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Biodiversity: the variety of life on Earth

Human activity is causing the diversity of life on Earth to be lost at an accelerating rate. Find out what biodiversity means, how it affects and enriches the lives of everyone, and what you can do to help conserve it.

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity, short for biological diversity, is the variety of all life on Earth. This includes all living species of animals and plants, and the natural systems (ecosystems) that support them.

The importance of biodiversity

Biodiversity is of huge importance, not just for its own sake, but also because all people depend on it for their survival. It underpins the health of the planet and is a vital part of the global economy. It also contributes to people’s health and wellbeing and enriches the quality of people’s lives.

For example:

  • most of the oxygen you breathe comes from plankton in the oceans and forests around the globe
  • the fruit and vegetables you eat were likely to have been pollinated by bees
  • natural wetlands store and purify water, removing harmful pollutants, and can help defend against floods
  • around half of all prescription medicines are based on chemicals from plants and animals
  • natural areas and green spaces provide places for recreation and relaxation, and improve people's wellbeing

Why ecosystems matter

Ecosystems exist in a delicate balance, with each animal, plant and organism dependent on others for its survival. Damage or loss to a part of an ecosystem can cause irreversible damage, making ecosystems less able to support life.

The economic value of the natural world

The natural world has a multi-trillion dollar value to the global economy. Putting a monetary value on the benefits people get from the natural world shows just how important they are.

Reasons for the global decline of biodiversity

Human activity is causing the world’s biodiversity to decline at a rate not seen before, with effects that may not be reversible. Twenty per cent of plant species and 10 to 30 per cent of all mammal, bird and amphibian species are currently threatened with extinction.

The threats to biodiversity include:

  • loss of and damage to the habitats (living spaces) that species need for survival
  • over-using natural resources – for example, overfishing and deforestation
  • pollution
  • introduction of non-native species from other parts of the world 
  • climate change

British biodiversity

Britain has a wide variety of habitats and species, some of which are of international significance. Britain has globally important populations of birds, bats, amphibians and reptiles, possesses one fifth of the world’s heathland and is rich in ancient woodland.

The UK also has 14 Overseas Territories around the world (like the Falkland Islands and Bermuda). These host some of the rarest plants and animals found on the planet.

What the government is doing to conserve biodiversity

The government is working to conserve biodiversity in Britain by, for example:

  • protecting important wildlife sites 
  • working with farmers to encourage wildlife conservation on their land
  • taking action to control non-native species, which can endanger British wildlife
  • tackling crime against wildlife
  • developing a Natural Environment White Paper, which will set out policies for conserving biodiversity

For more information on action the government is taking, see the websites of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Natural England.

International biodiversity agreements

The global community has come together to tackle biodiversity loss through international conventions (agreements).

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and Nagoya

The CBD aims to conserve the world’s biodiversity. It has near global participation; 193 Parties, including the UK, have signed the convention.

The tenth CBD meeting (referred to as ‘The Nagoya Conference’) took place in Nagoya, Japan, in October 2010. As a result of the conference, all 193 Parties signed up to a clear, targeted framework to address the decline in global biodiversity by 2020.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)

CITES controls trade in endangered plants and animals, and bans trading in the most threatened species, like tigers and rhinos. 175 countries are signed up to CITES, including the UK.

International decade of biodiversity

2010 was the International Year of Biodiversity, as declared by the United Nations (UN). The UN have now declared that 2011-2020 will be the International Decade of Biodiversity. It will be a decade to celebrate the diversity of life on Earth.

What you can do to help conserve biodiversity

There are many ways you can help conserve biodiversity. From choosing peat-free compost and putting up a bird box to environmental volunteering: choices you make every day can make a long-term difference.

‘Protecting the environment: a quick guide’ is full of ideas for what you can do, from the simple and easy to the more involved.

  • Source Direct Gov
  • Last Updated: 06 Jan 2012