Many aspects of the world’s biodiversity make our lives better but don’t cost us anything.
But like global warming, human activity is also having a seriously negative impact on it.
As a result, the United Nations held a conference in Japan in October to find a solution.
A community where living organisms like animals, plants and bacteria co-exist is known as an ecosystem, and can be as small as an aphid on a leaf (most living things are microscopic) or as large as the entire planet.
Biological diversity is the degree of variation of life forms within that ecosystem, be it a hollow log, a country or planet earth.
Humans benefit from that biodiversity in a number of ways.
The clean air we breathe comes from trees, which also soak up our carbon dioxide. Water is purified during the water cycle for us to drink and soil is enriched by natural nutrients for us to use.
Agriculture depends heavily on biodiversity with all food crops coming from over 40,000 species of plant life (although 80% of our food comes from just 20 plants).
Honey bee pollination represents tens of billions of dollars worth of services every year, and cannot be mimicked by human beings.
We also rely on biodiversity for our health. Not only does it affect our clean water, diet and susceptibility to diseases, but the vast majority of drugs and medicines come from nature.
Businesses and industry use biodiversity for things like building materials and textiles, as well as improving the cost and efficiency of countless goods and services.
One only needs to look at the bacteria that happily chomped up most of the oil spilt into the Gulf of Mexico this year as a recent example.
Over and above these material factors are the niceties of nature such as the aesthetic appeal of gardens and forests, and leisure activities like fishing and hiking.
Unfortunately, the massive human population growth in the 20th century (2.5 billion in 1950 to 6.5 billion in 2005) has caused major damage to the world’s biodiversity.
The four main threats are habitat destruction (particularly rain-forests), introducing destructive species (like pest plants and animals), over-hunting fish and animals (trading endangered species is believed to be second only to drugs), and climate change (a major impact on plants).
Another threat is the loss of genetic diversity that has come from genetic engineering of plants species to protect them from disease and increase output, and also unintended crossbreeding known as genetic pollution.
As a result, many now believe we are currently going through the earth’s sixth period of mass extinction (the last was the dinosaurs 65 million years ago).
Species loss is accelerating at 100-1,000 times faster than average, and 50% of the world’s species are predicted to become extinct within the next 50 years.
Due to their sensitivity to water temperature, the world’s coral reefs – often called ‘the rainforests of the sea’ – are expected to disappear in the next 40 years if global warming continues at the current pace.
They are home to 25% of the world’s marine life and provide $30 billion in economic value each year.
Scientists warn that if action isn’t taken, then the interconnected natural world could collapse with devastating consequences.
As a way of prompting politicians into action, the UN has put the current cost of lost ecosystem services at US$2-4.5 trillion per year.
The United Nations has declared 2010 the ‘International Year of Biodiversity’.
It held a two-week conference in Nagoya, Japan in October for the 10th gathering of the CBD – a treaty formed in 1992, now with 193 signatory countries.
The CBD’s goal is to agree on targets for 2020 to slow or stop the process of extinctions and damage to ecosystems through sustainable use – that is, meeting the needs of today without compromising the needs of future generations.
On the conference’s final day, a collection of 20 targets known as the Nagoya Agreement was made to protect species and ecosystems from the threats above. One target, for instance, is to protect 17% of the world’s land area and 10% of the oceans by 2020.
Members also agreed to share access to and benefits of genetic resources such as plants, whose extracts have been formulated into medicines (many poor countries claim such plant property is theirs and they should be paid for it).
Japan has already committed US$2 billion to help developing countries protect their endangered species.
However, as is the case with climate change, the notable omission from the 193 members of the CBD is the United States, who still refuses to sign on and was only an ‘observer’ in Nagoya.
Nevertheless, the agreement to protect biodiversity was an impressive effort, and may hopefully provide some inspiration for those delegates heading to December’s climate change conference in Mexico.