22 May marks International Day for Biological Diversity
Today is an opportune moment to reflect on the importance of the earth’s vast biodiversity. For many of us, protecting species from extinction is a non-negotiable moral responsibility. But the reality of today’s rapidly changing world means there are also pragmatic – and urgent – reasons to commit funding and political will to biodiversity protection.
Below, we outline five reasons to save species, secure habitats, and preserve invaluable ecosystems.
1. Biodiversity protects against climate change
Healthy ecosystems mitigate climate change. That’s why a common rallying cry is to tackle the biodiversity and climate crisis together.
Biodiversity is key to regulating the planet’s operating system. When we destroy ecosystems, we also damage earth’s natural ability to regulate greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. One of the most valuable ecosystem services is sponging carbon from the atmosphere, with habitats such as forests and moors being huge storers of carbon.
Certain rich ecosystems also protect against extreme weather events – on the rise due to climate change – by absorbing flood water or providing coastal buffers. Coral reefs and mangroves, for example, can cushion coastal areas against cyclones and tsunamis.
2. Biodiversity ensures food security
Humans depend on biodiversity to eat. Droves of species work together in complex ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years so that we can harvest fruits, vegetables, and animal products for the dinner table. If we want to keep the global food system ticking, we can’t let biodiversity fall by the wayside.
Pollination, for one, is a key ecosystem service. When populations of bees or butterflies dwindle, we lose important pollinators for the food we grow. As much as one third of global food production depends on insect pollination.
3. Biodiversity fights disease
As biodiversity declines, humans face greater risk of zoonotic disease and lose potential cures for health problems across the spectrum.
Seventy per cent of all emerging infectious diseases – like Ebola, Zika, influenza, and HIV/Aids – are zoonotic. This means they spread from animals to humans (and vice versa). There are many indicators that the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in part from our exploitation of nature, given that space for ecosystems to flourish is diminishing. Deforestation and urbanization foster the spread of infections by bringing us closer to dangerous pathogens.
Not only does protecting habitats prevent zoonotic disease, but we depend on biodiversity to develop new medicines. Twenty five per cent of drugs used in modern medicine are derived from rainforest plants, while 70 per cent of cancer drugs are natural or synthetic products inspired by nature.
4. Biodiversity supports communities
People and communities across the globe depend on biodiversity to maintain their livelihoods. Each year, humans derive a whopping USD 125 trillion of value from the world’s ecosystems.
In the Global South alone, forests provide livelihoods for over 1.6 billion people. Similarly, the agricultural sector – upon which so many communities and cultures depend – needs biodiversity to thrive.
Over millennia, indigenous people have lived alongside rich biodiversity, and many of the most outstanding natural landscapes today have been protected by these communities. By preserving these natural areas, we also preserve cultures and ways of life.
5. Biodiversity yields economic benefits
While economic gains are routinely used to justify habitat destruction, the paradoxical truth is that more than half of the world’s GDP is at risk due to loss of nature and biodiversity.
Industries such as food, commercial forestry and ecotourism could lose close to USD 340 billion should biodiversity loss continue at this pace. Unfortunately, the costs for biodiversity and ecosystem services often aren’t accounted for in economic analyses.
The “restoration economy” – which entails the restoring of natural landscapes – is also gaining traction. It’s estimated that for every dollar spent on nature restoration, we gain USD nine dollars in economic benefits.