The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity signed at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit defines biodiversity as the fruit of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes. Biodiversity forms the web of life of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend. It also encompasses the variety of ecosystems such as those that occur in deserts, forests, wetlands, mountains, lakes, rivers, and agricultural landscapes. In each ecosystem, living creatures, including humans, form a community, interacting with one another and with the air, water, and soil around them.
A biodiverse planet is a healthy planet. Biological diversity means many diverse species. Now our planet has a problem as numerous species are becoming extinct right now and if we do nothing to halt this decline, millions more species will become extinct in the coming decades. The WWF Living Planet Report 2020 alerts us to the fact that “The evidence to show that the existing biodiversity is fundamental to our life on Earth is abundant and unequivocal. We are destroying this same biodiversity at a rate unprecedented in human history.”
Since the industrial revolution, human activities have destroyed and degraded forests, grasslands, oceans, seas, wetlands and other important ecosystems, threatening human livelihoods and well-being. 75% per cent of the Earth’s ice-free land surface has already been significantly altered, most of the oceans are polluted, and more than 85% of the area of wetlands has been lost.
The most important direct driver of biodiversity loss on land has been the destruction of pristine natural habitats to make way for industrial agricultural. Biodiversity losses in the ocean have primarily been caused by overfishing. The loss of biodiversity is a development, economic, global security, ethical and moral issue. Importantly, it is also a self-preservation issue. “Biodiversity plays a critical role in providing food, fibre, water, energy, medicines and other genetic materials. It is key to the regulation of our climate, water quality, pollution, pollination of our crops, flood control and storm surges.”
It is important to note that biodiversity is declining at the highest rates in tropical areas where it is at its richest. For example in the tropical sub-regions of the Americas there is only 6% left of the biodiversity that existed in 1970. This was caused by the clearing of grasslands, savannahs, forests and wetlands for human use, the overkilling of wild animals and climate change.
Changing weather patterns caused by atmospheric global warming will be responsible for the extinction of millions of species this century in spite of our best efforts. Climate change is affecting the physical structures within the environment so that they no longer match to the required extent the needs of the plant and animal life in the region. It is causing the degradation of wild habitats and microhabitats. The interactions between species in ecosystems are being altered. The disruption of the cyclical and seasonal weather makes it more difficult, if not impossible, for plants and animals to survive and reproduce. Moreover all other naturally occurring threats to life are made much worse by climate change. Humans will be affected by this as much as other species.
The threat to our own health is now a serious matter and creates a problem for us all.
Health is not merely the absence of illness. It is a state of physical, mental and social well-being. Our health is inextricably linked to biodiversity. The links between biological diversity and health are many, from medicines derived from plants and water filtration by wetlands to inspiration and learning, physical and psychological experiences and the shaping of our identities, all things that are central to quality of life and cultural integrity.
The past century has seen extraordinary gains in human health and well-being. The Living Planet 2020 Report points out the reduction in child mortality and poverty and the increase in life expectancy. The report warns that all this has been achieved alongside the exploitation and disruption of the world’s ecosystems and that this threatens to undo these successes.
The report urges citizens, governments and business leaders around the globe to be part of a movement for change that will take action of a scale, urgency and scope never seen before.
This article was published in the Senior Times of the Times of Malta on the 19th February 2021.
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