By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Climate change and the Kyoto Protocol are all over the news these days. But the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that launched the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and ultimately, the Kyoto Protocol, also gave rise to another critical international environmental treaty.

Do you remember what it was?

You would be forgiven if you didn't. Although the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) opened for signature in Rio with much fanfare, it hasn't received the attention that climate change and Kyoto have gotten over the past 15 years. And that's a shame, because it's a very laudable initiative that hasn't made it into the public consciousness — yet.

Like the Kyoto Protocol, the CBD includes targets and timelines for signatories to meet. For Kyoto, the goal was to get participating countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. For the CBD, it was to reduce the rate of species loss. This was a landmark decision. For the first time, countries around the world recognized that the planet's diversity of life, or biodiversity, was a common good and that it was in our best interests to conserve it for future generations.

Scientists felt that an agreement like this was essential because the planet was — and still is — undergoing a major biodiversity crisis. Globally, some 16,000 species that we know of are threatened with extinction. These creatures are at risk from human activities such as logging, pollution, poaching, overfishing, global warming and other forms of habitat destruction.

Far from being just an emotional issue about cute furry creatures, or as scientists sometimes say "charismatic megafauna," protecting biodiversity is important for all humanity. The wide variety of life on this planet provides a host of natural services that would be expensive and virtually impossible to duplicate, such as providing food, building materials and medicine, and also nutrient cycling and pollination. Around the world, two-thirds of these ecosystem services are in decline.

Canada was the first industrialized country to sign the CBD, which became a source of pride for many Canadians — including me. When I attended the Rio Earth Summit, the CBD offered hope that countries were taking their responsibilities seriously and moving to a more sustainable path. Under the CBD, Canada and 167 other signatory nations, promised to work to reduce the loss of species within our own countries. It seemed like a good first step.

However, Canada's main response to our obligations under CBD has been to develop the national Species at Risk Act, otherwise known as SARA. While good on paper, this Act has proven woefully inadequate to protect Canada's species. It generally defers to the provinces unless an endangered species pops up on federal land — which accounts for less than five per cent of the land base of Canada — or is considered a "federal" species, which only refers to specific wildlife like marine mammals and migratory birds. So far, under SARA, species like the Northern Spotted Owl have continued to decline and face certain extinction. This was certainly not the spirit or the intent of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

While many countries around the world have also not lived up to their promises to protect biodiversity, Canada should be especially embarrassed. Our country actually houses the Secretariat for the Convention on Biological Diversity. It's based in Montreal. And Canada made quite a show of being the first industrialized country to sign the treaty. To quietly sweep our failure under the carpet is another black mark on Canada's increasingly shady environmental record.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global warming will be one of the key drivers of biodiversity loss this century. So the two issues are intricately connected. What we need is a parallel track to conserve biodiversity running alongside our actions to reduce global warming. What we're missing right now is the political will to get us there.

June 8, 2007