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Biodiversity is an essential element of life, the very fabric of "natural capital". The enormous variety and complex interactions between species, no matter how small or insignificant they might seem, keep our ecosystems functional and make our economies productive. Nature provides nutritious food, supplies clean air and water, sustains livelihoods, acts as a buffer against extreme weather events and regulates the climate.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of the close relationship between human and planetary health. It is estimated that 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic (those transferred from animals to humans). Pathogens thrive where there are changes in the environment, like deforestation, and when natural ecosystems are under stress from human activity and climate change.

Our biodiverse planet is threatened by an unprecedented transformation and exploitation of terrestrial and marine ecosystems – driven mostly by human activities. One million animal and plant species, out of a total estimate of 8 million, risk extinction, many within decades, according to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Less than 13 percent of wetlands present a few centuries ago remain today and live coral reefs have nearly halved in the past 150 years, while a third of fish stocks are over-exploited. Although the pace of deforestation has slowed globally since the 1990s, it remains high with annual deforestation of about 13 million hectares, affecting critical animal and plant habitats. This loss of biodiversity has negative effects on livelihoods, water supply, food security and resilience to extreme events. It has consequences for the world’s extreme poor who live in rural areas and often rely on ecosystems and the goods they produce to make a living.

Health risks also increase. By altering land use–for settlement, agriculture, logging, extractive –- humans fragment and encroach into animal habitats. They destroy the natural buffer zones that would normally separate humans from animals, allow the proliferation of species that are better adapted to human-transformed environments (e.g. bats and rats), and create opportunities for pathogens to spill over from animals to people.

Healthy ecosystems provide services that have in many cases significant economic value. For instance, between 5-8 percent of global crop production, with an annual market value of up to $577 billion, is directly attributable to natural pollination. However, pollinators are under threat, and this can be expected to lead to significant economic losses. (IPBES report on Pollinators, Pollination, and Food Production).

The World Bank estimates that crimes affecting natural resources and the environment inflict damage on developing countries worth more than $70 billion a yearThe loss of coral reefs has significant physical and economic consequences for 350 million people living in coastal areas by reducing coastal protection and habitat for fish. Deforestation and land conversion contribute about 25% of global greenhouse emissions, and the loss of diversity reduces the resilience of ecosystems to climate change and other disturbances. 

Last Updated: May 21, 2021

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Garo Batmanian

Lead Environmental Specialist,

Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy Global Practice, World Bank