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Commemorating the International Day for Biological Diversity

Today is the International Day for Biological Diversity. We are increasingly finding that "biological diversity"---life on earth, including the variability among living organisms within species and between species---is essential to human well-being.

By Anthony Capece

This variability of life, biodiversity, underpins ecosystem health. Recent studies, including the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, have shown that increased biodiversity leads to a stronger ecosystem. A complex ecosystem has more resilience to stress than a simpler one. So, if an area was hit with drought, for example, a complex ecosystem would be more likely to withstand the natural disaster due to the greater number of species present.

As we learn more about ecosystems, we’re finding that they actually do a lot for our society. These benefits from nature, or ecosystem services range from the food we eat and clean air we breathe to protection from storms and regulation of our climate.

Ecosystems’ vital roles in our lives include:

  • Clean Water: Wetlands and watersheds provide a natural water purification system, contributing to improved human health. This can provide the same service as filtration plants, which can cost $6 billion to $8 billion to construct and $300 million to annually maintain.
  • Pollination: Animal pollinators are responsible for pollinating 74% percent of the world’s most important crops. With the world population rising and food prices reaching all time highs, this natural service will play an increasingly important role.
  • Global Climate Regulation: Forests absorb carbon dioxide---a primary greenhouse gas---as they grow. With increasing awareness of the warming world, the preservation of trees is gaining increasing prominence as an essential step toward avoiding detrimental climate change.
  • Medicine: 80 percent of the world’s population relies on medicinal plants and 35 to 40 percent of all cancer medication is derived from plants. With potentially thousands of species still yet to be discovered, there are many other plants that could help society further its medical advancements.

Unfortunately, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment approximately 2/3 of the world’s ecosystem services are in worse shape now than 50 years ago. Land use by humans has caused the loss, modification, and fragmentation of habitats, degradation of soil and water, and overexploitation of native species. This diminishes the effectiveness of ecosystem services, causing losses to human well-being and in same cases requiring humans to supplement these services through artificial means. An ongoing German study, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, recently released figures outlining how the destruction of flora and fauna is costing the world $3.1 trillion a year, or 6 percent of global gross national product.

This level of destruction must be met by changes in methods and institutions to better protect biodiversity and ecosystems. These changes could include increased information, changes in management, improved local rights to resources, heightened accountability, and development of economic incentives.

Increased biodiversity is the foundation of the health of ecosystems, which in turn underpins human well-being. Quantifying and understanding the services ecosystems provide will help to give the world’s leaders motivation to protect what they have frequently overlooked in the past.

Anthony Capece is a summer intern focusing on communicating messages about environmental research at the World Resources Institute.

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