Biodiversity refers to the number and variety of living organisms considered to all levels, from genetic variants belonging to the same species through arrays of species, to arrays of genera, families and still higher taxonomic levels. It includes the variety of ecosystems that comprise both communities of organisms within particular habitats and the physical conditions under which they live.
According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the term 'biological diversity' includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, from all environments including terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems. It is defined in terms of genes, species, and ecosystems which are the outcome of over 3,000 million years of evolution. The human species depends on biological diversity for its own survival. Thus, the term can be considered a synonym for 'life on Earth'.
The world's biological diversity is a vast and undervalued resource. It comprises every form of life, from the tiniest microbe to the largest organisms, and the ecosystems of which they are a part. Of the estimated 30 million species on Earth, only about 1.7 million have ever been described. Most species are found near the equator, with diversity peaking in tropical forests and coral reefs. The planet's natural wealth lies not just in its species numbers, but also with the genetic variations within them.
Preserving the diversity in nature is ultimately all about securing the basis for life and the opportunities for future generations. There are many good reasons for preserving biological diversity.
[Moral and ethical] All life has an intrinsic value. People have no right to exterminate species or local populations of a species.
[Biological] There is a complex interplay in nature whereby all species affect one another. Moreover, variations in genetic material between individuals of the same species ensure that the species is more capable of surviving in the long term.
[Aesthetic] The diversity and variations found in nature provide experiences and inspiration. This value is difficult to measure, but has great importance.
[Economic] There are numerous opportunities for exploiting biological diversity for such things as food, medicine, clothing, power and shelter.
Species disappear naturally over time due to evolution, competitive exclusion and habitat change. During the course of living history perhaps 99% of all those species that ever lived are gone. Yet, human activity is drastically speeding up this process to the extent that about one quarter of the Earth's species may be lost within the next 30 years, and at a stage in the Earth's history when its biodiversity has never been as rich. If the current trend continues, it is believed that at least a half of the species on the Earth will die out during the next 50 to 100 years.
The main cause of species extinction is loss of habitat. In particular, more than half the world's species live in the tropical forests. Some calculations show that 140 species are made extinct every day in the tropics. It is estimated that by 2020, deforestation could wipe out between 5 and 15% of those species. Other notable threats include overexploitation by overhunting and overfishing, population pressures, pollution, and the introduction of non-native competing species into established ecosystems. Loss of biodiversity in turn destabilizes ecosystems which in turn may undermine human society.
The loss of biodiversity is one of the most pressing environmental, ethical and developmental issues facing our species. The stewards of most of the planet's biodiversity wealth are the developing countries currently undergoing some of the greatest environmental degradation. It is considered that the broadest of global cross-sectoral approaches is needed to conserve the planet's biodiversity.
This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED, now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities. Agenda 21 is a non-binding international programme, produced during the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) (Rio de Janeiro, 1992). It comprises an agreed programme of work for the period 1993-2000, based on the 27 principles of the Declaration of Rio de Janeiro, and contains 40 chapters of actions grouped into four sections: (1) the social and economic dimensions; (2) the environmental dimensions; (3) strengthening of the role of major groups; and (4) resources and instruments.
Those chapters of special relevance to the conservation of biological and landscape diversity are 11 (Combating deforestation); 12 (Managing fragile ecosystems: Combating desertification and drought); 13 (Managing fragile ecosystems: Sustainable mountain development); 14 (Promoting sustainable agriculture and rural development); 15 (Conservation of biological diversity); 17 (Protection of the oceans, all kinds of seas, including enclosed and semi-enclosed seas, and coastal areas and their protection, rational use and development of their living resources); 18 (Protection of the quality and supply of freshwater resources: application of integrated approaches to the development, management and use of water resources); and 32 (Strengthening the role of farmers).
Although Agenda 21 has no binding force, it is an important framework for further action on the basis of new environmental priorities and approaches. Governments should implement Agenda 21 in national policies and through regional and local cooperation. Regional economic commissions should also use Agenda 21 as a framework for their activities. The Secretary-General of the UN should report, on the basis of information from national parties, on the policy improvements, coordination systems and procedures for implementation of programmes. Information should be delivered by countries, international organizations, donor agencies and NGOs. Effective cooperation between the UN and the multilateral financial organizations should ensure that concrete actions are undertaken and that the necessary measures are financed. Generally, implementation should be financed by national governments and the private sector. Every country should analyse (preferably at least by 1994) the needs for enlarging the capacity to develop a national sustainable development strategy. In 1992, in the same proceedings as Agenda 21, the Convention on Biological Diversity was signed during the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, and entered into force on 29 December 1994. Over 160 countries have signed the convention. The Convention's objectives are 'the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources'. This includes appropriate funding, access to genetic resources and transfer of technology. The Interim International Liaison Group on the Biodiversity Convention helps prepare for and contribute more effectively to future intergovernmental meetings on the Convention on Biological Diversity, and intends to validate recommendations of Agenda 21 on the involvement of NGO groups in environmental decision-making. The Convention is thus the first global, comprehensive agreement to address all aspects of biological diversity: genetic resources, species, and ecosystems. It recognizes – for the first time – that the conservation of biological diversity is 'a common concern of humankind' and an integral part of the development process.
Governments recognize that the biological conservation is a global issue requiring global action. Countries depend upon each other's biodiversity, and the loss of biodiversity represents a loss to all people. Moreover, the impacts of ecosystem degradation reach beyond national boundaries requiring transfrontier cooperation to be a necessary component of any national policy. In ratifying the Convention on Biological Diversity, Governments demonstrate a commitment to safeguarding the planet's biotic wealth, recognizing that the conservation of global biodiversity is a common concern of all nations.
However, conservation of biological diversity and the sustainable use of its components is not a new item on the diplomatic agenda. It was highlighted in June 1972 at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972). In 1973, the very first session of the Governing Council for the new UN Environment Programme (UNEP) identified the 'conservation of nature, wildlife and genetic resources as a priority area'. The international community's growing concern over the unprecedented loss of biological diversity inspired negotiations for a legally binding instrument aimed at reversing this alarming trend. The negotiations were also strongly influenced by the growing recognition throughout the world of the need for a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.
In response, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) convened the Ad Hoc Working Group of Experts on Biological Diversity in November 1988 to explore the need for an international convention on biological diversity. Soon after, in May 1989, it established the Ad Hoc Working Group of Technical and Legal Experts to prepare an international legal instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. The experts were to take into account 'the need to share costs and benefits between developed and developing countries' as well as 'ways and means to support innovation by local people'. By February 1991, the Ad Hoc Working Group had become known as the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee. Its work culminated on 22 May 1992 with the Nairobi Conference for the Adoption of the Agreed Text of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Convention was opened for signature on 5 June 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio 'Earth Summit'). It remained open for signature until 4 June 1993, by which time it had received 168 signatures. The Convention entered into force on 29 December 1993, which was 90 days after the 30th ratification. The first session of the Conference of the Parties was scheduled for 28 November - 9 December 1994 in the Bahamas.
In 1992, the World Resources Institute (WRI), IUCN and UNEP, in consultation with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and UNESCO, launched the Global Biodiversity Strategy after a worldwide series of workshops and deliberations. It lays out an international, national and local agenda to stem the tide of species loss and to meet human needs on a sustainable and equitable basis. The Ecosystem Conservation Group was established in 1975 as a channel through which the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and other organizations create a wide range of initiatives in biodiversity conservation. World Wide Fund For Nature's (WWF) primary strategy to the year 2000 is to preserve genetic, species and ecosystem diversity.
In 1980, UNEP, The World Conservation Union (IUCN) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched the World Conservation Strategy (WCS) which was the first comprehensive policy statement of the link between living resource conservation and sustainable development. It has been used by more than 50 countries as the basis for national conservation strategies. Caring for the Earth, published by IUCN, UNEP and WWF in October 1991, reinforces the WCS and urges conservation as a matter of principle, survival and economic benefit. UNEP helped to develop and cause adoption, in 1982, of the World Charter for Nature, following the initiative of the government of Zaire. It supports the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), which assesses the distribution and abundance of the world's species.
The Global Biodiversity Strategy is a 1992 follow-up to several previous initiatives, including the World Conservation Strategy and Caring for the Earth. It is built around 85 specific proposals for actions directed at governments, international institutions, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. In order to stimulate action, five of the actions are identified as catalytic actions that can be undertaken quickly and at low cost to set off a cascade of subsequent actions by various sectors and institutions, namely: (1) adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity; (2) designation by the UN General Assembly of 1994-2003 as the International Biodiversity Decade; (3) creation of an International Panel on Biodiversity Conservation; (4) creation of an Early Warning Network for identifying immediate threats to biodiversity; and (5) integration of biodiversity conservation into national planning. The Strategy calls on all nations and people to initiate and sustain a Decade of Action in order to conserve the world's biodiversity for the benefit of present and future generations.
The conservation of biological diversity has ceased to be viewed merely in terms of protecting threatened species or ecosystems. It has emerged as a fundamental part of the move towards sustainable development. Thus the Convention on Biodiversity Conservation introduces a novel approach aimed at reconciling the need for conservation with the concern for development. It is also based on considerations of equity and shared responsibility.
In 1999, seven years after it was signed, the Convention on Biological Diversity was not ratified by the USA.