What is biodiversity and how do we protect it?

Amur leopards are one of the most endangered species in the world

Hundreds of charities, governments and researchers gathered in Canada for the United Nations Global Biodiversity Summit.

Two-week meeting will give governments the chance to come up with a long-term plan to reverse the threat to life on Earth

Nearly a third of all species are currently endangered due to human activities such as logging, climate change and agriculture.

What is biodiversity and why is it important?

Biodiversity is the variety of all life on Earth: animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms such as bacteria.

Animals and plants provide humans with everything they need to survive, including fresh water, food and medicine.

However, we cannot get these benefits from individual species – we need a variety of animals and plants in order for us to work together and thrive. In other words, we need biodiversity.

Seaside village surrounded by mangrove trees to the right and left of the image

Mangroves provide protection against sea level rise for cities in the Philippines

Plants are also very important in improving our physical environment by purifying the air we breathe, limiting the rise in temperatures and providing protection against climate change.

Mangrove swamps and coral reefs can act as a barrier to erosion from sea level rise. And common trees found in cities, such as the London plane tree or the tulip tree, are excellent at absorbing carbon dioxide and removing pollutants from the air.

How many species are at risk of extinction?

It is normal for species to evolve and become extinct over time: 98% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct.

However, species extinction is now happening between 100 and 1,000 times faster than scientists would expect to see.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has kept a “red list” of threatened species since 1964. More than 142,000 species have been assessed and 28% are considered endangered, meaning they are at very high risk of extinction.

But the threat of extinction varies among different species: an estimated 40% of amphibians (a group made up of frogs and toads) are at risk.

graph showing that one in four species assessed by the IUCN Red List is at risk of extinction, including 40% of amphibians and 14% of birds

graph showing that one in four species assessed by the IUCN Red List is at risk of extinction, including 40% of amphibians and 14% of birds

Which countries are trying to settle Canada?

It is hoped that an agreement can be reached to stop what scientists are calling the “sixth mass extinction” event.

Governments will try to agree on a long-term action plan – to be called the post-2020 Biodiversity Framework – which has been under development for more than two years.

Its main goal is to slow the rate of biodiversity loss by 2030 and ensure that by 2050, biodiversity is “assessed, conserved, restored… and provides essential benefits for all people”.

It is hoped that this can be achieved if 30% of land and marine areas are placed in protected areas. Last month it was announced that 112 countries now support this project.

What are the biggest threats to biodiversity?

In 2019, a United Nations report said that harvesting, logging, hunting and fishing have all had an impact.

Between 2001 and 2021, the world lost 437 million hectares of tree cover, 16% of which was primary forest. These are very mature forests that have taken hundreds – if not thousands – of years to develop. The destruction of these rich environments can have a very serious impact on biodiversity.

Biodiversity loss is happening around the world, but the Natural History Museum in London has found that Malta, the UK, Brazil and Australia have undergone the greatest changes, due to pollution, rapid industrialization and overuse of the water.

Problems caused by habitat loss

Problems caused by habitat loss

Even animals and plants are difficult to adapt to climate change, warns the UN.

He says species extinction would be less if global warming was limited to 1.5°C.

What type of action is proposed?

The post-2020 framework has four objectives:

  • greater conservation

  • resources used in the most sustainable way possible

  • fairer sharing of natural resources

  • increased financial support for the protection of biodiversity

He wants more use of trees and plants to absorb carbon dioxide and balance greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the UN also warns that planting trees in landscapes where they have never grown before could introduce invasive species, which “can have significant negative impacts on biodiversity”.

Rows of new trees ready for a new plantation in Uganda

The massive planting of trees must be appropriate to the landscape to avoid the introduction of alien species

To achieve these goals, governments and private organizations are committing to giving at least £164 billion ($200 billion) a year by 2030, with 5% going to developing countries.

The OECD’s most recent global analysis estimates that average spending was £59bn – £69bn ($78bn – 91bn) a year.

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