101 Blog Series: Biodiversity

By: Anika Hazra, National Conservation Communications Coordinator, and Alison Woodley, Senior Strategic Advisor

‘Biodiversity’ is a term often used in the field of conservation, including by CPAWS. While the meaning of this term is intuitive for those familiar with conservation vernacular, the precise definition may be more elusive to most. Breaking the term down helps – this leaves you with two words: ‘biological’ and ‘diversity’. To put it simply, biodiversity refers to the diversity of all living things on Earth. To be more precise, living things include everything from plants and animals to bacteria and fungi – from the largest whale to the smallest microscopic organism. This term is also used to refer to the genetic diversity of individuals both within and between species, as well as the diversity among ecosystems.

As you can imagine, biodiversity encompasses a great variety of life. In fact, much of the world’s biodiversity is yet to be discovered, and it is possible that species have come into and out of existence without our knowledge. Estimates of how many species exist vary widely, ranging between 2 and 100 million. So far, only around 1.5 million species have actually been identified.

Why is Biodiversity Important?

Protecting biodiversity is the focus of much research and conservation work around the world, as we are recognizing just how important it is for our own wellbeing. Healthy, functioning ecosystems and the biodiversity they host provide people with many essential resources, including the air we breathe, food, shelter, clothing and medicine. Biodiversity also provides ‘services’ we depend on, including water filtration, coastal protection, climate regulation and agricultural pest control.

Aside from the basic necessities, biodiversity offers economic and cultural value. For example, Indigenous Peoples pass on traditions and cultural practices from generation to generation based on the significance of nature to their way of life. Biodiversity is also important to our global economy as it is the foundation for many industries, including agriculture, forestry, fisheries, tourism, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. It’s in our best interest to ensure biodiversity thrives because more species form stronger ecosystems, which in turn makes our lives more stable.

Canada demonstrated its recognition of the significance of biodiversity and the need to conserve it when it was the first country to sign the international United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992, and the first developed country to give formal consent to make the treaty official in the same year.

What Threatens Biodiversity?

The answer, in short, is us. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) – the biodiversity equivalent of the better-known Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – around one million species are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss and fragmentation, overexploitation, pollution, the introduction of invasive species and climate change.

The IPBES found that habitat destruction is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss on land, and overexploitation is the biggest driver in the ocean. Climate change is becoming more of a threat every year as life struggles to adapt to rapidly changing environmental conditions.

Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the resulting rise in global temperatures, will impact all living things, both on land and in the oceans. Many species will not be able to adapt quickly enough to the environmental changes that will come with climate change, although many will try to adapt by migrating to higher altitudes or more northern latitudes. To put things in perspective, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that a 1.5 degree Celsius increase in the global average temperature will result in a shocking 20-30% of species becoming threatened with extinction.

Our Solutions are in Nature

Biodiversity loss and climate change are currently two of the biggest crises we face, and they are in fact connected. Climate change is contributing to the steep decline of species, which will weaken ecosystems and make them even more vulnerable to climate change. What could result from this connection is a cycle in which carbon dioxide levels and temperatures rise, species go extinct, ecosystems lose their stability, more species go extinct.

As mentioned earlier, biodiversity provides climate regulation services. Healthy ecosystems, particularly wetlands, peatlands, grasslands, forests and coastal ecosystems, absorb and store large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The plants do the absorbing (both while alive and decomposing), but they depend on resources and natural processes provided by their ecosystem to function. When ecosystems are destroyed or damaged by roads or other forms of development, they release carbon into the atmosphere, losing some of their storage capacity. Keeping ecosystems intact will not only protect biodiversity – it can help to slow down climate change. Creating a network of well-managed protected areas across the country will be essential for minimizing the impacts of climate change and preventing further biodiversity loss. Read our 2019 Climate Report to learn more about the connection between biodiversity loss and climate change and nature-based climate solutions.

Protecting Biodiversity in Canada

Canada has the longest coastline in the world, the largest remaining intact forest, the greatest supply of freshwater, the most intact mountain ranges, the largest inland freshwater delta, and many other globally significant ecosystems. These ecosystems provide homes for sensitive and unique species like caribou, narwhal and walrus, as well as the unique flora and fauna of prairie grasslands and billions of birds that nest in our boreal and arctic regions. Hosting such biodiversity means our country has a big responsibility to conserve it, not only for the benefit of Canadians, but for the entire world.

In 2015, the federal government committed to the CBD target of protecting at least 17% of our country’s land and freshwater and 10% of our oceans by 2020. In 2018, with the encouragement of CPAWS and partners, they made the biggest ever investment in conservation in our country’s history: $1.3 Billion. This funding was to be directed not only to federal conservation efforts, but to also support provinces, territories, Indigenous governments and other partners in delivering on the 2020 target.

The federal government has not only met its 2020 commitment for oceans, it exceeded it by advancing ocean protection from 1% to 13.8% in just three years. On land, conservation efforts are advancing more slowly because of the number of partners involved, but the new funding has driven progress and Canada is on track to achieve 17% protection in the next few years.

Meanwhile, recognizing the scientific evidence indicating that much more area needs to be conserved to save biodiversity (in the range of 30 to 70%), the federal government made a globally significant commitment in 2019 to protect 30% of our land and oceans by 2030, with a milestone target of protecting 25% by 2025. They also committed to championing this level of ambition internationally. 

Countries have started to negotiate a new biodiversity strategy for the next decade under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The first draft of this plan, released in January of this year, includes a target of protecting at least 30% of land and ocean by 2030, as well as measures to ensure the most important areas for biodiversity are identified and protected. While formal negotiations have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, much work continues behind the scenes to build momentum for ambitious, evidence-based targets that will put us on track to achieve the vision of living in harmony with nature.