmers who used less fertilizer or pesticides were subsidized. In some countries, after a flood people living upstream pay for the losses of those living downstream. The same approach will become necessarily globally to address the North-South divide. We will probably not want to establish reserves globally, but rather help design and pay for a reasonable development policy based on cooperation with local populations.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a long-serving government minister and then UN official, this is a question you are eminently qualified to answer: With the increasingly frequent UN conferences on biodiversity, climate protection, urbanization, water and sustainability, isn’t the environmental issue being talked to death at these events? And that with delegates flying to the conferences on CO2-emitting flights and convening in air-conditioned buildings?

Töpfer: Slow down! We should always question the importance of large conferences. And the fact that many flight kilometers are necessary is an issue that is being thought about. But think about the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali. At that conference, the participation of many committed people helped create the sort of atmosphere and outcome that has enabled the United States to join in climate protection efforts. And besides, where would we be today without the international organizations and environmental groups?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The current UN summit will call for an assessment of the value of natural assets. According to a few studies by the EU and the UN, that number will amount to €4.5 trillion. But can a price really be put on the Garden of Eden?

Töpfer: Well, at that time God was only confronted with two people. Most of all, Creation must be protected for its own sake, even if we currently assign no value or an incorrect value to it.

The interview was conducted by Rafaela von Bredow and Sebastian Knauer