Biodiversity: The Key to Our Survival
Updated: May 31
Today is the Global Day of Biological Diversity!
To celebrate and raise awareness, we want to provide a brief introduction to the topic of biodiversity and the current state of its conservation. I myself am currently working as an assistant in a project on biodiversity conservation in an international cooperation organisation. While this does not make me an expert on the topic, I would like to use this day to share some thoughts and things I have learned in the last year, and to shed light on specific topics that have been of interest to me.
Let's start by asking some fundamental questions: What is biodiversity, and how does it compare to the terms "nature" and "biological diversity"? And why is it so important?
Biodiversity is, in short, the variety of life on Earth. Scientifically, it includes diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems. While its difference with the term "biological diversity" is easy (it's just the short form), there is a slight difference with the term "nature". Nature is used to describe all the existing systems created at the same time as the Earth, such as the sea, mountains, beaches, or the weather, while biodiversity refers to all living beings on Earth. Nature therefore includes, but describes more than, biodiversity.
A point that is often overlooked when talking or thinking about nature and biodiversity is humans. In Western discourse on nature, it is often referred to as something that is "pristine" or "untouched" by humans, and we may see ourselves as outside of nature. However, this is not the case by definition, and has created problems. For example, when protected areas are established to shield "nature" from humans, this is known as "fortress conservation" and has been the cause of many human rights abuses, especially against Indigenous Peoples in the name of "conservation". Instead, we should strive to live in harmony with nature and find ways to use its contributions in a sustainable and long-lasting way.
These ideas and how we view biodiversity are at the core of why it is so important. Even if you don't believe in an intrinsic value of nature, we as humans are part of this web of life and are therefore extremely dependent on it. We depend on nature for food, water, and the air we breathe, to name just a few basic things. However, biodiversity is in a deep crisis. Since 1970, wildlife populations have declined by a whopping 69%. One million species are under threat of extinction. This puts us at huge risk and threatens our livelihoods.
The climate and biodiversity crises are known as the "twin crises" for a reason: they are tightly linked and reinforce each other, and can therefore only be solved or mitigated together. Think of peatlands: highly biodiverse ecosystems and the largest terrestrial carbon storehouses. When they are drained, however, biodiversity diminishes and the carbon is released in huge amounts, harming both biodiversity and the climate, as well as working the other way around when they are rewetted. They are, in essence, one crisis, and it is crucial to think about and solve them together.
And of course, and this is to me probably the most fascinating aspect of this topic, is just how interconnected it is with social issues, from global injustices of historic responsibility to gender and racial injustices. Joan Carling, Executive Director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI), summed up some of these linkages at a press conference at COP27: "As Indigenous Peoples, we protect 80% of biodiversity. But the reality on the ground is that we are facing different threats, including from climate actions. We cannot continue with this siloed approach to climate change and biodiversity loss. The respect and recognition of our rights is a prerequisite to address the two crises. We need to put Indigenous Peoples and rights holders also at the decision-making process. We need socially equitable solutions to climate change and biodiversity protection."
It is clear that to actually resolve these crises, we need systemic change that tackles the root causes of these inequalities together. The world's current framework on biodiversity is the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), which was agreed upon in December 2022 at COP15. It has been praised as progressive compared to the previous Aichi targets (which all failed), for example in terms of ambition and safeguarding Indigenous rights. However, there has also been criticism, for example regarding the matter of finance and related global injustices, as well as a lack of really tackling root causes, for example in production and consumption patterns. It is still, at the moment, very much a framework on paper and only time will tell how its implementation will play out.
Our environmental crises call into question everything that is being done and how it is being done. Because we are, essentially, part of what is in crisis.