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ClientEarth Communications

28th June 2021

Wildlife & habitats

What is biodiversity and why is it important?

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is the natural world around us, and the variety of all of the different kinds of organisms - the plants, animals, insects and microorganisms that live on our planet. Every one of these live and work together in ecosystems to maintain and support life on earth, and exist in delicate balance.

But why is protecting biodiversity so important? And what would happen if we didn't?

We sat down with ClientEarth wildlife and habitats lawyer, Anna Heslop, to get some answers.

Why is biodiversity important?

“Biodiversity is one of the most precious and important things we have. We tend to think of it as something that’s just nice to look at, and enjoy spending time in, but it’s actually so much more. Without biodiversity, our entire support system for human, as well as animal life, would collapse. We rely on nature to provide us with food and clean water, for a lot of medicines, and to prevent flooding and other extreme weather effects. So much is provided by the natural ecosystems around us – they’re truly vital to life on earth. We think we can just trash one bit, or remove a species, and it’ll all be ok, but the different plants and animals are interconnected in vital ways that we don’t even always understand.”

How serious is the biodiversity crisis?

“Because biodiversity is so crucial to our future survival, its loss is an absolutely huge crisis. We’ve concentrated so much in the last few years on climate change, and although we all need to take climate change really seriously, if we fix the climate crisis and not the biodiversity crisis, we’ll probably have mass extinctions anyway. And I don’t just mean mass extinctions of animals or plants, but of people too.

That is, of course, a terrifying prospect, but we really do need to tackle both. I see them as equal and twin crises – if we don’t fix the biodiversity crisis, we’re putting ourselves in a position where we won’t be able to feed ourselves, and we’ll have more and more big natural disasters. There’s also more risk of zoonotic diseases, similar to Covid-19, transferring over to humans the more we encroach onto wild areas. It’s so important that we stop and reverse the decline we’re already seeing.”

Forest destroyed by logging

Why is it so important to not just stop, but to reverse biodiversity loss?

“In more developed countries, we’ve had decades of industrialisation and economic development, which has meant that we’ve already destroyed a lot of biodiversity, or at least pushed it to the margins. We see these declines reflected in bird numbers, insect numbers, and so on. It’s really important that as well as protecting the planet’s most special hotspots for biodiversity – rainforests in the Amazon, or parts of Borneo for example – we remember that we also have a duty to restore species and habitats we’ve caused to deteriorate in parts of Europe. We need to do so for the planet, and to ensure that we don’t lose any more of them, but also for resilience. Some of these areas, like peatlands and wetlands, store carbon, so it’s incredibly important that we restore them as they’ll help us with climate change, as well as providing habitats for many species.

Another important issue is that of connectivity. There’s a risk that if you just focus on protected areas, you end up with little islands of biodiversity that are very nice, but probably won’t fix the problem, as species struggle to move between them, different ecosystems cease to interact. It’s really important that you restore things at a landscape scale, so there is connectivity, and species can move around. This way there’s a wider ecosystem rather than only isolated protected areas.”

Huge amounts of public money currently go to projects or industries which damage the environment. We need to ensure those subsidies are going to the right places, otherwise we’re just spending public money destroying our future survival system.
Anna Heslop, Lawyer, head of wildlife and habitats
Anna Heslop, ClientEarth

Which species are vulnerable right now?

“I think probably all species and habitats are vulnerable, but how vulnerable they are depends on the pressures that are put on them. Certain habitats can be restored to an extent. They may not be quite as perfect as when nature created them, but pieces of land can re-wild, and plants can grow again. Whereas for some other habitats, if you destroy them, they’re never coming back. Things like ancient, primeval forest for example, you can plant some more trees, but you’re not going to be able to recreate that species mix and get the lichens or insects on old, rotting wood that makes a primeval forest so special.

Equally, there are some species we have an awful lot more of than others. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about them as well – we’ve seen species go from being very prevalent, to being extinct very quickly, because of human pressure. But there are some species where we know we have to pull out all the stops to save them because they are already in real trouble. There are a million species of plants and animals that are at risk of extinction if we don’t take certain actions.”

What can we do to reverse the damage done to nature?

“I’m not a scientist, so I wouldn’t suggest that I know exactly how to restore nature. But there are certain things that we can do as a legal organisation to make sure we’re pushing in the right direction. We’ve had some reports over the last couple of years from international expert groups telling us that there are solutions to our biodiversity problems.

One is improving the rule of law, and ensuring that people have access to justice. This doesn’t immediately sound like something that could help restore biodiversity, but a lot of the pressures that are piled onto biodiversity are from developments or changes in how land is used, that affect people at a very local level. The rule of law helps to stop biodiversity loss by empowering people to look after their own spaces and local communities.

It’s also important to think about how public money is spent – making sure that when we talk about subsidising things like agriculture and fishing, or developments of roads and factories, we do so in a way that bakes in protection of nature and the environment. Huge amounts of public money currently go to projects or industries which damage the environment, so there’s a lot we can do from the legal side that ensures those subsidies are going to the right places. Otherwise, we’re just spending public money destroying our future survival system.

The third thing is about making sure we have a cohesive set of rules internationally. We’re currently working on a big, international treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), where countries from around the world are coming together to set targets on biodiversity that they can meet by 2030. They failed to meet the targets they set ten years ago, so they’re setting some for 2030. We’re trying to make sure that there are implementation mechanisms for the targets, so that countries have the best possible chance of actually delivering this time. We need to be able to check progress as we go, helping countries if they’re struggling with finance or implementation, so that they can share knowledge and work together to reach those targets in ten years’ time.”

A Finnish wolf in a forest

What are some other things that ClientEarth are doing to fight against biodiversity loss?

“We’re currently working on a restoration law at EU level. The EU, as part of its work towards CBD, wants to be world leading in terms of habitat restoration, so we’re working quite closely with other NGOs here in Brussels, but also with the European Commission, to influence them to take a really ambitious approach towards that law. We want something that will deliver large scale landscape restoration across the EU.

On a more local scale, we bring a range of cases across the EU, and beyond the borders of the EU as well. For example, we work in the Western Balkans, bringing legal interventions to try and make sure we’re protecting the most important places and the wildlife that lives there.

We have some really strong conservation laws in Europe, but they’re not always enforced and implemented properly. Our job is to make sure those laws are being enforced better, and that the most precious places and animals are protected."

How we're fighting biodiversity loss