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U.N. environment chief: 'We are destroying life on Earth'

The world cannot afford to allow nature's riches to disappear, the United Nations said Monday at the start of a major meeting to combat losses in animal and plant species.
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

The world cannot afford to allow nature's riches to disappear, the United Nations said Monday at the start of a major meeting to combat losses in animal and plant species that underpin livelihoods and economies.

The United Nations says the world is facing the worst extinction rate since the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago, a crisis that needs to be addressed by governments, businesses and communities.

The two-week meeting aims to prompt nations and businesses to take sweeping steps to protect and restore ecosystems such as forests, rivers, coral reefs and the oceans that are vital for an ever-growing human population.

These provide basic services such as clean air, water, food and medicines that many take for granted, the United Nations says, and need to be properly valued and managed by governments and corporations to reverse the damage caused by economic growth.

More resilient ecosystems could also reduce climate change impacts, such more extreme droughts and floods, as well as help fight poverty, the world body says.

"This meeting is part of the world's efforts to address a very simple fact — we are destroying life on Earth," Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Program, said at the opening of the meeting in Nagoya, central Japan.

Scientists warn that unless people start doing more to protect species, extinctions will spike and the intricately interconnected natural world will be damaged with devastating consequences.

'Major extinction spasm'They estimate that the Earth is losing species at 100 to 1,000 times the historical average and warn that's pushing the Earth toward its sixth big extinction phase, the greatest since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.

"We're on the verge on the major extinction spasm ," said Russ Mittermeier, president of Conservation International and a field biologist who has spent decades studying primates and reptiles. "Healthy ecosystems are the underpinnings of human development."

Mittermeier said that in his field, of the 669 different kinds of primates, 49 percent are threatened, largely because of habitat destruction and hunting.

"That's indicative of a real extinction risk," he said.

$6.6 trillion worth of damage
Delegates from nearly 200 countries are being asked to agree new 2020 targets after governments largely failed to meet a 2010 target of achieving a significant reduction in biological diversity losses.

A U.N.-backed study this month said global environmental damage caused by human activity in 2008 totaled $6.6 trillion, equivalent to 11 percent of global gross domestic product.

Environmentalists said the meeting needed to agree on an urgent rescue plan for nature.

"What the world most wants from Nagoya are the agreements that will stop the continuing dramatic loss in the world's living wealth and the continuing erosion of our life-support systems," Jim Leape, WWF International director-general, said.

WWF and Greenpeace called for nations to set aside large areas of linked land and ocean reserves.

"If our planet is to sustain life on earth in the future and be rescued from the brink of environmental destruction, we need action by governments to protect our oceans and forests and to halt biodiversity loss," Nathalie Rey, Greenpeace International oceans policy adviser, said.

Delegates, to be joined by environment ministers at the end of next week, will also try to set rules on how and when companies and researchers can use genes from plants or animals that originate in countries mainly in the developing world.

Developing nations want a fairer deal in sharing the wealth of their ecosystems, such as medicines created by big pharmaceutical firms, and back the draft treaty, or "access and benefit-sharing" (ABS) protocol.

For poorer nations, the protocol could unlock billions of dollars but some drug makers are wary of extra costs squeezing investment for research while complicating procedures such as applications for patents.

'Point of no return'
Conservation groups say failure to agree the ABS pact could derail the talks in Nagoya, including agreement on the 2020 target which would also set goals to protect fish stocks and phase out incentives harmful to biodiversity.

Japan, chair of the meeting, said agreement on an ambitious and practical 2020 target was key.

"We are nearing a tipping point, or the point of no return for biodiversity loss," Japanese Environment Minister Ryu Matsumoto told the meeting. "Unless proactive steps are taken for biodiversity, there is a risk that we will surpass that point in the next 10 years."

The U.N. Environment Program says annual losses from deforestation and degradation are estimated at between $2 trillion and $4.5 trillion. Yet this could be tackled with annual investment of $45 billion.

Steiner said it was a challenge to have society understand the importance of biodiversity, but to him, it was simple.

"It's about your life. It's about life on this planet and it is about what we are doing to this planet with our eyes open today and increasingly being culpable of, being accused by the next generation of having acted irresponsibly and increasingly questionably from an ethical point of view," he said.

"Nothing less is at stake in Nagoya."