Biodiversity Revisited: Sparking a New Approach to Research for the Biosphere

The biosphere — the thin film of life that envelops our planet and sustains humanity — is being severely degraded by humans. Land, air and water quality are deteriorating; there is ongoing loss of natural ecosystems; and extinctions and widespread declines in populations of wild species continue. A significant portion of this degradation, particularly of habitats and species, is generally described as biodiversity loss.

Biodiversity refers to the variety and variability within living organisms that is believed to contribute to the stability and resilience of living systems, offering insurance against predictable and unpredictable future environmental change. It also directly supports human livelihoods and welfare, especially of the rural poor. As with climate change, there have been some responses to the deterioration of biodiversity, but unlike climate change, these have been piecemeal and ineffective. This may be because the concept is vague and the systems involved are complex — there is still only a rudimentary understanding of what constitutes a dangerous degree of biodiversity loss. It is thus not surprising that concern about biodiversity degradation is not widely shared within society. It also explains why governments and businesses are able to ignore the issue.

A significant community of researchers, NGOs and others are deeply concerned about the lack of traction that biodiversity has in policy and mainstream economic activity. While indeed concerning, this biodiversity framing may have taken us down the wrong path in terms of the issues to which society ought to be paying attention. The concept and narrative of biodiversity may have made it more difficult for a holistic framing around nature, the biosphere or the Earth system to gain traction.

To address this situation, the project Biodiversity Revisited: Sparking a New Approach to Research for the Biosphere will critically examine the biodiversity narrative and consider what it would take to move closer to a new agenda around sustaining the biosphere — where biodiversity is more tightly coupled with climate, land degradation and sustainable development. What would such a framing look like and what would its new science encompass?

To answer this question, the project will convene interdisciplinary scientists in an intensive collaborative research process to examine how the concept and narrative of biodiversity has shaped our research, policy and institutions, and what the outcome of this has been in a world where biodiversity is still rapidly declining. The goal of Biodiversity Revisited is to create a new agenda for society to effectively sustain the biosphere.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Luc Hoffmann Institute are leading the project, collaborating with Nature Sustainability, Future Earth, ETH Zurich Department of Environmental Systems Science, the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute (UCCR) and the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research at University College London (CBER). Together, they will convene a group of up to 70 experts to interrogate the concept of biodiversity to determine whether and how it might best evolve, and what questions need to be addressed to support this evolution. Under the guidance of the partners through an authoritative and legitimate steering committee, this collaborative research process will seek to create a new and integrated research agenda to shape further investigations for the next five years and inform policy decisions.