Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lab Earth

I watched the other day with my 18 year old daughter the film Blade Runner, which I had not seen since I'd watched it in a London West End cinema when it first came out in the early 1980s. When the film began, my daughter giggled because she thought it was amusing to see how Ridley Scott and his team had envisaged thirty years ago that the world in 2019 (tomorrow, that is for my daughter) would look more like a laboratory that's gone out of control than like a living planet.

Well, I'm sorry for my daughter but it looks like humankind may have made a giant step towards Blade Runner last week, with Craig Venter's synthetic life première announcement.

Besides all the obvious bioethical issues the announcement is raising, there is also a host of fundamental environmental questions that Richard Black addressed quite comprehensively on Friday in his blog.

Among the numerous issues raised, I'd been wondering for a while why well publicized plans to artificially develop algae thought to be liable to absorb CO2 (one of the most immediate objectives of Craig Venter's research programme in partnership with Exxon) and to be also a source of algae fuel are not causing more public debate.

A Draft Decision proposed for adoption at this year's Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) scheduled to take place in October in Nagoya, Japan contemplates the adoption of a moratorium. See draft Article 5(t) of the Draft Decision "In-Depth Review of The Work on Biodiversity and Climate Change":

"Ensure, [...] in accordance with the precautionary approach, that no climate related geo-engineering activities take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts."

In the Draft Decision moved at last week's meeting of the CBD's Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Techonological Advice (SBSTTA) Article 5(t) is in square brackets. In UN language, this means that there is no consensus, and that it will not be adopted in October unless civil society moves fast and campaigns effectively for its adoption.

On this International Year of Biodiversity, the United Nations and governments are having a hard time explaining why they've failed (as demonstrated in the Global Biodiversity Outlook report that was just published) to reverse the trend of biodiversity loss by 2010 as had been agreed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002. In this context, the adoption of a moratorium on geo-engineering would be a golden opportunity to mask this failure and to demonstrate that the Convention on Biological Diversity still has an effective role to play.

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