By Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Saving biodiversity -- the vast and essential variety of the natural world -- will be expensive, at an estimated $300 billion a year for the next eight years. But losing it would cost even more, in terms of disease, hunger, poverty and diminished resilience to climate change, according to the new chief of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity.
"Biodiversity is the basis of everything we do in agriculture, everything we do in health," Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias told Reuters.
"So the development of new vaccines, the development of new cultured varieties of plants is based on biodiversity, genetic resources. If we lose biodiversity, we lose the options for future development in these areas."
Human destruction of natural habitats, unbridled economic development, pollution and climate change are among the threats to plant and animal life, on land and underwater. Preserving biological diversity is an uphill fight as the needs of the world's growing human population - now numbering about 7 billion - increasingly come into conflict with protecting nature.
Dias, named to the job in January, starts from a position of certainty: 192 nations already have agreed on what needs to be done by 2020 to preserve biodiversity.
His job is to help them figure out how to do it. He will have the chance to do that when global representatives gather in Rio de Janeiro in June, 20 years after the first Earth Summit set out a plan for worldwide environmental protections.
This year, the meetings will focus on sustainable development, a theme purposely chosen to avoid climate change controversies. It is an important one for Dias, who previously headed biodiversity for the Brazilian ministry.
Dias has been impressed by some of the biodiversity pilot programs launched by companies and governments around the world, but he believes these efforts need to be quickly expanded.
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The independent $300 billion-a-year cost estimate - which includes sustainable management of agriculture, forests, fresh water and coastal and marine ecosystems - is about 10 times the amount now being spent by governments, private industry and nongovernmental organizations on biodiversity protection. There is as yet no globally agreed official estimate of the cost, but assessments are under way.
Dias said that does not mean governments will bear the full cost. The United Nations is encouraging private investment, such as efforts by paper products firm Stora Enso to move toward sustainably harvested wood. Costa Rica is using fossil fuel revenues to make ecosystem service payments to landowners, paying them for sustainable forest management.
Public-private partnerships can absorb other costs, he said.
Still, preservation costs pale in comparison to estimates of what it would cost to simply do nothing. An international study supported by the United Nations estimates that taking no action would cost between $2 trillion and $4.5 trillion a year.
The global biodiversity effort stems from the principle that all living things -- from intestinal bacteria to human beings to redwood trees -- play a role in the ecosystem. While it is natural that some species die out over time, new environmental threats may prematurely wipe out entire species.
Dias says the impact can be devastating. If, for example, the Amazon rainforest morphs into the Amazon savannah, the biological diversity that people have depended upon for centuries could be endangered.
For almost every environmental issue, Dias draws a bright line to biological diversity.
Hunger: "If we want to be more effective in the fight against hunger, we need to enhance the use of local biodiversity. We will not solve this problem just by huge shipments of surplus stocks of crops from one region to another."
Poverty: "If poor communities survive at all, it's because they have access to biodiversity ... They can catch a fish, they can get fruits from the forest. They don't have cash, they don't have a salary to buy the goods in the markets, so it's thanks to this access to nature that they survive."
Biodiversity is also vital to resisting climate change and its loss could deprive farmers of the genetic resources they need to adapt to future climate conditions, Dias said.
Climate change has spurred the spread of such killers as malaria and cholera, Dias said, and both diseases are related to environmental disturbances.
He hopes investors will see biodiversity as a smart place to put their money. "We need more engagement on the part of private companies, the financial sector, the pension funds," he said.
(This story corrects the March 6 story in the first two paragraphs and paragraph 9 to show that the cost estimate is an independent one and not cited by the biodiversity chief. It also fixes date to March 7)