Why biodiversity matters

Why Biodiversity Matters


Biological diversity, or biodiversity, refers to the variety of living organisms, species and ecosystems found within the terrestrial and marine environment. This includes not only emblematic species in remote places, but also the diversity of more common plants and animals living in urban and countryside areas. There is today a growing scientific consensus that high levels of biodiversity play an important role in providing crucial services to human societies and in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals. Biodiversity contributes to poverty reduction and to sustaining human livelihoods and well-being through, for example, underpinning food security and human health, providing clean air and water, and supporting economic development.

In order to prevent biodiversity loss on a global scale, various governance frameworks (including the UN Convention on Biological Diversity) have been put in place since the 1990s. However, despite these repeated resolutions and calls to action, the importance of protecting the planet’s biological diversity does not seem to have penetrated national and international policy agendas with a sufficient sense of urgency. On the contrary, all indicators show accelerating rates of decline in biodiversity since the 1970s, leading to a situation so dire that scientists do not hesitate to speak of a sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. There is hence an urgent need to raise awareness about the importance of the issue, and to develop innovative policy instruments at all levels.

The main drivers of the current decline in biodiversity are habitat loss and degradation (deforestation, agricultural practices, urbanisation, etc.), overexploitation (overharvesting, overfishing, etc.), climate change, pollution and invasive species. Many of them are directly related to production and consumption patterns and to the current functioning of the global economic system, making of biodiversity a genuinely international issue highly relevant to foreign policy. For instance, it is hard to underestimate the impact of trade policies, and of the criteria that are applied to import goods and materials, on biodiversity. The demand for precious woods or other forestry products (such as palm oil) puts a lot of pressure on the rain forest, and large-scale mono-crop plantations have been shown to be very detrimental to the diversity of species. Furthermore, since a lot of biodiversity-rich areas are located in developing countries, development aid policies have clearly a role to play in contributing to the implementation of sustainable practices in these countries. Finally, innovative awareness-raising and fundraising strategies must be set up at global level to help national governments address this issue, and to ensure a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits of biological resources.


And this is why we ask following challenge questions: 


How to improve global governance in order to be more effective at protecting biodiversity?

In 1992, the international community agreed on the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). With more than 196 member states it is one of the broadest international conventions. Nevertheless, effective measures to ensure biodiversity protection are still dramatically lacking: in 2014 most of the countries have not achieved any of the so-called Aichi-goals, the 20 tangible targets to be fulfilled by 2020. How should governance institutions on an international level be improved to effectively protect biodiversity? Should we strive to build new or better international agreements and targets? Or put in place new mechanisms that speed up the implementation of existing ones and ensure coherence among policies on a global level? How can countries and the international community support transnational knowledge transfers, increase funding for biodiversity protection and raise awareness about the issue?


How to ensure that concerns for biodiversity conservation are built in trade policies and agreements?

Biodiversity loss is largely linked to production and consumption patterns in a globalized economy. For instance, palm oil production, monoculture-based agriculture and deforestation of rainforests have been shown to be largely detrimental to ecosystems and species diversity. Yet, binding rules for biodiversity conservation are very often lacking, or at the very least neglected, in bi-/multilateral trade agreements.  Furthermore, assessing the impact of trade commodities over their whole lifecycle is often hindered by insufficient data and lack of  transparency. This challenge calls thus for solutions in the area of international trade agreements as well as national policies relevant to international trade and its impact on biodiversity. What could be done regarding the impact of trade in general or in specific areas such as agriculture or mining? How could the impact of products over their whole lifecycle (including recycling, waste management etc) be integrated more systematically to trade decisions? Or how could international investment flows be reorganized so as to enhance biodiversity protection?


How can we ensure that biodiversity is not left aside in short-term development processes?

Biodiversity conservation is directly addressed in 3 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Without biodiversity, there can be no sustainable development because healthy ecosystems also support the achievement of human development and help secure human health improvements, livelihoods, food and energy security over the long term. However, while most international aid agencies have incorporated policies targeting biodiversity outcomes into their development partnership activities, short-term human development progress is driven by other, more visible factors like intensive food production, economic growth or market and infrastructure development. How can human development be achieved without sacrificing biodiversity at the same time? How can we manage trade-offs between biodiversity conservation and short-term development needs? Should the focus of action be on overhauling development assistance programs in particular, or on other related policies such as foreign direct investments, tourism, infrastructure, or bi-/multilateral cooperation?


(Authors: Augustin Fragnière, Anna Stünzi)