Biodiversity embraces the variety of genes, species and ecosystems that constitute life on Earth. Humankind is itself a part of biodiversity, and our existence would be impossible without it. It is what makes our planet not only habitable but beautiful.
The loss of biodiversity, at the levels of ecosystems, species and genes, is of concern not just because of the important intrinsic value of nature, but also because it results in a decline in ‘ecosystem services’ which natural systems provide. These services include production of food, fuel, fibre and medicines, regulation of water, air and climate, maintenance of soil fertility, cycling of nutrients. In this context concern for biodiversity is integral to sustainable development and underpins competitivity, growth and employment, and improved livelihoods.
Recognition of the importance of biodiversity and the global scale of biodiversity loss has gained a high political profile over the last few decades.
In April 2002, at the 6th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), 191 nations committed themselves ‘to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth'.
On 20 December 2006, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity and encouraged increase of worldwide awareness of biodiversity and its importance.
The European Union (EU) agreed in 2001 “to halt the decline of biodiversity in the EU by 2010” and to “restore habitats and natural systems. While important progress has been made and there are first signs of slowing rates of loss, the pace and extent of implementation has been insufficient. Much of our biodiversity remains greatly impoverished and continues to decline. Worldwide, progress is not encouraging. The European Commission published a Communication, Options for an EU vision and target for biodiversity beyond 2010, acknowledging that it has not achieved the objective outlined in 2001. The Communication, set out the need for a vision for biodiversity up to 2050, suggested possible targets for 2020 and committed to present an EU biodiversity strategy by the end of 2010.
A Eurobarometer survey in February 2010 on Europeans’ attitudes towards the issue of biodiversity revealed that no less than 84 per cent of Europeans are concerned about biodiversity loss. Remarkable, however, is that most Europeans do not feel biodiversity loss affects them. When asked what the EU should do to tackle the problem of biodiversity loss, the largest number of respondents (30%) was in favour of introducing stricter regulations for economic sectors of which their activities have an impact on the environment.
The Extinction Crisis
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that Europe’s ecosystems have suffered more human–induced fragmentation than those of any other continent. For example, only 1–3% of Western Europe’s forests can be classed as ‘undisturbed by humans’; since the 1950s, Europe has lost more than half of its wetlands and most high–nature–value farmland; and many of the EU’s marine ecosystems are degraded. At the species level, 42% of Europe’s native mammals, 43% of birds, 45% of butterflies, 30% of amphibians, 45% of reptiles and 52% of freshwater fish are threatened with extinction; most major marine fish stocks are below safe biological limits; some 800 plant species in Europe are at risk of global extinction. Moreover, many once common species show population declines. This loss of species and decline in species’ abundance is accompanied by significant loss of genetic diversity. We are spending the Earth’s natural capital and putting at risk the ability of ecosystems to sustain future generations.
Worldwide, biodiversity loss is even more alarming. Since the late 1970s, an area of tropical rain forest larger than the EU has been destroyed, largely for timber, crops such as palm oil and soy bean, and cattle ranching; an area equivalent to the size of France is destroyed every 3–4 years. Although only 7 percent of the world’s surface, tropical forests provide habitat for 50 to 70 percent of all identified living species.
The world is facing an unprecedented loss of biodiversity. Extinction rates have been estimated to be as much as 1,000 times higher than the typical natural rates over the Earth’s history – before human civilization. Every hour four species or sub-species are lost. Every minute 20 hectares of forests disappear; every year 13 million hectares are destroyed— to put this into perspective imagine an area four times the size of Belgium.
Climate change is further exacerbating biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystems already weakened by other drivers of change such as pollution, land-use change, invasive species and over-exploitation. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, approximately 20 to 30% of plant and animal species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average temperature exceed 1.5‑2.50C.
Nature’s resources are the result of intricate interactions, over millions of years, of millions of species that make up the Earth’s modern biodiversity. And yet, we are destroying our biodiversity at a faster rate than at any other period in human history. Unless we take urgent action, this trend will not be reversed, it will only accelerate. There are unarguably a number of success stories from which we can draw inspiration. However, these remain local achievements.
By undermining global biodiversity, we undermine sustainable development – both of which are being exacerbated by changing climatic conditions – a hitherto unprecedented environmental challenge. Because of the interconnected web of all life on earth, degradation in one area limits progress in others. The converse is also true: improvements in one area support progress in others. If we therefore conserve biodiversity, we preserve our chances of developing sustainably and of living healthy lives even as the climate changes.
Was the target achieved?
Study shows world leaders have fallen short on the pledge to stem biodiversity loss and have instead allowed alarming declines in species populations, habitat conditions and other indicators.
“Since 1970, we have reduced animal populations by 30%, the area of mangroves and sea grasses by 20% and the coverage of living corals by 40%”, said the United Nations Environment Programme’s Chief Scientist Prof Joseph Alcamo.” “2010 needs to be the year in which we start taking the issue seriously and substantially increase our efforts to take care of what is left of our planet” said Dr Stuart Butchart, of the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre and BirdLife International, and a paper’s lead author. Link to full report in Science [2.1MB]
According to the IUCN’s benchmark Red List of Threatened Species, a fifth of mammals, 30 per cent of amphibians, 12 per cent of known birds, and more than a quarter of reef-building corals — the livelihood cornerstone for 500 million people in coastal areas — face extinction.
At a UN meeting nations agreed on the formation of the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) which will be responsible for carrying out peer reviews of scientific literature in order to provide governments with “gold standard” reports. It is expected that the IPBES will be modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which plays a major role in shaping global climate policy.
In Nagoya, Japan, representatives of the countries party to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity agreed upon a new ten-year Strategic Plan for tackling “unprecendented challenges of the continued loss of biodiversity”. The new Strategic Plan, which will be referred to as the Aichi Target aims to:
- At least halve and where feasible minimise as much as possible the rate of loss of natural habitats;
- Protect 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas as well as 10% of marine and coastal areas;
- Put in place special efforts to reduce the pressure faced by coral reefs;
- And through conservation and restoration, restore at least 15% of degraded areas.
European Environment Agency (EEA)
Communication from the European Commission: COM(2006) 216
United Nations General Assembly. Statement of the President of the 62nd Session at the opening of the ministerial segment of the 9th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity
Biodiversity fact sheet
EU Biodiversity Indicators – assessing achievement of the 2010 target at European level
Progress towards the European 2010 biodiversity target
WWF, ZSL and GFN Report: ‘2010 and Beyond: Rising to the Biodiversity Challenge’ The report uses the Living Planet Index (LPI) and the Ecological Footprint to measure trends in the state of global biodiversity and human demands on the biosphere.
 Decision VI/26
 resolution 61/203