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What is Biodiversity?
Biodiversity comes from the term biological diversity. The Cambridge English dictionary defines biodiversity as “the number and types of plants and animals that exist in a particular area or the world generally.”(1)
Biodiversity encompasses all living things, from tiny microorganisms to huge mammals and everything in between; no matter how small, all species have an important role to play.
As well as the ecological value, biodiversity adds to cultural and economic value (known as ecosystem services) and increasingly, biodiversity and natural capital are recognised as integral to climate change in planning for a sustainable future and having an impact on business planning for net zero.
Although throughout Earth's history the climate has always changed, the rate of change is now significantly higher than it has been historically,(2) and this has huge impacts on biodiversity and the ability for ecosystems and species to adapt. The result of this is significant changes in the resources that human life depends on, such as the availability of food and water.
Healthy ecosystems better withstand and recover from natural and anthropogenic (man-made) disasters, which means that greater species diversity is more likely to lead to natural sustainability for all life forms. This requires accounting fully for the impacts of our interactions with nature and ensuring that our demands do not exceed sustainable levels of extraction.
Ecosystem services is the name for the direct and indirect benefits resulting from a natural ecosystem. An ecosystem is “all the living things in an area and the way they affect each other and the environment.”(3)
Case Study: Mangrove Forests
Mangrove forests are unique and diverse ecosystems in the intertidal zone, which are important for both marine and terrestrial plant and animal species. They are biodiversity hotspots that offer lots of ecosystem services, benefited on both a local and a global scale, as well as providing income from jobs, tourism and resources. Some of the key ecosystem services that mangrove forests provide include:
- Food – Mangroves act as nurseries and shelter for many species, including fish and shellfish. They support local fisheries, with productivity being directly related to mangrove size;(4) providing income and significant nutritional value.
- Coastal Defence – Mangrove forests act as natural defences, protecting the coastline. They absorb 70-90% of normal wave energy and help to prevent loss of life from significant natural disasters, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.(5)
- Carbon Capture – Mangrove forests absorb more carbon than rainforests, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.(6) Destruction of mangrove forests releases carbon back into the atmosphere.
- Cultural Services - Mangroves play a huge role in local culture and supporting human health and wellbeing. Cultural services include spiritual, heritage, religious, recreational, educational, tourism and aesthetics.(7)
Despite providing abundant ecosystem services, mangrove forests are vulnerable to a lot of anthropogenic (human) threats, such as pollution, sea level rise caused by climate change and deforestation driven by demand for commodities like palm oil.(8) Once damaged, it is extremely complex to restore mangroves, and failure to reproduce their natural diversity, means that they may not reach their original productivity potential. It must also be recognised that replanting mangroves requires time and money, which means it is much more viable to protect mangrove forests from the outset, rather than rely on replanting forests that have been lost. Read about biodiversity offsetting.
Conventional economics largely revolves around economic growth and considers the ecosystem as part of the wider economy. Whilst economic growth can be positive, it can also be uneconomic if externalities outweigh the short-term gains.(9)
Ecological economics, on the other hand, takes a different approach; it considers the economy to be part of the wider ecosystem, focusing on economic development, rather than economic growth.(10) This means refining the system, as opposed to expanding it, and using human wellbeing as an indicator of success.
The primary goal for ecological economists is sustainability. Unlike conventional economics, when placing value on the environment, ecological economics takes into account all ecosystem services. It is important that the value of these is recognised in order to avoid development or exploitation at the expense of the environment.
For example, conventional economics may see value in mangrove forests because they are a source of materials, such as wood. This may mean deforestation would be supported in order to access such resources. Ecological economics would recognise the value in protecting mangrove forests, because they provide additional ecosystem services, such as coastal defence and carbon sequestration. Find out more in a case study.
A shift towards economic development would be a significant step in achieving sustainable management of the environment; safeguarding ecosystem services and ensuring that resources are secure for the future.
To find out about the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15), please click here.
- Cambridge English Dictionary
- NASA Global Climate Change
- Cambridge English Dictionary
- FAO – Mangrove Guidebook for Southeast Asia
- IUCN - South Asia: Mangrove Forests Saved Lives in 2004 Tsunami Disaster
- Nyanga, C., 2020, 'The Role of Mangroves Forests in Decarbonizing the Atmosphere', in M. Bartoli, M. Frediani, L. Rosi (eds.), Carbon-Based Material for Environmental Protection and Remediation.
- Thiagarajah, T., Wong, S.K.M., Richards, D.R., Friess, D.A., 2015. Historical and Contemporary Ecosystem Service Values in the Rapidly Urbanising City State of Singapore.
- Richards, D.R., Friess, D.A., 2015. Rates and Drivers of Mangrove Deforestation in Southeast Asia 2000-2012.
- Daly, H.E., Farley, J., 2004. Ecological Economics Principles and Applications.
- Sheeran, K.A., 2006. Ecological Economics: A Progressive Paradigm.