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Discussion on why biodiversity is important

Interviewer: Antoine Rondelet, Founder @ Ganddee

Guest: Gretchen C. Daily, Professor of Environmental Science & Director of The Center for Conservation Biology @ Stanford University


Stanford University is a world-leading American university located in the Silicon Valley. It offers a wide range of undergraduate and graduate degree programs in a variety of fields, including engineering, business, and the humanities. The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) conducts interdisciplinary research with the goal of creating a strong foundation for preserving, managing, and rejuvenating the diversity of life and the benefits it provides. The CCB evaluates factors that are leading to declining environmental security and increasing inequity, and works to find effective solutions to these issues. (More info here).

Gretchen C. Daily is the Bing Professor of Environmental Science in the Stanford Department of Biology. She is also the director of the Center for Conservation Biology, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and the co-founder and Faculty Director of the Natural Capital Project, among others. Her work, spanning fundamental research and policy-oriented initiatives, is focused on understanding human dependence and impacts on nature and the deep societal transformations needed to secure people and nature. (Full bio here).


Antoine Rondelet: Could you explain what is biodiversity, and why biodiversity is important?

Gretchen Daily (Stanford/CCB): Biodiversity basically refers to all the other life that makes the biosphere and that makes this planet alive and so special. Earth is the only place we know of that has life. All known life is contained in a thin layer around Earth’s surface. We refer to that life which lives in this thin layer, as the “Biosphere”. Biodiversity typically refers to the full range of life at different levels of organization. So, we can think about the biomes, the big Arctic regions, the tropical regions, desert regions, the marine and the land-based realms, where life exists, and we can also think about all the variety and the ecosystems outside our homes whether we live in an urban area or out, in more of an agricultural landscape, or maybe even up, in a more wilderness-like area.

We can also think at the more microscopic level about the genetic variation, for example. All of this is important because Humanity is really an intimate part of the biosphere. We’re not actually so separate as many of our ideas through modern culture make it seem like. We are intimately connected with nature and the biosphere. In fact, we have, for example, 10 times more, non-human cells in our bodies, as we have human cells. All those non-human cells are referred to as the microbiome, and they comprise a lot of other forms of life that live within us. Only now, the mystery about the microbiome is starting to unfold and be revealed, and it’s clear that a lot of forms of our health - our metabolic health, various aspects of our physical health as well as our mental health - depends on having a healthy microbiome. That depends on being out in contact with nature, as well as diet and things like that.

So then, going up from that more microscopic level to the level of ecosystems around our home, there are many, many ways in which biodiversity, this range of different life forms, is key to our well-being. In urban systems, in urban environments, for example, having vegetation like green space, tree cover, is key to regulating the climate and helping to mitigate extreme heat events, which are happening more and more commonly. A green space is also really important in cities, often for water quality and flood control, it’s important for mitigating noise and just buffering all that traffic and “industrial” sort of sound. It’s important for bringing us a contact with other forms of nature living in the vegetation, like birds. Birdsongs, for instance, have been shown to be really relaxing and beneficial for mental health. All that green space is also great for physical activity to stimulate all of us to get outside more, even in the winter, and get a bit of exercise. With respect to food, the majority of the most nutritious parts of our diet, the fruits, the vegetables, and nuts, all of those crops depend on bees and other types of animal pollinators, to buzz around, and, you know, deliver the harvest for us. Many other types of crops also depend on this pollination. So, we can think about all these services, in a way, these goods and services, that come from nature. Actually, one of the primary goods, which relates to health, is pharmaceuticals. Most of the top 150 prescription drugs in Western medicine are tracing their origin to natural products. So, there’s a huge range of benefits that biodiversity provides to people. Incorporating these into our thinking and our approach to climate change, to human development, broadly, is really vital now and that’s because biodiversity is in steep decline.

We’re at a moment in Earth’s history when it looks like we’re going to knock through human or just our collective day-to-day activities. Humanity is driving biodiversity to its lowest level since we became part of the planet and appeared on the scene. Because of the intense dependence, and interdependence of people in nature, there’s ever more attention to the need to protect nature as a key strategy for advancing human development, securing the climate, and achieving all the goals we need to achieve for human well-being.

There’s also, obviously, an ethical dimension to this: should one species, humanity, you know, really proceed and knowingly driving our many companions on the planet to extinction? At a very practical level and an ethical level, many people are motivated to open up to a real transformation in the way we think and proceed with our ideas of development. In this, people see an absolute win-win path that is nature positive, climate secure, and more inclusive. Inclusive especially of all the people that work as stewards out in the world’s landscapes, on rivers, lakes and in seascapes. It’s important to connect our ideas about human well-being, and development, to incentivizing and supporting all the stewards that actually really maintain the well-being of the planet. So, supporting all the farmers, fishers, foresters, and others working outside urban areas is really crucial and a key part of the transformation we need in terms of the political polarization and many other aspects we see evolving in many countries today.

Interestingly, you’ve touched on topics that connect to some of the other interviews, notably, the interview on the impact of climate change on human health, which relates to what you mentioned with the microbiome and the crucial work done by pollinators supporting our food chain. You’ve also mentioned the need to connect with nature, which echoes some of what we talked about in the biomimicry interview. It’s great to see ideas intersecting across the different discussions. Losing natural diversity seems to me as removing pages from the big encyclopedia that Nature is, which, in turns, removes possibilities we have to learn from the natural world.

What is the relationship between CO2/greenhouse gases emissions and biodiversity? Media seems focused on CO2, but there seems to be this massive biodiversity question that needs to be discussed as well. Is there a relationship between these two?

Yes, absolutely.

The balance of gases in the atmosphere and certainly of CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide for example, really depends on the metabolism of ecosystems. So, how ecosystems are doing, their condition, their dynamics, etc. So, for example, I live here in California. Probably many have read about, and maybe even experienced directly, as I have, the impacts of forest fire. Because of the way forests have been managed and fire has been suppressed for more than a century in California, there’s now a very high risk, as climate impacts unfold. As there’s more frequent and severe drought, there’s ever more risk that fire will break out in a devastating way across our forest ecosystems. That’s been happening more frequently and when it does, a lot of carbon gets released into the atmosphere, which further accelerates the pace of climate change. That’s just one example, but the same applies to many other types of ecosystems. Scotland’s Peatlands, for instance, tend to release much of the stored carbon in them, as they warm. So, all of these biodiverse places, their condition, and future, hinges on bringing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emissions down, reducing their rate of flux into the atmosphere, and ideally turning the whole flow around, and absorbing carbon back into living ecosystems.

Tropical forests, for example, where I’ve worked for about 30 years now, are tremendously important. They are probably the number one place we should focus on, worldwide, for investing in climate security and nature’s benefits to people. For these forests to store a tremendous amount of the carbon emitted worldwide and keeping it in tropical forests, slowing and reversing tropical deforestation is the number one nature-based approach we can take that would have the highest impact near term on helping to achieve climate security and preserving nature. But, how to achieve this is a key question, and there are a lot of aspects to it. You know, one is political, understandably people living in tropical countries don’t want to be orienting their development prospects around just absorbing pollution, emitted mostly by the rich countries in the world. So, there needs to be an economic and a political incentive. They don’t want to forego their own development to just make it possible for rich countries to continue destroying the planet for everyone. Fortunately, there is a really strong argument for making investments in tropical areas worldwide to achieve not only the global climate stability that we need, but also to achieve many of the development aspirations of people living in developing countries, where tropical forest is concentrated. So, examples are, water security, you know, the water quality, the quantity of water, the timing of flow etc. All benefit from having tropical forest that helps clean the water for drinking, for irrigation, for hydropower, but also helps regulate a flow of water around the year so that we have access to it, for all those needs, year-round rather than only in the months when precipitation is highest. Having tropical forest also helps protect people and property from flooding, etc. and that’s just one example. There are many others, like mangrove forests, for instance, that grow along coastlines in places where you often also have coral reefs which are important as an economic engine for tourism, for coastal security, for many ports and shipping, for nearshore and offshore fishing. Mangroves provide habitat and nursery grounds for many types of fish, and other marine creatures, that we harvest as part of the human food system. And, there are many other ways in which mangroves and other coastal ecosystems provide really important places to store carbon, the so-called blue carbon. So, investing in the conservation and restoration of mangroves, is also a really big emerging focus that helps align the goals of maintaining a liveable planet, including climate security as one of the key dimensions.

The examples you provided with tropical forests, mangroves and coral reefs are very telling. As far as my understanding goes, that’s showing very clearly that one of the consequences of increased GHGs emissions is that it adds stress and threatens these “ecosystems pillars” like forests, mangroves etc., and that if these are threatened, all the species they support are threatened as well. That draws a clear connection between GHGs and biodiversity.

I hear that deep oceans are still home to many secrets, and new species are often discovered in many parts of the world, so how do we measure biodiversity? Also, if you are working on a project, book, paper etc. that you would like to share with us, please do so, the floor is yours.

You’ve asked a really good question. At one level it’s a tricky question because there’s so much mystery to biodiversity. We’re still cataloging new species. So, going back to the time of Linnaeus, who pioneered the taxonomic system that we use now to classify biodiversity, and to many people who came before him, understanding what lives around us in the world is still a major mystery. But, at the same time, there are many straightforward ways of measuring key aspects of biodiversity. There are many aspects to it because it encompasses, you know, all of the variety of life. One of the key aspects is just the quality and extent of habitats areas where biodiversity is concentrated. So, the quality and extent of tropical forests, of mangroves, of coral reefs, of green space and cities, of agricultural lands that are managed in a way that maintains, you know, wildlife friendly practices and a lot of wildlife. So, it’s actually quite straightforward.

I’ll just add one thing, in response to your invitation. The team I’m a part of and co-founded, the Natural Capital Project, is advancing an open source and freely available platform of data and software that will let anyone map out the biodiversity around the world. There are others working on key parts of this, but the platform that we’ve developed, the Natural Capital Platform and the inVEST software, let you estimate the flow of benefits from nature to people. It lets you estimate the flow of benefits to people from the current situation and allows you to play around with scenarios of change for the future to ask questions like: “What would we lose if we lose green spaces in cities? Who would pay the price for losing access to green spaces?” and conversely, “Where would investing in nature, whether in cities or anywhere around the world yield the greatest benefits for the greatest number of people?”, “What would these benefits be in terms of food security, energy security, different aspects of climate security (e.g., flood protection), different aspects of health, etc.?”. The beauty in this is that now, many development organizations, governments, and also, the international financial institutions that support human development, are taking up this approach and have really co-developed it with the thousands of open-source contributors working on the inVEST platform. They’re integrating these values into development planning, into policy, into financial investment, and into day-to-day operations of the entities that most impact biodiversity and ecosystems - in mining and agriculture, in urban development and these sorts of things. So, we are seeing a real shift and the United Nations Global Environment Facility is out in the forefront, helping to drive high ambition and driving the agenda. Most recently, for example, at the culmination of the Biodiversity Conference Of the Parties, the COP, convened in Montreal in December 2022, a hundred and twenty countries have pledged to achieve 30 by 30, you know, protect 30% of their lands and waters by the year 2030. This is the challenge, but the aspiration is to align that with development objectives. From a science point of view, that’s certainly achievable. So, now the challenge before us is getting the job done, implementing. There are many strong partners geared up to do so, so I feel hopeful that we’re on a good track to address climate security and security in nature in an integrated way that leads to the kind of outcomes we need, not only for the future, but immediately, in economic, political and other kinds of terms.


Further reading


We originally published this interview on OCRA, a climate forum and community that we started. This interview has been moved to our blog following the closure of the OCRA forum.

Ganddee interviews offer an opportunity to put some guest community members at the center stage. During these interviews we ask questions to our expert guest to better understand their work, learn from them, and understand how they contribute to the fight against climate change. We hope these interviews will serve as an invitation to expend the discussion on the forum.

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