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Why is biodiversity important?

© Rod Mast

This post was updated on May 17, 2021.

Humanity must stop the pace of wildlife extinctions — or face extinction itself, according to a growing body of research.

At a time when more than 1 million species are at risk of extinction — and the links between human health and the health of the planet are clear — the stakes have never been higher, experts say.

But how exactly is biodiversity so important to humanity? Why is biodiversity necessary for the stability of the planet? It may not be self-evident, so here are five reasons.

1. Wildlife support healthy ecosystems that we rely on. 

Conservation researchers Paul R. and Anne Ehrlich posited in the 1980s that species are to ecosystems what rivets are to a plane’s wing. Losing one might not be a disaster, but each loss adds to the likelihood of a serious problem.

Whether in a village in the Amazon or a metropolis such as Beijing, humans depend on the services ecosystems provide, such as fresh water, pollination, soil fertility and stability, food and medicine. Ecosystems weakened by the loss of biodiversity are less likely to deliver those services, especially given the needs of an ever-growing human population.

One example of this is Kenya’s Lake Turkana — the world’s largest desert lake, a habitat for a variety of wildlife including birds, Nile crocodiles and hippos and a source of food and income for about 300,000 people. The lake is under heavy pressure because of overfishing, cyclical drought, changing rainfall patterns and the diversion of water by upstream developments, and these changes are leading to a loss of biodiversity, declines in fisheries’ yields and a reduced ability to support humans. Without conservation methods in place, this could be the fate of many more ecosystems.

2. Keeping biodiverse ecosystems intact helps humans stay healthy. 

Research indicates that there is a close link between disease outbreaks and the degradation of nature.

Seventy percent of emerging viral diseases have spread from animals to humans. As the global wildlife trade continues and development projects expand deeper into tropical forests, humans are increasing their exposure to wild animals — and the diseases they may carry. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic can likely be sourced to a wild animal and fish market in Wuhan, China. This shows that we must take care of nature to take care of ourselves. 

Deforestation is also accelerating climate breakdown, which in turn may boost the spread of disease by allowing disease carriers like mosquitoes to extend their geographic ranges and infect new populations of humans. 

With COVID-19, we’ve seen the damage that diseases can do not only to human health, but also to the global economy. By protecting biodiversity in Earth’s ecosystems, countries could save lives and money, while helping to prevent future pandemics.  

3. Biodiversity is an essential part of the solution to climate change.  

In a landmark study published in 2017, a group of researchers led by Bronson Griscom, who researches natural climate solutions at Conservation International, discovered that nature can deliver at least 30 percent of the emissions reductions needed by 2030 to prevent climate catastrophe. Protecting biodiversity plays a crucial part in achieving these emissions reductions.

The destruction of forest ecosystems is responsible for 11 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans, so conserving forests would stop the release of these gases into the atmosphere. Trees and plants also store carbon in their tissue, making it even more necessary to protect them.

Some ecosystems, such as mangroves, are particularly good at storing carbon and keeping it out of the atmosphere — where it contributes to climate change. Forests and wetland ecosystems provide crucial buffers to extreme storms and flooding related to climate change. These ecosystems are complex, which means they function best, and are more resilient to the effects of climate change, when all the pieces of the ecosystem are in place — meaning the biodiversity is intact.

“For a relatively small investment, high-biodiversity forests and other ecosystems can be conserved and restored as a powerful means to rein in climate change while also helping communities cope with associated storms, flooding and other impacts,” Langrand said.

4. Biodiversity is good for the economy.

At least 40 percent of the world’s economy and 80 percent of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources.

Altogether, the food, commercial forestry and ecotourism industries could lose US$ 338 billion per year if the loss of biodiversity continues at its current pace. Around 75 percent of global food crops rely on animals and insects such as bees to pollinate them, but many of these pollinator populations are in decline — which could put more than US$ 235 billion of agricultural products at risk. 

Meanwhile The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative estimates that global sustainable business opportunities from investing in natural resources could be worth US$ 2 to 6 trillion by 2050.

Millions of people also depend on nature and species for their day-to-day livelihoods. This is particularly true for struggling communities in developing countries, who often turn to high-biodiversity ecosystems as their source of food, fuel, medicines and other products made from natural materials for their own use and as sources of income. Nature-related tourism is also a significant income generator for many people as well.

5. Biodiversity is an integral part of culture and identity.

Species are frequently integral to religious, cultural and national identities. All major religions include elements of nature and 231 species are formally used as national symbols in 142 countries. Unfortunately, more than one-third of those species are threatened, but the bald eagle and American bison are examples of conservation successes because of their role as national symbols. Ecosystems such as parks and other protected areas also provide recreation and a knowledge resource for visitors, and biodiversity is a frequent source of inspiration for artists and designers.

Julie Shaw is director of communications for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. CEPF is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan and the World Bank. 

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