What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is a word that, until the early 1990s, would have been used and understood only by a handful of scientists. Since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, it has become a political buzzword. It means the variety of life on the planet – all the species of plants, animals, fungi and bacteria, genetic variation within these species, and the habitats in which they live. It essentially means the same as “wildlife” or “nature”. It’s bluebells, sparrows and elephants, rivers, meadows and rain forests.

Often, when we use the term biodiversity, we actually mean “biodiversity conservation”, which means protecting and enhancing the diversity of wild plants, animals and their habitats as we go about our activities, such as building new homes and places of work, or managing land for agriculture or recreation.

Why Does Biodiversity Matter?

There are lots of reasons why we should conserve and enhance biodiversity.

Biodiversity is important for its own sake. Most of the world’s major religions and cultures recognise nature as being important and something that we should look after, so that we have a moral duty to conserve the animals and plants that we share this planet with.

Wildlife is also important for people, and this is particularly so in urban areas. Most people enjoy contact with nature – be it hearing birdsong, looking at colourful flowers or butterflies, or feeding the ducks in the park or the birds in your garden. Access to nature and green spaces has been demonstrated to be very important for physical and mental health, as an antidote to the stresses of urban life.

Nature has economic benefits, too. Perhaps most obviously, wildlife tourism is a major source of income for countries such as Tanzania, Kenya and Peru and, closer to home, natural landscapes bring large amounts of revenue to regions like Dartmoor and the Lake District. Even in cities, house prices and staff retention by companies are both increased by tree-lined streets and nearby open spaces.

There are also functional benefits, often termed “Ecosystem Services”, which has become another political buzzword in recent years. Examples include flood alleviation, as vegetation slows down run-off and natural surfaces allow water to soak away; carbon storage in forests and peatlands; local climatic amelioration, as trees and other vegetation provide shade and shelter from wind; and pollination. Many of our food crops are pollinated by insects, particularly bees. If there were no bees to do this, and we had to pollinate all our fruit and vegetable crops by hand, the estimated cost would be about £1.8 billion per year in Britain alone! That’s why there is such concern about the much-publicised recent declines in bees, and why providing more nectar for bees and other pollinators is an objective in the Local Biodiversity Action Plan.