LONDON – In this, the United Nations’ International Year of Biological Diversity, and with the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Japan, it is clear that the environmental challenges we face are severe and increasing, and that the need for action has never been more urgent.
Our lives, and those of all other creatures on this planet, are both part of and dependent on biodiversity. Simply put, biodiversity is the web of life, including all organisms found in every habitat, from the fish of the deep oceans to the birds of the tropical rainforests and everything in between.
Plant and fungal diversity lies at the very foundation of biodiversity, and on them all other life depends. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, thereby providing the air we breathe and helping to regulate the climate. They provide food, medicine, fuel, shelter, clean water, and fertile soils. Plant diversity sustains us now, and in the future it will enable us to adapt, innovate, and ultimately survive.
And yet, despite our dependence on this incredible natural heritage for our very lives and wellbeing – and those of future generations – we are squandering it at an unprecedented rate. Our generation faces biodiversity loss on a massive scale. Species extinctions are occurring at a rate far greater than the natural cycle, owing largely to habitat destruction caused by human activities such as deforestation and land clearance. Evidence suggests that climate change will accelerate this loss.
But there is hope amid the gloom. In fact, there is no technical reason why a species should go extinct, and great achievements in protecting biodiversity are being made. For example, scientists and conservationists around the world are collaborating on projects such as the Millennium Seed Bank partnership, founded and coordinated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This partnership of more than 100 institutions in over 50 countries has already conserved 10% of the world’s wild plant species, and is working towards conserving 25%, focusing on those that are rare, endangered, and useful.
What is needed now is the political will and financial resources to underpin these efforts. The major meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity taking place in Nagoya, Japan, from October 18-29, is an opportunity in this regard, and we at Kew are hopeful for positive outcomes in terms of international agreements in the key areas of biodiversity conservation, sustainable use and access, and benefit-sharing.
Meanwhile, at the national level, it is essential that biodiversity conservation is “mainstreamed,” becoming an integral part of government policy and sustainable management practices worldwide. Poverty alleviation, central to the UN Millennium Development Goals, is largely measured in GDP growth, but must include sustainable management of the natural capital on which economic health depends.
Indeed, we should not forget the infinite spiritual and recreational benefits that the natural world provides to people and cultures everywhere. This is a component of human well-being that cannot be measured in GDP alone.
It has been argued that much biodiversity has been lost as a result of a lack of understanding of its true value. Two major initiatives are helping to highlight the value of our natural capital: the UN-backed study, “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB), and the UN Collaborative Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Nations (REDD+). Once the true value of our natural resources is understood, rather than taken for granted as if there were an infinitely available supply, the vital importance of conserving biodiversity should be better recognized.
Effective conservation programs are based on sound scientific knowledge. Kew’s leading work in understanding and conserving plants around the world is hence a key pillar in the fight against biodiversity loss. Its collections contain some of the largest and most comprehensive records of plant diversity in the world, and are a global point of reference for research.
A deep understanding of plant science is essential in planning and executing conservation projects. Kew’s recent work with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, London’s Natural History Museum, and the Zoological Society of London to create the Sample Red List Index (SRLI) for plants has revealed for the first time that one in five of the world’s plant species is threatened with extinction.
As a result, we now have a baseline from which to measure progress in plant conservation around the world. We have the knowledge, expertise, and partnerships to make a very real positive difference to biodiversity conservation worldwide, and we welcome support from all parts of society to help us deliver this.
Biodiversity is essential to our health, wealth, and well-being, and we now have the ability to halt its destruction and turn the tide. It is simply a question of priorities. Committing the political will, and a small fraction of the world’s financial resources, to biodiversity conservation – and the scientific research that underpins it – would bring indispensable long-term benefits, including a healthy planet for our children. The time to start is now.
Stephen Hopper is Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.