Tradable biodiversity rights can help to conserve species richness

From this perspective it then becomes clear, for example, that the portion of the world population that lives in poverty is incapable of contributing to the conservation of biodiversity. In their daily search for food, energy and shelter, they simply cannot pay attention to this aspect. Professor Steven De Bie made this point during his acceptance of the endowed chair in the Sustainable Use of Living Resources on 1 March at Wageningen University. To compensate for this decline in biodiversity in the poorer regions, De Bie proposes establishing tradable “biodiversity rights”.

As the United Nations reported in 2005, the condition of the world's ecosystems is declining noticeably. The pressure of the world population is currently exceeding the biological capacity by 25 percent. Nature is not only continuously losing terrain, but it is also becoming more fragmented, which is resulting in a worldwide decline in biodiversity; at some places in the world, the level of biodiversity is threatening to drop below the minimum level of species richness. As a result, ecosystems can collapse into situations with low diversity of species and therefore fewer possibilities for sustainable use by people. One of the biggest challenges for governments, businesses and local communities is therefore achieving sustainable use of the living resources on the earth. Professor De Bie made this point in his inaugural oration “Biodiversity use at crossroads; can we sustainably use biodiversity?” He believes that if we are unsuccessful in dealing with this challenge, then biodiversity will inevitably continue to decline. And as a result of this decline, there will be additional erosion of the possibilities for use that the ecological environment offers to people, such as a food supply or other types of products and services.

De Bie believes that a sustainable exploitation strategy of biodiversity and living resources is possible, but that we must view this from a broad perspective, and not only from an ecological approach. The carrying capacity and the resilience capacity of an ecosystem are important, but social-cultural aspects should also be considered; for example, who makes use of the biodiversity and why? There is also the economic perspective: what are the costs and benefits of the use of biodiversity, and how can we translate biodiversity into economic value? It is especially the latter aspect that is important because most living resources do not belong to anyone, or actually belong to us all (res nullius). According to De Bie, the tragedy is that these resources were once plentiful, but are now increasingly scarce; this aspect alone requires a completely different approach.

Tradable value

Professor De Bie argues for a more commercial approach to biodiversity, one which defines the direct, indirect and explicitly desirable benefits of biodiversity. This could have a positive, substantial influence on the conservation of biodiversity because it could be used to compensate for negative influences, such as those of companies. Comparable with the emission rights for greenhouse gases, biodiversity rights could also be given a tradable value on a market established for this purpose, concludes De Bie. But to achieve this would require a totally different way of thinking about the conservation of biodiversity.

According to De Bie, the sustainable use of biodiversity can never be achieved without providing a good answer to the problem of poverty in the world. Every limitation on the use of their environment, regardless of how depleted it may be already, reduces the survival chances of poor people. Consequently, a transition to the sustainable use of living resources by this population group must go hand in hand with investments to reduce their poverty.

Professor Steven De Bie (Gorinchem, the Netherlands, 1950) is senior environmental adviser at the Department of Health, Safety and Environment at Shell international. The endowed chair held by Professor De Bie has been made possible by the Shell Research Foundation.

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