As the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) unfolds in Montreal, this a great opportunity to dive deep into the issue of biodiversity loss, and understand its impact on the economy, and the need to take action. This article will constitute the first of a two-part series that will be doing just that. The definition of biodiversity loss, and its main drivers will be covered in this first part, while the second article will explore the threats that biodiversity loss poses to businesses, and propose actions businesses can take to address biodiversity loss.
What is Biodiversity Loss?
Before defining biodiversity loss, it is crucial to first understand what biodiversity is. Biodiversity, in other words, “Biological Diversity”, refers to the variety of life on Earth in all its forms. This encompasses all living organisms, from humans to microorganisms, including their genetic variation, and the complex interactions that exist between them in ecosystems.
Based on this definition of biodiversity, “Biodiversity loss” therefore refers to, “the loss of life on Earth at various levels, ranging from reductions in the genetic diversity to the collapse of entire ecosystems”. In the last decades, human activities have significantly affected the existence of various forms of life on Earth, and a global UN report suggests that around 1 million species (out of an estimated total of 8 million species) are now threatened with extinction.
What are Drives Biodiversity Loss?
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in its Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services suggests 5 direct drivers of biodiversity loss, namely, changes in land and sea use; resource extraction, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species. Each of these drivers will be addressed next:
1. Changes in land and sea use
Agricultural expansion is the primary land use change affecting biodiversity. Almost half of all habitable land on Earth is used for agriculture. In addition to this, other land use changes such as the expansion of urban areas due to population growth, all come at the expense of land available for other ecosystems (forests, wetlands, grasslands, etc.), and lead to biodiversity loss.
Similar to land use changes, sea use changes through activities such as commercial fishing, coastal infrastructural development, and aquaculture, also affect biodiversity. In the last decades, technological advances have played a key role in land and sea use changes, and have tremendously increased the area of influence of human activities on terrestrial and marine ecosystems.
2. Resource extraction
Humans extract resources from nature at an unsustainable rate, and this is not expected to end anytime soon as the global population continues to rise, alongside consumption per capita levels. This overexploitation is relevant for both living resources such as the fish in the ocean; and non-living resources such as minerals in the ground. For example, “93% of fish stocks today are fished at or beyond maximum sustainable levels”; and “ since 1970, a fivefold increase in the use of non-metallic minerals and a 45 per cent increase in fossil fuel use” has been reported. When resources are overexploited, not only do these resources run out early, but they also have consequences on biological dynamics and ecosystem functions, and thus affect biodiversity. The overexploitation of a resource within an ecosystem, can cause the whole network of life within that ecosystem to collapse, just like a rock wall will collapse if too many rocks are taken out.
3. Climate change
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) suggests that the drastic increase in human-induced greenhouse gases (GHGs) is the primary cause of the global warming observed over the last centuries. This global warming results in long-term geophysical and biological changes that could contribute to biodiversity loss. For example, sea level rise is a major consequence of increasing global temperatures, and contributes towards increasing the chances of high-tide flooding. These floods affect low-lying coastal areas such as beaches and wetlands, and could result in the loss of various forms of life within these ecosystems. The human-induced increase in GHG emissions also results in ocean acidification which negatively affects marine organisms and function. Ocean acidification inhibits the ability of calcifying organisms (such as corals, clams, mussels, etc.) to build and maintain their calcium carbonate skeletons and shells. This does not only affect the survival of these species, but of other species too, as calcifying organisms play a key role in the entire marine food chain.
The release of pollutants into the atmosphere, water, and land from human activities has increased at a rate that is comparable to population growth. Many of these pollutants impact the well-being of ecosystems and affect biodiversity. In addition to GHGs which are responsible for global warming (addressed above), some other atmospheric pollutants which have increased include nitrogen oxides (NOx) which contribute to eutrophication, and sulphurdioxide (SO2) which causes acid rain.
Major sources of pollutants in water include urban sewage and industrial and agricultural run-off, erosion, airborne pollution, and salinization, as well as oil spills and dumping of substances into the ocean. Two common water pollutants include pharmaceuticals such as anti-inflammatory drugs, antiepileptic, contraceptives or antibiotics which can impair organisms in water; and nitrates which create oxygen depleted zones – areas in which levels of oxygen are too low to support most marine life.
Among the solid wastes generated globally, plastics are of particular concern. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, “7 billion of the 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic produced from 1950-2017 became plastic waste, ending up in landfills or dumped”. This plastic waste can contribute to biodiversity loss by altering habitats and hindering natural processes. Numerous marine or coastal species have been impacted through entanglement with plastic wastes, or by accidentally ingesting plastic waste which can block their digestive tracts.
5. Invasive alien species
These are living organisms that are non-native to an ecosystem, and which threaten native species and ecosystems, and could adversely affect the economy and human health. Human activities such as increasing global trade and higher human mobility play a role in the increase in invasive alien species observed around the world. These activities bring species from their native ecosystem to a foreign ecosystem which they throw out of balance. A good example is the water hyacinth which is native to the amazon basin and has invaded tropical habitats worldwide causing blockages in waterways, killing aquatic species and affecting the livelihoods of local communities.
Stay tuned for a follow-up article which will dig deeper into the issue of biodiversity loss by exploring the threats it poses to businesses, and proposing actions businesses can take to address biodiversity loss.