Five things about biodiversity

30 September 2020 ... min read

You can’t tackle climate change without tackling biodiversity loss. Nature is declining at an alarming rate, but it’s not too late to take action. Here’s five things you need to know about biodiversity.

Scientists believe that millions of species of plants and animals have yet to be discovered. Alt: A school of fish swim underwater among yellow and green sea plants.

Scientists believe that millions of species of plants and animals have yet to be discovered. Alt: A school of fish swim underwater among yellow and green sea plants.

1. What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth. It encompasses the rich diversity of ecosystems and the diversity within and between species.

There are an estimated 8.7 million species of plants and animals on Earth, with only about 1.7 million identified. Scientists believe millions of species have yet to be discovered.

The planet’s highest levels of biodiversity can be found in the tropics. Tropical rainforests cover less than 10% of the Earth’s surface but host about 90% of the world’s species.

Biodiversity is important for livelihoods, as more than 3 billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their income. It’s also important for health, as millions of species work together to provide us with the ingredients for a balanced diet.

Not to mention that a quarter of the drugs used in modern medicine are derived from rainforest plants. More than 70% of cancer drugs come from nature, or are synthetic but inspired by nature. Biodiversity is also needed for clean water and protection from extreme weather.

2. What’s causing the loss of biodiversity?

Nature is declining at a faster rate than at any other time in human history. Around 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction.

One of the leading causes for biodiversity loss is deforestation – the intentional destruction of rainforests to make way for areas used by humans, such as farmland for livestock or crops, or to harvest forests for lumber.

Another reason is urbanisation. Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992. As human activities encroach upon the natural world, the size and number of ecosystems decline.

Then there’s over-fishing, which changes the ecological balance of food chains, which lowers biodiversity. One in three freshwater species are now threatened with extinction. Pollution, changes to the flow of rivers and lakes, and mining also harm biodiversity by destroying habitats.

Finally, the introduction of invasive species has contributed to the loss of biodiversity around the world. Invasive species are organisms – plants, animals, insects, fish, fungus, or even the seeds of an organism —that live in an ecosystem where they don’t belong.

3. Can we reverse biodiversity loss?

Yes! Scientists believe we can restore the biodiversity loss caused by changes in land use by 2050. We can do this through things including sustainable increases in crop yields, cutting the share of animal calories in human diets by half, designating more sites as protected areas, and by combining conversation efforts with a transformation of global food systems.

Biodiversity can also be restored through nature itself. Remember: carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere contributes to the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Planting new forests and increasing the density of existing ones are effective nature-based solutions because forests absorb carbon. Once the forests absorb more carbon than they release, they become ‘carbon sinks’.

Even small-scale efforts like greening a roof can contribute to more biodiversity in a community.

In short, destroying nature and ecosystems is not a necessary ‘price’ we have to pay in order to feed the current world population of 8.7 billion people. Scientists and policymakers believe it is possible to halt tropical deforestation and protect other natural ecosystems while at the same time setting aside enough land to feed the world.

4. Why is the issue urgent now?

Some say that biodiversity is a bigger threat than climate change, because once a species is extinct, it can’t be brought back. Others fear we are heading for widespread ecological collapse.

Biodiversity is a big priority for the United Nations because the degradation of nature jeopardises progress towards 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Also, it’s clear that the main Paris Agreement goal to limit the increase in global temperatures cannot be achieved without intact and abundant tropical rainforests.

Ten years ago in Aichi, Japan, 196 countries agreed to 20 targets to halt the loss of biodiversity. But shockingly, a report published this month by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity concluded that none of the targets has been met. Only six were partially achieved.

So now is the chance to inject new urgency into the issue. And that chance is coming soon. In May 2021, the next once-in-a-decade UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15) is scheduled to take place in Kunming, China. New biodiversity targets will be negotiated there and set for the next decade. In preparation for Kunming, a biodiversity summit is being held on 30 September 2020 at UN headquarters in New York.

5. How are financial institutions responding?

Until recently, biodiversity wasn’t really addressed by banks and financial regulators as a separate issue. That’s changing. In June 2020, the Dutch Central Bank released a study about it and the potential financial impact of biodiversity loss on Dutch banks, pension funds and insurers. The ECB has also published a consultation guide on biodiversity.

“Biodiversity wasn’t really getting the attention it deserved,” says Rado Georgiev, a sustainability expert at ING. “Stakeholders were focusing on the climate; that was clearer in terms of risks and opportunities. But now we realise that you can’t tackle climate change without tackling biodiversity loss.”

ING’s risk policies include some sector-specific requirements related to biodiversity conservation. Biodiversity risk analysis takes place at the client and deal level.

ING doesn’t finance any projects with significant impacts on UNESCO heritage sites (which also includes natural sites such as the Great Barrier Reef), high-risk wetland sites, or areas designated for protection and conservation by the International Union for the Conversation of Nature (IUCN). “We see that biodiversity loss can lead to financial risks,” says Rado.

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