What the heck is biodiversity?


China Today Magazine

October 2021


A couple of years ago I was at a family dinner when the casual chit chat became political. We all began discussing what were the best alternatives for my home country’s development. I argued, with a self-sufficient tone, that protecting and managing our biodiversity instead of relying on fossil fuels–as we had for decades–was the best strategy possible for Colombia. It made absolute sense for me. We had a competitive advantage like no other having nearly 10% of the world’s biodiversity. 

I never expected the immediate response from my family's friend.

“What the heck is biodiversity? How can you use it? How can it make our GDP grow?” he asked with genuine curiosity. 

I began rambling. 

Biodiversity is an enigmatic concept. It covers the wide variety of ecosystems we have on Earth: from forests to mangroves to wetlands to reefs. It also includes the more than 1.7 million living species that have been discovered across the world and the 10 million more that are thought to exist. It also refers to the vast genetic resources found in nature that are used to develop medicine, cosmetics, new materials, amongst others. 

It is the basis of life on this planet. All the environmental elements that we rely on for our survival–water, food, air–are dependent on biodiversity. From the trees that clean up polluted air, to the rain that replenishes the soil, to the crops pollinated by insects. Yet the richness of the planet is being irreversibly destroyed. Once a species is lost, it is gone forever. And with it we lose knowledge, possibilities, beauty, and the richness of life on our planet.

According to the 2020 Living Planet Report we have lost over 68% of our wildlife populations. The 2020 State of the World’s Forest Report highlights we are losing 10 million hectares of forest per year, eviscerating natural habitats with unsustainable supply chains. At the brink of massive extinction, we are still wondering: What the heck is biodiversity?

The conversation I had during the family dinner is not so different to the ones we are having within the public and private sector. Protecting biodiversity is yet to be a bankable solution mainstreamed in our economic system. The issue is of planetary concern, but it affects some countries more than others: China, like my home country of Colombia, has been classified by the United Nations Development Program as one of the most mega-biodiverse countries in the world, harboring nearly 10% of all plant species and 14% of animals on Earth.

The scientific community has exposed the great risks posed by biodiversity loss. According to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2020 Global Future Report, the loss of nature could cost up to US$9.87 trillion in GDP by 2050. Similarly, the 2020 World Economic Forum Global Risk Landscape Report says biodiversity loss is one of the top 5 risks the world is facing in terms of likelihood and impact.

Many of these risks are already tangible. The COVID-19 pandemic could be a result of biodiversity loss. Kate Jones, an ecological modeler at University College London put it simply: “The populations of species known to host diseases transmissible to humans—including 143 mammals such as bats, rodents and various primates—increased as the landscape changed from natural to urban, and as biodiversity generally decreased.” As habitat loss grows the risk of zoonosis grows as well.

Yet, the action to address the problem doesn’t correlate with the urgency and size of the challenge. One year ago, 196 member countries of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) were supposed to meet in China to adopt a new Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. The previous 10-year action framework and its 20 Aichi Targets ended in 2020, failing to halt biodiversity loss. The intention was to have a similar meeting to the 2015 Conference of the Parties (COP21) that led to the adoption of the Paris agreement.

Yet the meeting was postponed, and it is reconvening this year in Kunming, China, in October 2021 and in April-May 2022. A Pre-Cop session was held in Colombia in late August this year and little progress was made. Negotiators are skeptical that they will be able to deliver a new, ambitious, and actionable framework in Kunming.

Why has it been so hard to gain traction on biodiversity? Why aren’t companies and governments pledging ambitious targets to address the matter?

Biodiversity loss is a wicked problem. Like the climate crisis, solving it requires urgent, scalable systems change. It requires a drastic shift from depletion to regenerative positive impact. We are far from getting that and the window of opportunity is closing.

However, we can still act and mobilize funds, technology, and expertise to deliver on the most important and vital initiative of this century: recovering our planet’s nature. As we are doing with climate, companies should have science-based targets for nature and governments should have country commitments. We should have a new Strategic Plan for Biodiversity with means of implementation and appropriate finance to deliver results. We should have traceability of supply chains to track drivers of biodiversity loss and address them immediately.

But most importantly, biodiversity–and climate–should be concepts embedded in every single decision we make for our development in the coming years. The question should no longer be: What the heck is biodiversity? It should instead be: What the heck are we doing about it?

Carolina Garcia is a One Young World Ambassador from Colombia and an advisor to the InterAction Council on biodiversity.