Loss of Biodiversity
Loss of Biodiversity

The concept of “biodiversity” is the “big picture” view of the flora and fauna of the earth. Biodiversity is defined by International Convention on Biological Diversity as “the variability among living organisms for all sources, including terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems, and the ecological complexes of which they are part”(Baumgartner, 2001). In other words, biodiversity covers plants and animals themselves, the way they interact with each other, and the way they interact with the natural environment in which they live.

Biodiversity loss is occurring on two levels. First, plant and animal species are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate that far exceeds the natural historical rate (although there is some uncertainty because only 1.75 million out of an estimated 14 million species have been scientifically described).

Second, entire ecosystems in coastal and marine areas, inland watersheds, forests, and dry lands (i.e. deserts, grasslands, and savannahs) are being destroyed by pollution, land conversion, and climate change. In total, the Living Planet Index (LPI), developed by the World Wildlife Fund based on population trends for hundreds of species, has found that animal populations were, on average, one third smaller in 2008 than in 1970. (Ecosystem loss is described in more detail in the following section of this Issue in Depth.)

In a report titled “2010 and Beyond: Rising to the Biodiversity Challenge,” the WWF illustrates how the world’s biodiversity is still continuously declining, despite an agreement made in 2002, which was set by Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and covered clear targets on how to achieve a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at global, regional and national levels.The scientists behind the report have come to the conclusion that countries will not be able to meet the modest goals set by the CBD, let alone halt biodiversity loss, as some European countries agreed to, by 2010 (Loh, 2010). In the last two years of 2011 and 2012, three species were declared extinct, with many more becoming endangered each year.

Source: Living Planet Report 2012

This graph shows the average population level change of vertebrae species between 1970 to 2008. This statistic is a good indicator of the current trends of declining animal populations has continued while loss of habitat and animal poaching has increased in recent years. Marine life is among the most threatened animal populations, as a result of pollution and overfishing practices (WWF, 2012).

This loss is important for numerous reasons.

  • First, living organisms provide irreplaceable environmental services upon which humanity is critically dependent, such as keeping soil fertile, absorbing pollution, breaking down waste, and pollinating crops. One study estimates that the value of 17 such natural services is between $16 and 54 trillion per year (Costanza, 1997). Comparatively, world GDP in 2012 was $71.83 trillion (CIA, 2012).
  • Second, biodiversity supports human health through facilitating the development of medicines. According to UNEP, 10 of the world’s 25 top-selling drugs in 1997 had natural origins, and such nature-based pharmaceuticals are estimated to have a global market value between $50 and $75 billion annually (TUNZA, 2003). According to National Cancer Institute, 70 percent (est. 2007) of all new drugs introduced in the U.S. within the past 25 years have been derived from natural products (Roberson, 2003). It is estimated that plants provide the basis 56 percent of the 150 most popularly prescribed drugs (Roberson, 2003).
  • Third, biodiversity offers genetic resources for food and agriculture. The unique and lucrative human ability to domesticate and breed more productive animals and crops—for instance, hens that lay more eggs and corn that resists drought—depends upon the genetic diversity within these species. The Convention on Biological Diversity’s Global Biodiversity Outlook (2001) states, “Biological diversity provides the goods and services that make life on earth possible and satisfy the needs of human societies” (GBO, 2008).
  • Furthermore, many people support biodiversity for ethical and spiritual reasons. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, wrote in 1912, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” The WWF argues that it works to protect endangered animals and plants in part simply because they are “beautiful and rare” and that this mission is performed both “for people and for nature” (WWF, 2008). Thus, for many people, preservation of nature is a worthy end in and of itself.

The primary international instrument to protect biodiversity is the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), one of many that developed out of the heightened environmental consciousness that led up to the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992. Signed in Rio and now boasting 193 parties (as of June 2010), the CBD has three objectives: “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources”(GBO, 2010). The CBD has three mechanisms for promoting biodiversity: an information clearinghouse for technical and scientific cooperation, a process of national reporting on measures taken for biodiversity, and a financial provision that offers assistance to developing countries in this effort.

Nevertheless, the CBD is not an action plan but rather a commitment device; indeed, it lays out little in the way of specific procedures. “The Convention does not set any concrete targets, there are no lists, no annexes relating to sites or protected species, thus the responsibility of determining how most of its provisions are to be implemented at the national level falls to the individual Parties themselves,” says the Global Biodiversity Outlook.

Instead, the CBD advocates several guiding principles for countries to consider: the use of a holistic, multi-sectoral approach that involves cooperation among government, civil society, and business; the recognition of the value of local knowledge in promoting sustainable use of biological diversity; and an understanding that economic and institutional factors often underlie the loss of biodiversity.

The secretariat of the CBD reports in the Global Biodiversity Outlook that despite being parties to the CBD, too many countries lag behind in creating, implementing, and managing their own coordinated national action plans so that real change happens. According to the secretariat, many countries have failed to fully develop national biodiversity strategies or even to submit the national reports required under the CBD rules. In fact, the secretariat itself admits that the CBD has failed in “conveying the message of the economic importance of biodiversity” and “engaging the private sector at the national and global levels” (GBO,

Finally, a global effort is complicated by the lack of any rigorous scientific standard for benchmarking biodiversity. Without such an indicator, it is too conceptually vague to assess the status of biodiversity and measure progress in supporting it. Germany’s Minister of the Environment, Sigmar Gabriel, asserts, “We are currently in the process of wiping nature’s hardrive—at a tremendous rate and without any hope of restoring it once it is lost….In order to curb the ongoing destruction of biodiversity and thus reverse the trend, we must finally adopt effective measures at an international level” (UNEP, 2008).

The need to protect biodiversity is a political question as well as an economic one, because assessment of the benefits of protection depends heavily on the intrinsic and indefinable value one places on nature.

The United States, for example, has not become a party to the CBD. When the treaty was presented at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the elder President George H.W. Bush refused to sign it, citing concerns over protection of intellectual property rights, such as the right to patent certain plant and animal life, and terms of financial assistance to developing countries. The Clinton administration signed the treaty in 1993, but the Senate never ratified it because of protests from the property rights, farm, and timber lobbies. They objected to the idea that their economic interests, dependent on control over land, should be subjected to interference from outside the U.S. political system in which environmental concerns might override American determinations of economic development needs.

Thinking Question: Create a list of political and economic incentives that can be offered by organizations or by the government to stop the decrease in biodiversity.

Loss of biodiversity, then, is an international problem that is being fought through international cooperation. But, there are disagreements among nations about how best to deal with the problem. Citizens of different countries have different philosophical beliefs about how much to value the environment versus economic development and personal freedom, and such differences must be respected for a cooperative response to work.

Potential solutions must take into account the sovereignty and input of local people to gain political support. International agreements, like the CBD, are ineffective unless they create the necessary real-world political and economic incentives for people, organizations, and governments to take appropriate action.

Click here, to watch Shannon Earle of Conservation International, discuss the implications of the loss of biodiversity.
Youtube Clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3QgCLyxvn4&feature=related


Next: Ecosystems