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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, mitigates climate change, and acts as a buffer against extreme weather events.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of the close relationship between human and planetary health. It is estimated that 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic (those transferred from animals to humans). While the specific origins of the COVID-19 outbreak and its transmission pathway are yet to be determined, multiple studies have shown a link between environmental degradation and increased risk of zoonoses. 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 unprecedented pressures from land use change, overexploitation, pollution, climate change, and invasive species – 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.

For the World Bank, the global decline in biodiversity and ecosystem services is a development issue, which is likely to affect the poorest countries the most. The loss of ecosystem services has negative effects on food security, water supply, livelihoods, and output of many economic sectors. 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 (IPBES report on Pollinators, Pollination, and Food Production). Recent World Bank research demonstrates that low- and lower middle-income countries, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, could lose around 10 percent of their GDP annually by 2030 if vital ecosystem services, such as those of forests, fisheries, and pollinators, collapse. Climate change and ecosystems loss combined threaten development gains.

The World Bank also 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. 

The World Bank Group Climate Change Action Plan 2021-2025 underscores that ecosystems also play key roles in capturing and storing carbon and in mitigating the impacts of climate change. Climate change and ecosystems degradation combined can push the planet ever closer to irrevocable tipping points. Terrestrial and marine ecosystems sequester around 60 percent of gross annual anthropogenic carbon emissions, so their loss or degradation result in more carbon in the atmosphere. Without wetlands, coastal areas lack crucial protection from storm surges; when forests are lost, water supplies suffer, and torrential rains are likelier to cause landslides. Integrated approaches are needed to address the interrelated issues of climate change and nature loss.

Last Updated: Oct 14, 2021

The World Bank
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Garo Batmanian

Lead Environmental Specialist,

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