How major extraction & mining projects can help Europe meet its 2020 biodiversity targets

It is a sad fact that scientists reckon we are currently suffering the worst biodiversity loss that the world has ever known. They believe that between 150 and 200 species are being lost every 24 hours. Many of those losses can be attributed to climate change. We need to teach the public that biodiversity is valuable; it has an economic, social, aesthetic and practical value from which every one of us individually benefits. Biodiversity services purify the air we breathe, act as a global air conditioning system, provide us with rainfall and oxygen and fertilise plants. We have never put a price tag on these ecosystem services because they are invaluable. But sadly, some people think that anything that is free has no value and therefore can be exploited and abused.

In the EU we have set a series of 2020 targets to counter these problems. But we have to take care that the policies we pursue are sustainable. The drive to produce biofuels is causing global deforestation, which as well as releasing massive quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, could also lead directly to global famine. Deforestation is responsible for more greenhouse gas than all the world’s cars, trucks, planes and boats combined.

We are potentially creating a bigger global problem than we set out to resolve. In the US, vast quantities of maize are being converted to bio-ethanol. This in turn has led to huge tracts of the Amazonian rainforest being burned to make way for growing maize and soya as food crops to make up the shortfall.

Meanwhile the Indonesian rain forest is being torn up to make way for biofuel crops like palm oil to supply the EU market. Such policies are thus destroying the world’s air conditioning system while at the same time releasing millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. That's why ten days ago we voted in Strasbourg to limit biofuel targets to 5.5%.

But greed instead of care for the environment has become the defining feature of our strategy for tackling climate change and the race to biofuels is potentially threatening the lives of millions of people as the global population soars from its present 6 billion to an estimated 9 billion by 2050. An extra 6 million people are born every month. By 2030 the world population will have expanded by such an extent that we will require a 50% increase in food production to meet anticipated demand. By 2080 global food production would need to double. But the reality is that an area the size of the Ukraine is being taken out of agricultural food production every year due to drought and as a direct consequence of climate change. Global food production is declining rather than expanding and our headlong rush to produce biofuels is taking even more land out of food agriculture. And the problem isn't confined to production. One third of global food production is wasted. If food distribution was improved the one third of the global population who are malnourished could have a better chance of survival.

But let us not despair. The Economist recently ran a feature which claimed that more economic growth, not less, offers the best hope for averting a further great extinction of species. The article argued that as people become wealthier they demand stricter controls on the environment from their political leaders. They donate to environmental NGOs who put pressure on politicians. Richer countries generally have better governments and better governments combat pollution and help biodiversity to survive. We need to ensure that more and more of these resources are devoted to conservation and environmental management.  But the Economist article cites some success stories. They recall how the American Bald Eagle whose population had fallen to only 412 breeding pairs in the 1960s, has expanded to over 7,000 now.

They also point out how whale populations are mostly recovering thanks to a moratorium on commercial whaling. An even better example of improving or stable biodiversity between rich and poor countries with good and bad governments is the case of South Korea, one of the world's fastest growing economies, where forest cover is stable and North Korea, which has lost one third of its forests in the past 20 years. But the Economist says that the problem of biodiversity loss is in no way solved. Thousands of species are teetering on the brink of extinction and climate change and/or demand for land could tip many of them over the edge.

A resolution on the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, adopted on 20th April 2012 by the European Parliament, stresses that biodiversity should become a much higher political priority and should be better integrated into existing EU policies. In particular, it stated that the CAP should be a key tool for the conservation of biodiversity, alongside its role in food production and rural development. The reform of the CAP, in conjunction with decisions on the next multi-annual financial framework, are a key to halting the loss of biodiversity.

Similarly, properly regulated economic development can maintain and even enhance biodiversity. This is particularly the case with the extractive and mining industries which are acutely aware of the need for transparency in their development of environmentally sound projects. Take, for instance, the controversial Roşia Montană gold mine project in Romania which looks set to create over 3,000 jobs in an area of 80% unemployment. There have been many protests about potential pollution, environmental damage and biodiversity loss, but the company - Roşia Montană Gold Corporation (RMGC), keen to allay fears, has gone to great lengths and considerable expense to produce an eco-friendly project that ticks all of the biodiversity boxes.

RMGC have even pledged to deposit all of the finance necessary for the complete environmental rehabilitation of the Roşia Montană gold mine, including a scheme for long-term monitoring of the rehabilitated facility. Currently it is estimated that the cost of full environmental rehabilitation would amount to in excess of $135 million, but these figures will be upgraded annually by independent experts as the mining project proceeds over its predicted 16 years' lifespan.

This is the kind of reassurance that the public demands where large-scale extractive projects are undertaken. From the outset, the Roşia Montană Gold Corporation has put in place measures or proposals to end the historical pollution associated with the ancient mine which can trace its origins back to Roman times. The improvement of water quality in the region has become a key priority for the company. Similarly, RMGC wish to ensure that their project will have a minimum impact on biodiversity during the construction phase and will actually produce a net-enhancement of biodiversity during the mine's rehabilitation process. This is the kind of corporate responsibility that the EU insists in shaping its 2020 biodiversity targets.

Struan Stevenson, MEP

President of the Intergroup on Climate Change, Biodiversity & Sustainable Development