Biodiversity vital for quality life

May 22 is observed as International Day for Biological Diversity in commemoration of the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that day in 1992. This year’s theme for the day is Biodiversity for Sustainable Development. The theme points to the efforts made at all levels to establish a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the United Nations Development Agenda for the period of 2015-2030.

The variety and variability of ecosystems, habitats and the life which thrives on them is broadly defined as biodiversity. Globally, 1.4 million life forms have been named and described by science. Biological estimates suggest that the number of species may be several times more than those described so far.

Plant and animal species from major families are still being discovered in various parts of the globe. Biodiversity provides us with goods that can be directly valued and priced like the domesticated agricultural crops that form the basis of the world’s food supply, medicines that protect and cure us and fibres used to make the clothes we wear.

Biodiversity also supply critical indirect benefits and ecosystem services without a price tag on them like air and water purification, climate regulation and the generation of moisture and oxygen. Thus, this diversity is the very basis of our survival and when it shrinks, the quality of human life is affected.

A group of ecologists who recently attempted to quantify the price of replacing these ecosystem services calculated that they would cost over $3 trillion. That’s greater than the entire global GNP. The world cannot afford to replace these services; therefore, we must work to protect our ecosystems.

Nevertheless, this diversity is being eroded on an unprecedented scale. During the last 200 million years, about 100 species became extinct in each century due to the natural evolutionary process. At the same time, evolution ushered in new life forms that more than compensated for those that were lost. Today, the extinction rate is approximately 40,000 times higher than this background rate due to human depredations. One-fifth of all plant species on land face annihilation in the next 20 years. A disappearing plant can take with it 10-30 dependent species such as insects, higher animals and even other plants. According to one estimate, we may already be losing 100 species a day.

A major collaborative resea-rch project from the Natural History Museum, UN Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and British universities recently assessed changes in biodiversity from 1500 AD until the present day.

The study, published in April as an article in Nature, revealed that by 2005 land-use change had caused a decrease of 13.6 per cent in the average number of species found in local ecosystems, compared to the pre-industrial era. Most of the loss has come in the last 100 years.

Striking contrasts

India being a land of striking contrasts is the abode of the tallest peaks and vastest river plains in the world. These landmasses are the harbingers of fertility and source of life and sustenance. India is one of the world's 12 mega-biodiversity countries. Around 45,000 plant species and over 89,000 species of animals have been documented here, comprising some 6.5 per cent of all known wildlife.

The two hotspots of India, Western Ghats and Himalayan region, which are the pool of genetic diversity, are struggling for their existence. Loss of natural habitats, climate change, industrial effluents and increasing human greed are causing severe biodiversity deterioration. At least 10 per cent of India’s recorded wild flora and fauna are on the list of threatened species; many are on the brink of extinction.

The engine of our development for the past 1,500 years is to cut, kill and burn. Human species now uses 40 per cent of the planet's annual net photosynthesis production. The consumption of two-fifths of the planet's net food resources by one species is incompatible with biological diversity and stability.

Regrettably many of the recent policies to usher in development are at the cost of our biodiversity absolutely disregarding the reverence for nature. Development is vital but ignoring environmental concerns and treating them as mere thorns in the path is not only wrong but incredibly myopic.

(The writer teaches at the Christ University, Bengaluru)

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