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August 09, 2002
Rio + 10 Series: Business Action Addressing Biodiversity is a Rare Species
    by William Baue

The Center for Environmental Leadership in Business’ Energy and Biodiversity Initiative represents one of very few business actions that support biodiversity conservation.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has identified five issues, water and sanitation, energy, health, agriculture, and biodiversity, as focal points for the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development. Of the five focal points, biodiversity is perhaps the least understood in terms of how it relates to the private sector. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), one of the primary binding agreements resulting from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, contains one of the most comprehensive definitions.

“‘Biological diversity’ means the variability among living organisms from all sources including . . . diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems,” the Convention reads. 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 utilization of genetic resources . . . .”

Few companies would openly oppose the notion of conserving biodiversity. Fewer still, however, would choose conserving biodiversity over profit. The concept of sustainable development holds that the two are not mutually exclusive, that business can conserve biodiversity while simultaneously creating wealth.

With the Johannesburg Summit less than a month away, one would expect ample evidence of business initiatives in support of the contention that biodiversity is economically sustainable. However, there is precious little action apparent.

The title of a May 2001 opinion paper from the International Institute for Environment and Development sums up the situation well. It is entitled “Biological Diversity: More Debate than Action?” The World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) helped establish the relevance of biodiversity to business with its 1997 publication of Business and Biodiversity: A Guide for the Private Sector. However, the fact that the revised edition of this text, Business and Biodiversity: The Handbook for Corporate Action, will not appear before the Rio + 10 Summit seems like a major missed opportunity.

Washington, DC-based Conservation International’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB) is leading the most concerted effort of business action to address biodiversity. CELB supports biodiversity initiatives in four sectors: agriculture and fisheries, forestry, energy and mining, and travel and leisure. In July, Conservation International helped revise the Sustainable Forestry Board’s Sustainable Forestry Initiative Standard (SFIS), making it more stringent than federal endangered species legislation. The American Forest and Paper Association, whose members manufacture 80 percent of the forestry products in the United States, will require strict adherence to this new standard that protects biodiversity.

The Energy and Biodiversity Initiative (EBI) represents an even more concerted biodiversity conservation project administered directly by CELB. Established in January 2001, EBI joins four oil companies with five nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to identify and promote best conservation practices for an industry with substantial impact on biodiversity.

On January 23, 2002, EBI held a stakeholder workshop in Washington, DC. EBI divided its participants into four working groups, each of which presented a progress report. For example, the Biodiversity Conservation Practices Working Group, co-led by ChevronTexaco (ticker: CVX) and Smithsonian Institution, identified best practices for implementing biodiversity conservation. The Metrics Working Group, co-led by BP (BP) and Fauna and Flora International, devised performance indicators for measuring the impact of oil operations on biodiversity. Other groups included the Business Case Working Group, co-led by Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, and the Site Selection Working Group, co-led by Shell (RD) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

EBI demonstrated its commitment to transparency by admitting its faults, such as exclusive representation by companies and NGOs headquartered in the Northern hemisphere.

“The north/south issue is a shortcoming,” admitted Dr. Assheton Carter, director of CELB’s Energy & Mining Program. “We don’t have southern NGOs in the core participation. We hope to overcome that somewhat with consultation and with the representation of IUCN.”

Although EBI will deliver a final report, its agreements will be nonbinding, leaving it open to the same criticisms levied at the Bush Administration for its refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol in favor of voluntary initiatives.

“The intention is for all members of the Initiative to agree to the recommendations made,” EBI states on its website. “However, this intention does not guarantee universal agreement on all aspects of the work.”

It appears that even the most active private sector initiatives to protect biodiversity may ultimately be ineffectual at preventing irreversible biodiversity loss.


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