[INTERVIEW] Counteracting biodiversity loss is a major challenge. Launched two years ago, the #BeBiodiversity campaign endeavours to raise awareness among both individuals and Belgian companies, because, beyond the sad observation, there are courses of action.
Glo.be went to meet Pierre Biot, Head of the Biodiversity Unit within the DG for the Environment of the FPS Public Health.
What are the missions of the “biodiversity” unit?
At a federal level, we primarily work in partnership with the regional services because the protection and restoration of ecosystems are issues associated with land use planning (and therefore the responsibility of the Regions).
The federal level plays a key role through the product policy which has many impacts on biodiversity but also by coordinating Belgium’s international commitments in the fields related to biodiversity. In particular, these include the Convention on biological diversity and its Nagoya Protocol on resource sharing and the Cartagena Protocol on the cross-border movement of GMOs. The CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) regulating the trade in endangered species and even the International Whaling Commission (IWC) are two further examples of international bodies where the Belgian position is determined at federal level.
And central to our federal responsibilities, we must also educate the general public and businesses about “biodiversity-friendly” modes of production and consumption through the #BeBiodiversity campaign.
What are the objectives of this awareness campaign launched two years ago?
The underlying fact is that biodiversity is more difficult to understand and take into account than other environmental problems such as climate change or chemical pollution. With the #BeBiodiversity campaign, we want to show that while every act of consumption has an impact on the planet, it is possible to buy products that are biodiversity friendly (cf. list of recommendations below). As for companies, we want to encourage them to look at alternative production techniques by showing them that there is a demand for biodiversity-friendly products and that this will only continue to grow. There are real opportunities for companies that are willing to invest in this way and abandon the production of more “harmful” products in terms of respect for biodiversity.
What is your approach in relation to companies?
We’re currently focusing our efforts on awareness and the commitments that companies can make. It is difficult to make citizens and companies understand that biodiversity, and the ecosystem services that depend on it, is about much more than simply protecting birds and butterflies. There are huge implications. Biodiversity provides us with our food and water and, as we are often less aware, contributes to the management of floods and climate change.
In addition to explaining what biodiversity is in the broadest sense and how it works for us, the campaign shows the hazards threatening biodiversity due to the unsustainable exploitation of resources, the destruction of habitats, invasive alien species, etc.
In practical terms, how can you influence the private sector?
We are working with 5 pioneer companies that have decided to commit to preserving biodiversity and that demonstrate this. They show what a company can do on its land or in its buildings. They also show what can be achieved through a company's production processes or purchasing policy. Many achievements that work towards this are detailed on the web platform BiodiversiTree. For example, in terms of importing raw materials, let’s look at the production of mobile phones. The largest reserves of ores needed for their production are found beneath the African rainforests. This is why we are looking to encourage Belgian companies who stock up on such ores to set out specific technical clauses in their order books to avoid leaving an ecological desert in the operating regions. In order to achieve this, consultations between the sector’s companies and the producing countries will need to be organised, but this is indeed the path that we will have to follow.
How can you move the markets towards more biodiversity-friendly products?
The goal is not to prevent companies from producing and consumers from buying but to make sure that “bad products” are withdrawn from the market and replaced by products that meet the objectives related to the preservation of our ecosystems. We either organise the transition, or be subjected to it!
Wouldn’t it be more effective to set out more restrictive measures?
In public policies, current practice is firstly to develop public/private partnerships with companies that want to move forward on a voluntary basis, hoping to drive the sector towards the objectives to be achieved. Then, if we see that this isn’t working, that it’s not working fast enough or that the results are not what we expected, we can legislate with binding objectives. Companies are also demanding a level playing field.
But we're not there yet. At this point, we must firstly hold discussions with our companies. Awareness is growing and not just in the street. More and more people, including entrepreneurs want to get things moving. But it is right that, in return, they don't lose any money...
The State is there to supervise the debate and establish any barriers, but it won’t solve everything. There is a shared responsibility between the public authorities, citizens and companies.
While many experts say it is too late to halt the ongoing mass extinction across the planet, what are the broader actions expected?
Continuing to live at the current rate as the world's population continues to grow is no longer viable for the planet. We must absolutely begin a transition.
Just like the low-carbon energy transition leading to the adoption of greenhouse gas emission reduction targets by 2030 and beyond, we must think of other transitions such as the food transition. We cannot continue to produce everything we produce in Europe or bring it in from other continents without starting to think seriously about what our needs really are in terms of calories and protein. Should we be able to continue to eat everything as is currently the case? This consideration requires a social debate about our food. We have to do this now. We can no longer wait another 10 years.
What can we expect from the next major conference on biodiversity scheduled for 2020?
In addition to setting global objectives, Belgium, along with other countries, will push to set up a system within which States will commit to voluntary contributions. We must copy the COP system for climate change. We want to obtain a commitment similar to that of Paris in order to encourage each country to make practical commitments in relation to biodiversity. And an effective evaluation system must be set up, because we are currently still at the stage of non-binding political commitments. There are still no real targets, other than to halt the destruction of biodiversity by 2020, which will not be achieved. Even if nothing is yet fixed on the breakdown of efforts by Member States, what counts is starting a process of continuous action/evaluation at all levels, in line with our shared responsibility.