In 2000, the United Nations proclaimed 22nd May as the International Day for Biological Diversity to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues. As we observe this day in our homes in the midst of a pandemic, let’s find out what makes biodiversity important for every living being on this planet (including us humans).
Theme for International Day for Biodiversity 2020
The theme for the day is “Our Solutions are in Nature”. 2020 is a year of opportunity and solutions. It is the year where the world can signal a strong global framework that will “bend the curve” on biodiversity loss.
Why this theme for 2020?
Whether it is food security, climate change, water security, human health, disaster risk or economic development, natural solutions can help in each aspect.
Nature-based solutions with biodiversity safeguards are key for the mitigation, resilience and adaptation in several critical areas, including:
– the conservation and restoration of forest and other terrestrial ecosystems;
– the conservation and restoration of freshwater resources as well as marine and ocean ecosystems;
– sustainable agriculture and food systems; and,
– ensuring nature’s systemic role in sustainable development in ways that halt biodiversity loss, help mitigate and adapt to climate change, as well as optimising nature’s contribution for, among other things, resilient livelihoods, green infrastructure, and sustainable settlements.
What is biodiversity?
In reality, biodiversity refers to a simple concept, relevant to everyone on the planet, because it is nature, it is life itself and it is the diversity of life, on many levels, from the smallest (genes, the building blocks of life) to plant and animal species, up to the most complex levels (ecosystems). All these levels intersect, influence each other and evolve.
Species and varieties of an ecosystem could be compared to the rivets that hold a plane together. If we start removing rivets, for a while nothing will happen and the airplane will continue to operate. But little by little the structure will weaken and, at a certain point, removing just one more rivet will cause the plane to crash.
Why is biodiversity important?
Biodiversity is key for food security and nutrition; and contributes to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 1 on poverty eradication and Goal 2 on zero hunger. For example, pollination is one of the most important mechanisms in the maintenance and promotion of biodiversity and life on Earth. Pollinators and pollination are critical for food production and human livelihoods, and directly link wild ecosystems with agricultural production systems. The soil’s ecosystem; microorganisms and invertebrates; are also critical for food security.
Following a comprehensive study, the University of Exeter in England in 2018 declared that earth is undergoing its sixth mass extinction (during the fifth, 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs disappeared). There is a substantial difference between this and the extinctions of the past: the cause. For the first time, humankind is responsible.
Humans continue to destroy rainforests, cement over the land, pollute the water and soil with chemical pesticides and fertilizers and accumulate plastic in the oceans. And they insist on marginalizing the earth’s last custodians: those small-scale farmers, herders and fishers that understand and respect the fragile equilibrium of nature.
If biodiversity disappears, together with wild flora and fauna, many plants domesticated by man and animal breeds selected for their milk or meat will also disappear. According to the FAO, 75% of edible plant varieties have been irreversibly lost. In the United States the figure is 95%. Today 60% of the world’s food is based on three cereals: wheat, rice and corn. Not on the thousands of rice varieties selected by farmers that once were cultivated in India, but on a few hybrid varieties sold to farmers by multinational corporations.
2020 will be a make-or-break year for biodiversity
The UN General Assembly had declared the period 2011-2020 as the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity. As the year 2020 brings the decade to a close, the scientific community has repeatedly sounded the alarm on biodiversity breakdown and the climate emergency.
Scientists and most governments agree that the world is facing an unprecedented environmental crisis. Huge numbers of species are on the brink of extinction and global temperatures continue to rise. Nature-based solutions offer the best way to achieve human well-being, address climate change and protect the planet. Yet nature is in crisis. We are losing species at a rate 1,000 times greater than at any other time in recorded human history.
Humans depend for their very survival on stable and healthy ecosystems. Urgent action is needed in 2020 to get the world on track to a more sustainable future. This is a “super year” for the environment. A make-or-break year in which key international meetings will set the tone and agenda for environmental action in the decade ahead.
5 Ways Loss of Biodiversity Affects Human Beings
Human-driven nature and biodiversity loss is threatening life on our planet. Biodiversity loss affects humans more severely than you could imagine.
All species, including humans, depend for their survival on the delicate balance of life in nature. Yet biodiversity—the diversity within species, between species, and within ecosystems—is declining faster than it has at any other time in human history. Although the world’s 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living creatures, humanity has already caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants. How we grow food, produce energy, dispose of waste and consume resources is destroying nature’s delicate balance of clean air, water and life that all species—including humans—depend on for survival.
The dramatic loss of biodiversity brings serious risks for societies, economies and the health of the planet. Sir Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), observes:
“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people sound, to many people, academic and far removed from our daily lives… Nothing could be further from the truth—they are the bedrock of our food, clean water and energy.”
Humans rely on biodiversity in fundamental ways, from pollinating crops to curing diseases. Biodiversity loss affects humans and has come to threaten the very foundations of our economy. One attempt to put a monetary value on goods and services provided by ecosystems estimates the worth of biodiversity at US$33 trillion per year—close to the GDP of the United States and China combined. According to The Global Risks Report 2020 by the World Economic Forum: Risks arising from biodiversity loss include:
1. Food insecurity
Biodiversity underpins the world’s food system. It creates and maintains healthy soils, pollinates plants, purifies water and protects against extreme weather events, among other vital services. The ongoing loss of diversity in indigenous domesticated plants and animals is undermining the resilience of agricultural systems against pests, pathogens and climate change.
Declining diversity of fish species is correlated with lower catches and higher incidence of stock collapse. A new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifies another risk: increased carbon-dioxide levels are lowering the nutritional value of food staples such as rice and wheat.
2. Health risks
Well-functioning ecosystems support human health by providing clean air and water and a source of medicines. An estimated 50,000–70,000 plant species are harvested for traditional or modern medicine, and around 50% of modern drugs were developed from natural products. Researchers are increasingly “reverting to nature” to look for new therapeutic options, efforts that are threatened by biodiversity loss. Species currently endangered by biodiversity loss include the South American cinchona tree, the source of the malaria drug quinine.
In many cases, natural molecules for medical treatments are so complex that scientists are not yet able to chemically synthesize them, so they must harvest and store plants and seeds.
Some threatened organisms are critical for medical research: the Mexican axolotl for example, has unique characteristics that enable instructive comparisons with the human genome. It is one of the world’s most recognizable salamanders, and has a unique ability to regenerate severed limbs, which unlocks medicinal and scientific opportunities for everything from tissue repair to development and cancer. After centuries of inbreeding, captive populations are at risk and scientists could lose the opportunity to learn vital information about the animal’s biology that could have significant benefits for human health.
3. Exacerbation of climate change
Terrestrial and marine biodiversity together support the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the conservation of carbon sinks, sequestering 5.6 gigatonnes of carbon per year—the equivalent of 60% of global human-driven emissions. The health of ecosystems that sequester carbon can depend on individual species: for example, endangered forest elephants are vital to the health of Central Africa’s rainforests. Collapse of this ecosystem could release 3 billion tonnes of carbon, the equivalent of France’s emissions for 27 years.
Phytoplankton provide another example of how depletion of species and ecosystems could exponentially worsen the climate crisis: these microscopic plants that drift at the sea surface absorb carbon dioxide on a scale comparable to the world’s forests, and they are threatened by warming oceans.
4. Business risks
The destruction of nature will inevitably impact bottom lines—for example, through reduced fish stocks disrupting commodity supply chains, economic losses from disasters such as flooding, and the loss of potential new sources of medicine. Extractives, construction, energy, fashion and textiles are among the sectors especially vulnerable to ecological destruction.
All businesses should account for ecological risks to their operations and reputations, yet few do: a recent study of Fortune 500 companies found that nearly half mentioned biodiversity in their sustainability reports, but only five set specific, measurable and time-bound targets. Nature-related risks are undervalued in business decision-making.
5. Risks to indigenous communities
Indigenous communities often rely on their diverse local ecosystems for food and other resources: for example, 60% of the world’s indigenous population uses largely plant-based traditional medicines. And the rest of humanity relies on indigenous communities to be stewards of ecosystems, protecting and preserving environmental resources.
Indigenous peoples comprise less than 5% of the world’s population but protect 80% of its biodiversity. Beyond these known risks are unknowable losses—the risk of losing species we have not yet discovered that could have been domesticated for crops or given rise to new medicinal breakthroughs.
For example, the ocean represents a “virtually untapped resource for discovery of novel chemicals with pharmaceutical potential,” and recent bacterial samples from coastal sediments grown under saline conditions have yielded new antibiotic, antitumor and antiinflammatory compounds.
Another recently discovered ocean organism, a rare genus of marine bacteria called Serinicoccus, was shown to selectively destroy melanoma cancer cells. With continued loss of biodiversity, we may never know what we have missed out on.
Business rationale for restoring ecosystems
On average, the costs of restoration are outweighed tenfold by its benefits to communities. Restoring coastal mangroves, for example, can protect land from storm surges and coastal erosion, develop fisheries and support ecotourism. Investing in the restoration of wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs could reduce insurance costs for businesses in coastal areas vulnerable to flooding.
Likewise, financing ecological forestry practices could reduce insurance costs for businesses, such as power and water utilities, that are exposed to wildfire risks. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), restoring 46% of the world’s degraded forests could provide up to US$30 in benefits for every dollar spent, boosting local employment and increasing community awareness of biodiversity’s importance.
A critical challenge for the biodiversity agenda will be finding investment models that mobilize private finance to capture a share of this opportunity. New approaches are emerging, such as resilience-financing structures through which businesses can invest in the restoration of ecosystems in return for a reduction in insurance premiums or risk-financing costs. Better data to track the effectiveness of investments will be critical.
Habitat protection and restoration are highly beneficial public goods for which government investment is more than justified. The People’s Bank of China, for instance, now offers capital relief for banks that make green loans. The International Union for Conservation of Nature is developing a species conservation metric that will help companies, banks and governments to quantify their contribution. A renewed interest in nature-based solutions can help combat climate change as well as mitigate the exacerbating effects of nature loss on the climate.
The UN declared 2010 to be the International Year of Biodiversity. Notwithstanding 10 years later, general confusion persists about what precisely biodiversity is, why it relates to human prosperity and how to confront its loss.
From the total collapse of food and health systems to the disruption of entire supply chains, biodiversity loss affects humans adversely if we don’t act right now!
Key international meetings planned for 2020
Co-hosted by the Governments of Kenya and Portugal, the Conference is expected to adopt an intergovernmental declaration on science-based and innovative areas of action. Also a list of voluntary commitments, to support implementation of SDG 14 (Life Below Water).
15 September: 75th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA 75) in New York. A Biodiversity Leaders’ Summit might take place at the same time and place. These will provide prime opportunities for world leaders to declare that it is no longer acceptable to continue to degrade our planet.
27 September: 5th anniversary of the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals
5–10 October: COP 15 in China
Decisions on related topics including capacity-building and resource mobilization to be made. COP 15 will also include the 10th Meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (Cartagena Protocol COP/MOP 10). They are expected to address a series of issues related to the implementation of the Convention and its Protocols.
As part of the process to develop the post-2020 framework, negotiations will be held in the context of an open-ended inter-sessional working group, and co-chaired by Francis Ogwal (Uganda) and Basile van Havre (Canada). Meetings of the Group are scheduled in Kunming, China, from 24–28 February 2020 and 27–31 July 2020 in Colombia.
9–20 November Glasgow, Scotland, UK: 2020 UN Climate Change Conference: “UNFCCC COP 26”
UNEP’s annual Emissions Gap Report warns that unless global greenhouse gas emissions fall by 7.6% each year between 2020 and 2030, the world will miss the opportunity to meet the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals. On current unconditional pledges in 2020, the world is heading for a 3.2°C temperature rise. The G20 nations account almost 80 per cent of all emissions, but 15 G20 members have not committed to a timeline for net-zero emissions.
Biodiversity protection initiatives around the world
The international grassroots organisation Slow Food is putting in place projects to protect biodiversity around the world. To preserve the wealth of domesticated biodiversity, Slow Food created the Ark of Taste, which collects plants, animals and food products (breads, cheeses, cured meats etc) at risk of extinction that belong to the culture, history and traditions of communities around the world.
Another initiative that directly involves the food producers is the Presidia. Presidia are projects that take concrete action to safeguard a traditional food (an Ark product), a traditional technique (for fishing, farming, food processing, cultivation, etc), a rural landscape or an ecosystem.
The battle to save biodiversity is not just any battle. It is a battle for the future of the planet.