What is biodiversity and how are we protecting it?

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Baby Amur leopard also known as the Manchurian leopard, at the Parc des felins, in Nesles, south-eastern Paris.Image source, Catherine Gugelmann/AFP
Image caption,
Amur leopards are one of the most endangered species in the world

Hundreds of charities, governments and researchers have gathered in Canada for the UN global summit on biodiversity.

The two-week meeting will provide governments a chance to come up with a long-term plan to reverse the threat to life on Earth

Nearly a third of all species are currently endangered due to human activities such as logging, climate change and farming.

What is biodiversity and why is it important?

Biodiversity is the variety of all life on Earth - animals, plants, fungi and micro-organisms like bacteria.

Animals and plants provide humans with everything needed to survive - including fresh water, food, and medicines.

However, we cannot get these benefits from individual species - we need a variety of animals and plants to be able to work together and thrive. In other words, we need biodiversity.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mangroves provide protection against rising sea levels for towns in the Philippines

Plants are also very important for improving our physical environment - by cleaning the air we breathe, limiting rising temperatures and providing protection against climate change.

Mangrove swamps and coral reefs can act as a barrier to erosion from rising sea levels. And common trees found in cities such as the London plane or the tulip tree, are excellent at absorbing carbon dioxide and removing pollutants from the air.

How many species are at risk of extinction?

It is normal for species to evolve and become extinct over time - 98% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct.

However, the extinction of species is now happening between 100 and 1,000 times more quickly than scientists would expect to see.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has kept a "red list" of threatened species since 1964. More than 142,000 species have been assessed and 28% are considered endangered, which means they have a very high risk of extinction.

But the threat of extinction varies between different species - it is estimated 40% of amphibians (a group made up of frogs and toads) are at risk.

What are countries trying to agree in Canada?

It is hoped an agreement can be reached to stop what scientists are calling the "sixth mass extinction" event.

Governments will try to agree a long-term action plan - to be called the post-2020 Biodiversity Framework - which has been in development for more than two years.

Its key aim is to slow down the rate of biodiversity loss by 2030, and to make sure that by 2050, biodiversity is "valued, conserved, restored… and delivering benefits essential for all people".

It is hoped this can be achieved if 30% of land and sea areas are placed into protected areas. It was announced last month that 112 countries now support this project.

What are the biggest threats to biodiversity?

In 2019, a United Nations report said that harvesting, logging, hunting and fishing had all had an impact.

Between 2001 and 2021 the world lost 437 million hectares of tree cover - 16% of which was primary forest. These are very mature forests, which have taken hundreds - if not thousands - of years to develop. The destruction of these rich environments can have a very serious impact on biodiversity.

Biodiversity loss is occurring worldwide, but the Natural History Museum in London has found that Malta, the UK, Brazil and Australia have experienced the biggest changes - due to pollution, rapid industrialisation and over use of water.

Climate change is also difficult for animals and plants to adapt to, the UN warns.

It says species extinction would be lower if global warming was limited to 1.5°C.

What kind of action is being proposed?

The post-2020 framework has four goals:

  • increased conservation
  • resources used as sustainably as possible
  • more equal sharing of natural resources
  • increased financial support for biodiversity protection

It wants greater use of trees and plants to absorb carbon dioxide and balance out greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the UN also warns that planting trees on landscapes where they have never grown before could introduce invasive species, which "can have significant negative impacts on biodiversity".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mass tree planting has to be appropriate for the landscape to avoid introducing alien species

In order to achieve these targets governments and private organisations are pledging to give at least £164bn ($200bn) per year by 2030 - with 5% going to developing nations.

The most recent global analysis by the OECD estimates the average spend has been £59bn-£69bn ($78bn-91bn) per year.