“A belated Happy New Year to all readers – in fact Happy New International Year of Biodiversity! (see http://www.cbd.int/2010/welcome/).
This year the UN has broadened its scope to raise awareness of all biodiversity – the millions of species of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms with whom we share the planet. This is partly because the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) set targets for 2010 to reduce the loss of biodiversity. These 2010 targets (and how badly we have missed them) will be on the agenda at the 10th Conference of the Parties to the CBD in Japan this September (http://www.cbd.int/cop10/).
Sliding smoothly from YoG to IYB (for some reason it was decided the Year of Biodiversity acronym wouldn’t follow the pattern of YoG…) is quite fitting, given that gorilla habitat is among the most bio-diverse on earth, and directly or indirectly many of the species therein are ecologically linked to gorillas.
I’ll return to this theme later, but first I must report on my visit to the Climate Conference in Copenhagen.
I was there for a week (10th – 16th December), but left before it was due to finish. Then the drama continued into Saturday 19th, the deal wasn’t sealed, and the Copenhagen Accord fell short of the world’s hopes and expectations. This was such an anti-climax and only now are assessments of the way forward beginning to appear (see http://unfccc.int/2860.php and http://climate-l.org/guest-articles/ga32.html for the official view, and for independent comment, see for example http://www.globalcanopy.org/main.php?m=120&sm=169&bloid=49, http://www.stakeholderforum.org/fileadmin/files/Outreach_issues_2009/OutreachFinalWrapUp.pdf and http://www.climaticoanalysis.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/post-cop15-report52.pdf).
Copenhagen was closely followed by Christmas and New Year, and for me a chance to spend some time with my family (in India, where we saw some amazing cultural as well as biological diversity – but those experiences will appear elsewhere. There was one unexpected YoG outcome from India, which was bumping into Dave and Debs, a couple of Canadian bloggers, who wrote a nice piece about the encounter at: http://theplanetd.com/ian-redmond-talks-about-gorillas#comments – thank you PlanetD).
Let me now take you back to mid-December and how it felt to be in the melée of Copenhagen:
The main event was the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in the Bella Centre, but Copenhagen was filled with (according to some reports) more than 100,000 visitors attending film festivals, climate camps, demonstrations, business meetings and scientific seminars.
I escaped from the Conference on Saturday 12th to join some 40,000+ people on the Climate March, which for the most part had a carnival atmosphere, with floats, banners, kids and grannies. It was a great experience – civil society making a point peacefully (I missed the violence and arrests that grabbed the headlines – e.g. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/copenhagen/article6954510.ece).
Amongst all the people dressed as penguins and polar bears I did find one person in a gorilla costume – a German student who had come up on the train with friends – but until we met he didn’t know it was the Year of the Gorilla nor the role of gorillas in climate change mitigation (he does now!).”
15th December 2009: “It is snowing here in Copenhagen. A freezing cold wind cuts through the long queue of people trying to enter the Bella Conference Centre, where it is warm and until now welcoming (security concerns surrounding the arrival of 100 heads of state and their entourages has led to increasingly severe restrictions on the number of civil society participants allowed into the building, causing frustration and long queues). Our Danish hosts have gone to great lengths to give space for conservation NGOs, governments and UN agencies to display their reports and present their data. Every day is filled with dozens of side events inside the Bella Centre, and dozens more at parallel events taking place at several locations around Copenhagen.
The amount of passion and creative energy, the amazing expression of science and art, is simply staggering – all to inform and to influence the negotiators who are working day and night to come up with text to which all 190 or signatories to the UN Climate Convention can agree. It is an historic moment (note: at this point we were still hopeful), and fitting that it should be in the closing month of the UN Year of the Gorilla.
All year we have been stressing that YoG is not just about gorillas. It is true they are an iconic animal for the Congo Basin forests, and that they symbolise efforts to protect the planet’s second green lung, but there is more to it than that – they are also keystone species in their habitat. This means that just as the removal of a keystone in a bridge or stone arch would cause it to collapse, so the removal of a keystone species will cause a cascade of other species extinctions. In the forests of the ten countries that have gorilla populations, the health of those forests is linked to the balance between thousands of inter-dependent species of animals, plants, fungi and micro-organisms – all part of the forest ecosystem.
Unfortunately, most people (and probably most climate negotiators) hear the word ‘forest’ and think of trees. In the context of climate change, where about a fifth of global, human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are caused by deforestation and forest degradation, the word forest is associated with carbon – hence the idea of REDD+ in the new climate treaty (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation – with the plus signifying the additional ‘co-benefits’ that would arise from saving forests, such as rainfall, poverty reduction in forest-dwelling communities and halting biodiversity loss).
With colleagues from the CMS (www.cms.int ), CBD, CI and the Global Canopy Programme, I have been spreading the word here in Copenhagen too, on the importance of gorillas and other seed dispersal agents.
On 13th December, at Forest Day 3, in a panel discussion with scientists working out methods to estimate accurately the losses and gains in forest carbon, one commented that their job was to focus solely on how much carbon was in a forest one year, and whether it had gone up or down the next time it was measured. I pointed out that if you weigh a car, and then remove the cogs from the gearbox and weigh it again, the difference in weight will be tiny but the car will no longer function. Similarly, if we think of animals as the cogs of the forest, uncontrolled commercial hunting may not alter the amount of carbon by much in the short term, but in the medium to long term, instead of a functioning natural forest we are left with a collection of trees whose chances of leaving descendants is greatly reduced.
About 80 per cent of tropical tree species produce seeds that are dispersed by animals. Germination trials in many research sites have shown that more of these seeds germinate and have a higher seedling survival rate if they have passed through an animal’s digestive system and been deposited in a nice package of manure (dung) far from the parent plant. Small seeds may be eaten by birds and small mammals as well as apes and elephants, but the larger the seed, the larger the animal needed to swallow it whole.
Botanists have long noted that tree species with large seeds tend to have denser wood (which means more carbon per cubic metre) than those with small seeds. This is an important argument for protecting large animals. One of the big issues in the debate about forest carbon is the permanence (or not) of the carbon stored in forests. How long will the forest be there? When a tree falls naturally, it decomposes and its carbon returns to the atmosphere unless there are new trees growing in its place. A healthy forest has been found to continue sequestering and storing carbon.
Next time you visit a natural forest, ask yourself, “Who planted the trees?” In the tropics, the chances are high it was an elephant (in Africa and south Asia), a primate or a fruit-eating bird or bat. Think of each tree as the result of an ecological event – an animal once ate a seed – maybe centuries ago – and a few weeks later, a seedling grew from a pile of poo.
It follows then that to ensure permanence in forest carbon, we must ensure these ecological events keep happening. In my view, uncontrolled commercial hunting is just as important a form of forest degradation as any removal of wood or vegetation – it is the removal of an essential component of the forest ecosystem. Ergo, hunting must be controlled just as logging, charcoal making and clearance for agriculture must be controlled if a healthy forest is to endure.
Whilst the outcome from Copenhagen was disappointing, it is surely better to delay and get it right than force it and get a treaty full of flaws. The negotiations continue and a legally binding agreement seems possible this year – this gives every interested person (and I hope that means you, Gentle Reader) more time to make their views known to their governments. It is a long and complex process, but in the end we must ensure the ecosystem services provided by primates and their forest habitats are protected for the future of all life on Earth.”