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About Biodiversity

photo credits: Domi-UNEP-Alpha Presse photo credits: Z.Yi-UNEP-Alpha Presse photo credits: flickr.com/photos/brewbooks

  • Value
  • Loss
  • Action

Value of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

Biological diversity - or biodiversity - is the term given to the variety of life on Earth and the natural patterns it forms. The biodiversity we see today is the fruit of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. It forms the web of life of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend.

This diversity is often understood in terms of the wide variety of plants, animals and microorganisms. So far, about 1.75 million species have been identified, mostly small creatures such as insects. Scientists reckon that there are actually about 13 million species, though estimates range from three to 100 million.

Biodiversity also includes genetic differences within each species - for example, between varieties of crops and breeds of livestock. Chromosomes, genes, and DNA-the building blocks of life-determine the uniqueness of each individual and each species.

It is the combination of life forms and their interactions with each other and with the rest of the environment that has made Earth a uniquely habitable place for humans. Biodiversity provides a large number of goods and services that sustain our lives.

Protecting biodiversity is in our self-interest. Biological resources are the pillars upon which we build civilizations. Nature's products support such diverse industries as agriculture, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, pulp and paper, horticulture, construction and waste treatment. The loss of biodiversity threatens our food supplies, opportunities for recreation and tourism, and sources of wood, medicines and energy. It also interferes with essential ecological functions.

Our need for pieces of nature we once ignored is often important and unpredictable. Time after time we have rushed back to nature's cupboard for cures to illnesses or for infusions of tough genes from wild plants to save our crops from pest outbreaks. What's more, the vast array of interactions among the various components of biodiversity makes the planet habitable for all species, including humans. Our personal health, and the health of our economy and human society, depends on the continuous supply of various ecological services that would be extremely costly or impossible to replace. These natural services are so varied as to be almost infinite. For example, it would be impractical to replace, to any large extent, services such as pest control performed by various creatures feeding on one another, or pollination performed by insects and birds going about their everyday business.

"Goods and Services" provided by ecosystems include:
  • Provision of food, fuel and fibre
  • Provision of shelter and building materials
  • Purification of air and water
  • Detoxification and decomposition of wastes
  • Stabilization and moderation of the Earth's climate
  • Moderation of floods, droughts, temperature extremes and the forces of wind
  • Generation and renewal of soil fertility, including nutrient cycling
  • Pollination of plants, including many crops
  • Control of pests and diseases
  • Maintenance of genetic resources as key inputs to crop varieties and livestock breeds, medicines, and other products
  • Cultural and aesthetic benefits
  • Ability to adapt to change

Why we are losing biodiversity

When most people think of the dangers besetting the natural world, they think of the threat to other creatures. Declines in the numbers of such charismatic animals as pandas, tigers, elephants, whales, and various species of birds, have drawn world attention to the problem of species at risk. Species have been disappearing at up to 1000 times the natural rate, and this is predicted to rise dramatically. Based on current trends, an estimated 34,000 plant and 5,200 animal species—including one in eight of the world's bird species—face extinction. For thousands of years we have been developing a vast array of domesticated plants and animals important for food. But this treasure house is shrinking as modern commercial agriculture focuses on relatively few crop varieties. And, about 30% of breeds of the main farm animal species are currently at high risk of extinction.

While the loss of individual species catches our attention, it is the fragmentation, degradation, and outright loss of forests, wetlands, coral reefs, and other ecosystems that poses the gravest threat to biological diversity. Forests are home to much of the known terrestrial biodiversity, but about 45% of the Earth's original forests are gone, cleared mostly during the past century. Despite some regrowth, the world's total forests are still shrinking rapidly, particularly in the tropics. Up to 10% of coral reefs - among the richest ecosystems - have been destroyed, and one third of the remainder face collapse over the next 10 to 20 years. Coastal mangroves, a vital nursery habitat for countless species, are also vulnerable, with half already gone.

Global atmospheric changes, such as ozone depletion and climate change, only add to the stress. A thinner ozone layer lets more ultraviolet-B radiation reach the Earth's surface where it damages living tissue. Global warming is already changing habitats and the distribution of species. Scientists warn that even a one-degree increase in the average global temperature, if it comes rapidly, will push many species over the brink. Our food production systems could also be seriously disrupted.

The loss of biodiversity often reduces the productivity of ecosystems, thereby shrinking nature's basket of goods and services, from which we constantly draw. It destabilizes ecosystems, and weakens their ability to deal with natural disasters such as floods, droughts, and hurricanes, and with human-caused stresses, such as pollution and climate change. Already, we are spending huge sums in response to flood and storm damage exacerbated by deforestation; such damage is expected to increase due to global warming.

The reduction in biodiversity also hurts us in other ways. Our cultural identity is deeply rooted in our biological environment. Plants and animals are symbols of our world, preserved in flags, sculptures, and other images that define us and our societies. We draw inspiration just from looking at nature's beauty and power.

While loss of species has always occurred as a natural phenomenon, the pace of extinction has accelerated dramatically as a result of human activity. Ecosystems are being fragmented or eliminated, and innumerable species are in decline or already extinct. We are creating the greatest extinction crisis since the natural disaster that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. These extinctions are irreversible and, given our dependence on food crops, medicines and other biological resources, pose a threat to our own well-being. It is reckless if not downright dangerous to keep chipping away at our life support system. It is unethical to drive other forms of life to extinction, and thereby deprive present and future generations of options for their survival and development. Can we save the world's ecosystems, and with them the species we value and the other millions of species, some of which may produce the foods and medicines of tomorrow? The answer will lie in our ability to bring our demands into line with nature's ability to produce what we need and to safely absorb what we throw away.

Action for Biodiversity

Private companies, landowners, fishermen, and farmers take most of the actions that affect biodiversity. Governments need to provide the critical role of leadership, particularly by setting rules that guide the use of natural resources, and by protecting biodiversity where they have direct control over the land and water. Under the Convention, governments undertake to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity. They are required to develop national biodiversity strategies and action plans, and to integrate these into broader national plans for environment and development. This is particularly important for such sectors as forestry, agriculture, fisheries, energy, transportation and urban planning. Other treaty commitments include:

  • Identify and monitor the important components of biodiversity that need to be conserved and used sustainably
  • Establish protected areas to conserve biodiversity while promoting environmentally sound development around these areas
  • Rehabilitate and restore degraded ecosystems and promote the recovery of threatened species in collaboration with local residents
  • Respect, preserve and maintain traditional knowledge of the sustainable use of biodiversity with the involvement of indigenous peoples and local communities
  • Prevent the introduction of, control, and eradicate alien species that could threaten ecosystems, habitats or species
  • Control the risks posed by organisms modified by biotechnology
  • Promote public participation, particularly when it comes to assessing the environmental impacts of development projects that threaten biodiversity
  • Educate people and raise awareness about the importance of biodiversity and the need to conserve it
  • Report on how each country is meeting its biodiversity goals.

While governments should play a leadership role, other sectors of society need to be actively involved. After all, it is the choices and actions of billions of individuals that will determine whether or not biodiversity is conserved and used sustainably.

In an era when economics is a dominant force in world affairs, it is more important than ever to have business willingly involved in environmental protection and the sustainable use of nature. Some companies have revenues far greater than those of entire countries, and their influence is immense. Fortunately, a growing number of companies have decided to apply the principles of sustainable development to their operations. For example, a number of forestry companies—often under intense pressure from environmental boycotts—have moved from clear-cutting to less destructive forms of timber harvesting. More companies have also found ways to make a profit while reducing their environmental impacts. They view sustainable development as ensuring long-term profitability and increased goodwill from their business partners, employees, and consumers. Local communities play a key role, since they are the true "managers" of the ecosystems in which they live and, thus, have a major impact on them. Many projects have been successfully developed in recent years involving the participation of local communities in the sustainable management of biodiversity, often with the valuable assistance of NGOs and intergovernmental organizations.

Finally, the ultimate decision-maker for biodiversity is the individual citizen. The small choices that individuals make add up to a large impact because it is personal consumption that drives development, which in turn uses and pollutes nature. By carefully choosing the products they buy and the government policies that they support, the general public can begin to steer the world towards sustainable development. Governments, companies, and others have a responsibility to lead and inform the public, but ultimately it is individual choices, made billions of times a day, that count the most.