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What is biodiversity? And why should you care?

Updated: May 18

By Cécile Klinguer

[email protected]

In recent years, we have become increasingly aware of the threats biodiversity continues to face. Ecosystems and species are disappearing at a rate never attained in our history, and the erosion of biodiversity is now recognised as the twin threat of climate change.

“Enough of brutalising biodiversity” said U.N. Secretary General António Guterres in his introduction to COP26, held in Glasgow in November 2021. “Enough of killing ourselves with carbon. Enough of treating nature like a toilet. Enough of burning and drilling and mining our way deeper. We are digging our own graves” he told world leaders.

Biodiversity is under threat, that’s for sure. But do you know what really is biodiversity? What it brings to humanity? What its erosion means for our societies as well as for our economic and industrial activities? And, above all, what you and your company can do to protect it?

What is biodiversity?

Although its meaning is as old as time, the word “biodiversity” is actually quite recent. It was coined in 1986 by combining the words “biology” and “diversity”. But there is much more behind this one word. Biodiversity includes all species – be they fauna, flora, fungi, bacteria or other lesser known living beings such as protists or archaea – as well as their living environment and all interactions between them. For example, consider an uncultivated field: its biodiversity of course includes all the plant species that grow in the field and all the animal species that live in or feed on these plants, but also the bacteria in the soil that allow organic matter to decompose, the relationship between pollinating insects and flowers, and the interaction between ants and aphids…

The services provided by biodiversity

It may seem that biodiversity and our industrialised societies are incompatible, and that the latter can only develop at the expense of the former. This is a misconception. Our economies have developed thanks to nature, and they still rely on the essential services provided by biodiversity.

The resources used in our daily lives and for most industrial activities mainly come from nature: food, water, wood, etc.

Ecosystems protect mankind from natural disasters (e.g. mangroves that protect shores from erosion) and regulate pathogens.

Supporting services include soil formation or genetic diversity that allows humans to diversify their agricultural possibilities and livestock farming.

Nature is our first and foremost source of inspiration. Biomimicry is essential for the engineering, pharmaceuticals or cosmetics fields.

Cultural benefits
The tourism economy as well as the social benefits of preserved ecosystems (on well-being, art,….) are also a significant contribution of biodiversity.

One crucial point needs to be stressed: biodiversity is a balance in which all elements are interdependent. The variety of species found on Earth and the many interconnections between them are the result of millions of years of common evolution. And this evolution is still going on today.

Biodiversity adapts and has always adapted to changes in climate and environment. So why should we care about the changes we are facing today? Because of the speed with which they are now occurring.

The state of biodiversity today

The biodiversity we know today is the result of almost 4 billion years of evolution, since the first unicellular beings appeared in the primary oceans. Since the emergence of humans about 4 million years ago, some species have developed, thrived and declined – for example, we no longer see sabre-toothed cats. Biodiversity has indeed evolved, but at a very slow rate. And that is the core issue with the current situation: in addition to species being hunted to extinction, the climate and environment are changing so fast that the remaining species cannot adapt quickly enough.

Figure 1: Surface temperature evolution for the last 2 millennia. Temperatures were measured directly after 1880. Data prior to 1880 were inferred by studying tree rings, corals and ice cores. The graph above shows how quickly conditions have changed since the late 1970s, making it extremely difficult for life forms to adapt to new environments.

The rate of species extinction is now 100 to 1000 times higher than its “normal” value, and it it still increasing. The consequences are the depletion and standardisation of biodiversity:

  • Depletion, as more and more species disappear: scientists even claim that we have entered a new extinction episode, like the one that saw the end of the dinosaurs, although it is now incredibly faster (for comparison, the disappearance of the dinosaurs took about 32,000 years, which is already very fast in geological time).
  • Standardisation, because the species that survive are often “generalists”, able to live in various environments (e.g. rats or pigeons, which have a diverse diet and thrive in urbanised environments), as opposed to specialised species, which only live in very specific environmental conditions, and are therefore highly sensitive to small changes in these conditions (e.g. koalas, which entirely rely on their eucalyptus-based diet).

The impacts of human activities on biodiversity

Modern human activities have devastating effects on biodiversity. The main threats to nature are, in order of importance:

  • Habitat degradation or destruction…

… replaced mainly by monocultures, pastures or industries. Species that used to live in these habitats disappear or migrate, overpopulating other environments and creating a high stress for local species.

  • Overexploitation of resources…

… leading to a disruption of the balance on which biodiversity is based. Overfishing of herring, for example, not only threatens the herring species but also all fish, birds and aquatic mammals that depend on the large herring shoals for food. A decrease in the availability of herring leads to a decline in all species in the food chain.

  • Climate change…

… in particular temperature changes are a major threat to biodiversity. Dry environments are becoming even drier, making it impossible for living beings to survive. Temperatures have a huge impact on many aspects of biodiversity. For example, they determine the mating cycles of some birds or even the gender of newborn reptiles before they hatch.

  • Pollution…

… resulting from human activities that poison soils, air and water. It sometimes affects environments hundreds of kilometres away from the primary source of pollution, such as the “seventh continent”, immense plastic clusters floating in our oceans (the largest one is 3.4 million square kilometres, or 6 times the size of France).

  • Introduction of invasive exotic species…

… directly by humans or by migration from their initial environment. These species disrupt the balance of the ecosystems in which they arrive, creating stress on other species that struggle to survive or even collapse. For example, the Pueraria montana is a vine native to Japan that has colonised parts of the United States and caused the shading and death of many indigenous plants.

The effects of biodiversity erosion on human societies and the economy

Biodiversity provides invisible but essential services to humanity; its loss and standardisation is already having a huge impact on our daily lives.

In terms of health for example, air pollution created by our industries and cars is known to be responsible for heart and pulmonary diseases and almost 4.2 million premature deaths each year. Yet biodiversity, and especially plants, can help improve air quality by absorbing or dispersing pollutants. The loss of nature, especially in urban areas, increases the risk for inhabitants to develop pollution-related diseases.

But the protective aspect of biodiversity is best demonstrated when considering extreme climate events such as droughts, floods, storms, avalanches… Some ecosystems act as barriers against these disasters: wetlands and floodplains prevent flooding, coral reefs and mangroves protect against storms and waves… Without these buffers, natural disasters would be even more extreme and occur more frequently.

All these dramatic events will most likely increase poverty and inequality, as artificial protection measures will be expensive and not affordable for all. It also seems quite irrational to bet on these future technologies to replace what nature has always provided. The cost of these “repairs” was quantified in 2006 by the economist Nicholas Stern in a report published for the UK government. About 12,000 billion euros (approximately 15% of today’s global GDP) will have to be invested in 2050 to “fix” what biodiversity now provides for free.

What can you do now?

It is essential to raise awareness of the state of biodiversity. Species are disappearing at an alarming rate and the irreversible loss they represent will strongly impact our health, economies and lifestyles. Today, companies focus mainly on greenhouse gas emissions, as these are easier to assess and monitor than biodiversity. Of course, further efforts are needed to address this issue. However, biodiversity is no less important, and much less considered.

Companies can now play a role in this fight:

  • by measuring their impact on biodiversity, for example with the Global Biodiversity Score developed by CDC Biodiversité;
  • by avoiding, reducing or compensating impacts such as soil artificialisation they are responsible for;
  • by educating their stakeholders, employees, clients, suppliers, etc. on these issues.

If you are looking for advice on how to assess and manage the impact of your activities on biodiversity, reach out to Cécile Klinguer ([email protected]), Consultant in Environmental Intelligence at Greenfish.

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