(October 2001) PRB recently spoke with Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, chief biodiversity advisor for the World Bank, about prospects for the Conference on Sustainable Development to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa in September 2002. Preparations are underway to develop an agenda for the conference, known as “CSD10” since it marks the 10-year anniversary of the original Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

A lifelong environmentalist, Lovejoy is perhaps best known for putting the state of tropical rainforests on the public agenda. He directed the World Wildlife Fund’s U.S. program from the early 1970s to the late 1980s and is credited with coining the term “biological diversity.” In 1987, Lovejoy joined the Smithsonian Institution, eventually becoming counselor to the secretary for biodiversity and environmental affairs. In 1998, he took his current position at the World Bank. He also serves as senior advisor to the president of the United Nations Foundation. Over the years, he has also served on the White House Science Council, the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology, the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, and in the United Nations Environment Programme. Lovejoy holds a Ph.D. in biology from Yale University and is author or editor of several books, including Global Warming and Biological Diversity (with R.L. Peters) and Key Environments: Amazonia (with G.T. Prance). He is also the founder of Nature, the most popular long-running series on public television.

PRB: What do you think can be accomplished at CSD10?

Lovejoy: I think it’s an opportunity to look back at the past 10 years and see what has been accomplished and what hasn’t been… and try to see if there are ways to put some more momentum into the [environmental] movement.

PRB: Where do you think a breakthrough could be achieved? Is there an area in which there is an emerging consensus that a conference like this one could synthesize?

Lovejoy: It’s a really good question. I would hope by then that we would have made more progress on climate change than we have at the moment. It’s very hard to imagine going to Johannesburg without the United States having made some move, or moves, but the administration seems to be taking its sweet time!

… One of the most interesting things about [climate change] — and this is a question that some colleagues of mine and I have been looking at — is whether you can use biological diversity to define what is an acceptable level of greenhouse gas concentration [in the atmosphere]. The truth is there’s no obvious way to draw the line except where you would have drawn it a century ago. It turns out that at double pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide, one of the two biological hotspots in southern Africa will be mostly wiped out. Its climatic conditions move almost entirely to the east and shrink …. This suggests that whatever is acceptable is less than double pre-industrial emissions of CO2 — this is much more immediate than anybody is treating climate change. By actually having the conference in Johannesburg, I think that point will come out.

PRB: If the US and the European countries fail to resolve their differences over climate change before CSD10, how do you expect the US to approach the issue of climate change in the run-up to the conference?

Lovejoy: Whatever the US is going to do, the US has to come up with something that has a bottom line of serious contribution. This has been portrayed as a problem for the US economy, when if you take it seriously it becomes an opportunity for the US economy — that’s the way it should be looked at.

PRB: By a serious contribution, do you mean more than simply trying to find technological solutions?

Lovejoy: I just mean doing things that will bring down US emissions, whatever they are … some of it will have to be done with fossil fuels instead of sinks, because the US just won’t be taken seriously otherwise. We’ve seen the US economy grow in the past without increasing energy consumption, so it’s not impossible at all.

PRB: Leaving climate change aside, what themes do you see the US as most interested in promoting in the run-up to Johannesburg?

Lovejoy: I don’t know whether the government has given it much thought at this point. My guess is they haven’t — that’s usually the way it is, and that’s certainly not unique to this administration. I think one opportunity that’s quite interesting on the biodiversity side is the invasive species problem. I think there’s a center that’s being created in South Africa to deal with that.

PRB: Do you think an agreement could be reached on that issue?

Lovejoy: I think we could advance that agenda in a substantive way. It’s sufficiently non-ideological that most nations could buy into it.

PRB: One of the themes that has been discussed by US officials is promoting local public sector capacity for environmental protection in less developed countries, not just for its own sake but also to give private companies that are interested in things like water treatment an effective local partner. Does this make sense to you as a priority?

Lovejoy: I think that’s very logical. The World Bank already does that kind of investment, but it’s probably only a small fraction of what needs to be done.

PRB: To what extent do you expect population issues to be addressed — not just growth, but urbanization and aging as well? To the extent that population issues are addressed, do you expect there to be any change in emphasis from the Cairo Agenda?

Lovejoy: I haven’t heard population issues mentioned in connection with the conference. At the same time, it seems ipso facto impossible to discuss sustainable development without including the population element in all of its dimensions, including immigration and everything. People may dance around it, but it’s got to be there … I would expect that the real target here is to try to advance the agenda that emerged from Cairo. I think Cairo was well-worked out and made a lot of sense.

PRB: In what ways do you think CSD10 can raise public awareness and understanding of environmental issues?

Lovejoy: By giving some attention to what some of the real consequences of climate change might be, which is a much better understood subject today than it was in 1992. Also some of the technological options that are available for dealing with climate change — some of those have really developed.

PRB: Given that the conference is taking place in Africa, do you think desertification — a problem that is particularly severe in that part of the world — will get more attention than it has in the past, particularly in the American press?

Lovejoy: I’m sure that will be the focus of a lot of discussion. And it should be.

PRB: What kind of role will the World Bank play in the conference?

Lovejoy: We’re already discussing possibilities, such as doing something on the invasive species issue, for example. That’s an aspect of biodiversity that we haven’t paid a lot of attention to. There are some of us who would like to look at that more seriously, particularly in institution-building, helping developing countries to deal with it.

PRB: When you look back on this conference years from now, what will have had to happen for you to feel that it was a success?

Lovejoy: I would like to see a serious renewed commitment on the part of many nations, including the industrialized ones, to move this agenda along. It seems like a lot of energy has gone out of environment and sustainable development in the past few years. Some of that is not bad — it’s because it has become internalized — but it has also lost a lot of energy too.

PRB: Is that mainly due to changes in the US, or is it bigger than that?

Lovejoy: I think it’s bigger than that, although the US plays a big part. We used to be the major environmental leader, and that’s no longer true. There’s no reason it has to be that way.


Bingham Kennedy, Jr. is a former associate editor at the Population Reference Bureau.