What is biodiversity and why does it matter?

Summary: Biodiversity encompasses the rich variety of life on Earth, including genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity. Genetic diversity ensures species adaptability, while species diversity represents the multitude of life forms. Ecosystem diversity encompasses various habitats and their essential services. Biodiversity is vital for ecosystem resilience, essential services, economic benefits, and overall well-being. Threats to biodiversity include habitat destruction, pollution, globalization, climate change, and invasive species. Preserving biodiversity is crucial for our future, requiring collaborative efforts in reforestation and environmentally friendly policies.

Amidst a high-level board meeting, David, the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar corporation, paused to glance out of the window of the 42nd-floor conference room. The sprawling urban landscape below was a stark contrast to the verdant forests he remembered from his youth. Those woods had been a sanctuary, a place of solace during turbulent teenage years, and a playground of imagination during childhood. The juxtaposition of his memories and the concrete jungle before him raised a poignant question: where had all that biodiversity gone? This fleeting moment of reflection was more than mere nostalgia; it was a stark reminder of the undeniable importance of biodiversity, a topic he would later introduce to his board as a corporate responsibility initiative.

Biodiversity, or biological diversity, encapsulates the myriad of life forms on Earth, from the towering trees of David’s memories to the microscopic algae in our oceans. It paints a vivid picture of the vast array of genes, species, ecosystems, and their interactions. In this article, we’ll dive into what biodiversity truly means, its profound importance, especially in today’s rapidly changing climate, and the role tree-planting organisations play in safeguarding this irreplaceable treasure.

What does biodiversity mean?

At its core, biodiversity encompasses the vast diversity of life on Earth, representing the total of all organisms, from the minuscule to the magnificent. The term ‘biodiversity’ is a fusion of two words: “biological” and “diversity.” But to genuinely grasp its depth and breadth, we must break it down into its components: Genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity.

Genetic diversity focuses on the variety within individual species and is the foundation of biodiversity. It ensures that species can adapt, evolve, and survive in changing environments. Imagine two populations of the same species: one genetically diverse and the other not. The diverse group is more likely to survive a disease or a rapid environmental shift because some individuals might have genes that let them cope better with the change. On the other hand, a genetically uniform group is more susceptible to being wiped out by such changes. This concept underscores the importance of maintaining genetic variation, as it directly affects a species’ adaptability and long-term survival.

Beyond individual genes, biodiversity also encapsulates the multitude of species – a staggering estimate of 8-9 million, including known and unknown species. This is called species diversity. From the vibrant coral communities of the Great Barrier Reef to the dense flora and fauna of the Amazon Rainforest, species diversity illustrates the richness and variety of life forms on our planet. It’s worth noting that while we often emphasise larger, more charismatic animals like lions, elephants, or eagles, species diversity also includes the myriad of insects, fungi, bacteria, and other lesser-known but equally crucial organisms.

Climbing further up the ladder of complexity, we come to ecosystem diversity, which pertains to the vast array of habitats, biotic communities, and ecological processes. Ecosystems can range from vast landscapes, like deserts, rainforests, and grasslands, to smaller habitats like ponds, caves, or even the unique ecosystems living on a single tree. Each ecosystem offers a specialised environment with distinct interactions, processes, and structures. These ecosystems provide essential services that support life on Earth, such as nutrient cycling, water filtration, and climate regulation. 

A genetically diverse population can bolster the resilience of a species, ensuring its survival. Multiple robust species then contribute to a thriving and resilient ecosystem. And as these ecosystems interact and overlap, they form the vast and complex web of life on Earth, representing our planet’s biodiversity.

Why is biodiversity important?

Biodiversity contributes to ecosystem resilience. Diverse ecosystems are more robust and can better withstand disturbances, be they natural (like hurricanes) or man-made (such as pollution). When a particular species declines, others can step in to perform its ecological role, thereby maintaining ecosystem function. This adaptability safeguards the ecosystem from total collapse.

Biodiversity also fuels the essential services that ecosystems provide. For instance, wetlands purify water by trapping pollutants; bees and other pollinators play a critical role in food production by pollinating crops; and forests act as the Earth’s lungs, absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.

On a species level, different species contribute to and expedite the processes of nutrient cycling. Decomposers, for example, break down dead organic matter, ensuring that nutrients are returned to the soil, available for plants to uptake once again.

Biodiversity also has significant economic importance. We derive a lot of raw materials from various species, such as timber, fibers, and medicinal plants. Many of our food crops have been developed by cultivating diverse wild plants. Furthermore, genetic diversity within crops ensures food security by preventing large-scale crop failures due to pests or diseases. In the realm of medicine, many life-saving drugs are derived from wild organisms, with vast potential still untapped.

Naturally, this leads to job creation. Biodiversity-driven sectors such as fisheries, forestry, and ecotourism generate millions of jobs and keep up the economy. 

Biodiversity, in essence, is a multifaceted pillar supporting myriad aspects of life. From the air we breathe to the food on our tables, from the medicines that heal us to the landscapes that inspire us, it touches every facet of our existence. Its preservation is not just an ecological imperative but a cornerstone for our future well-being.

What are some threats to biodiversity?

Despite the countless benefits of biodiversity and how essential it is to our survival, there are local threats and global phenomena that are threatening its existence. 

The first is habitat destruction. As forests fall for timber and to make way for agriculture, numerous species lose their homes. This not only affects terrestrial species but also impacts freshwater systems and the global carbon cycle. Wetlands are also under threat: they are drained for agriculture and urban development, leading to the loss of unique habitats that support myriad species and offer essential ecosystem services. Genetic diversity is also caused by expanding cities, which contributes to habitat fragmentation. 

Expanding cities is a sign of globalisation, which also has consequences for biodiversity. Increased movement of people and goods facilitates the spread of diseases that can have detrimental effects on native wildlife. Additionally, with globalised trade and movement, there’s a risk of ecosystems and cultures becoming more similar, reducing global diversity.

The next threat is pollution. Pesticides, herbicides, and industrial waste often enter water systems, severely affecting aquatic life. Emissions from industries and vehicles can result in acid rain, which damages water bodies and soils, subsequently affecting plant and animal life. Our oceans are also threatened, being increasingly filled with plastic, posing a direct threat to marine animals and indirectly affecting the food chain.

Climate change, of course, is one we cannot ignore. Melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and shifting weather patterns can radically alter habitats, challenging species’ survival. Changing climates also force species to migrate to favourable conditions, often leading to conflicts with resident species or humans.

Ecosystem disruption is also being caused by non-native species. Whether introduced deliberately or accidentally, they can outcompete or bring diseases to native species, often with devastating effects.

The final word

Whether you’re a seasoned professional reflecting on memories of nature, a climate change advocate, or someone in a position of influence in an organisation, the message is evident: biodiversity matters. It is critical that organisations, governments, and individuals work together to protect and restore biodiversity by championing reforestation, encouraging environment-friendly policy-making, and putting our money and vote where our mouth is.