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International trade puts species in peril

Posted on behalf of Alice Lighton.

Your coffee is killing me.

wwarby via Flickr

If you want to save the endangered Mexican spider monkey, put down your double-chocolate brownie and hazelnut skinny latte. The developed world’s insatiable appetite for commodities such as tea, coffee and palm oil causes a third of threats to biodiversity.

It is no secret that habitats are destroyed to grow goods for export, but a new study quantifies the effect of international trade on animals. Published today in Nature, the study links threats to species recorded on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List with data on trade in 15,000 commodities. Up to 30% of species threats are due to international trade, and developed countries buy most of the harmful products. Other threats include domestic food production, hunting and pollution.

In an analogy to a carbon footprint, the authors calculate which countries are the largest net importers of threats to species. For instance, the plywood Japan imports for construction comes from Papua New Guinea, destroying the habitat of the critically endangered black-spotted Cuscus (Spilocuscus rufoniger).

Unsurprisingly, the consumption habits of the United States pose the most threats, followed by Japan, Germany and France. Developing countries often have rich biodiversity and economies based on raw materials, so they tend to be net exporters of threats to species.

According to Edgar Hertwich, professor of energy and process engineering at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon. In China and India, home to one-third of the world’s population, people are being lifted out of poverty into the middle class, and consumption is shooting up. “We see what one billion rich people do. What happens when there’s five billion?” he asks.

Agreements to prevent international trade in endangered species have been in place for decades, and the same could be done for their habitats. At the upcoming Earth summit in Brazil, governments will discuss the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation framework (REDD). Originally designed to tackle climate change by applying a financial value to the carbon locked up in forests, the framework could have a side effect of slowing habitat destruction.

However, in a 2008 paper entitled “Where does biodiversity go from here?”, Paul Ehrlich and Robert Pringle note that capitalism is not especially compatible with conservation. “To subject ecosystems to all of the same demands and risks that commodities and corporations face in capitalist economies would be to ensure their eventual diminution and demise,” they say. Ecosystems are not replaceable, and should not be left entirely to the fickle hand of money.

Tagging products with biodiversity-footprint labels, like the carbon-footprint badges on air-freighted vegetables, could raise awareness of the problem. A shift in agricultural practices could stop the destruction of virgin forests. The authors of the paper suggest suppressing trade in specific commodities that cause the most threats. But what politician would be brave enough to take on Britain’s tea addiction?

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