I. Scientific aspects

Biological diversity, or in short biodiversity, has been defined by the leading Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as "... the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems." From a biological perspective, biodiversity thus encompasses more than the mere diversity of species: it also includes varietal diversity (e.g. of agricultural crops), so-called genetic resources and the variety of ecological processes.

The term "biodiversity" thus covers the variability among living organisms on three levels of diversity:

  • the diversity of species (plants, animals, microbes, fungi),
  • the variety of genetic information carried by living organisms,
  • the variety of ecosystems or habitats.

Biodiversity, as the diversity of all living things, is to be distinguished from geodiversity, although they are interdependent in many ways.

Assessment of biodiversity

Biodiversity is often understood as the number of different species. In order to measure biodiversity not only in terms of quantity, qualitative aspects of biological diversity in a particular area or region are being included in the form of the following parameters: species density, frequency distribution of species, rarity, functional diversity and ecosystem services, diversity in terms of species relationships, endangered species, non-indigenous species, and value for human beings. 

These parameters are used primarily to assess biodiversity and, beyond that, to assign priorities for the selection of areas to be protected by conversation measures.

In view of the high variability of the living it is not possible to assess biodiversity as a whole. The data collected in the aforementioned parameters rather provides insights into the respective parts of biodiversity. For example, estimates on the number of different species range from 5 to 30 million species of animals, plants and micro-organisms. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, based on all species that have so far been identified, estimates the total number of species on Earth at 13.6 million.

Distribution of biodiversity

Biodiversity hotspots are areas that feature a particularly high density of species and ecosystems which are, at the same time, especially endangered. In general, species density increases from the poles to the equator: the largest diversity can be found in the tropics and subtropics, with the tropical rain forests being the richest ecosystems in the world. The deep-sea floor, which remains to a large extent unexplored, is also home to myriad animal species and micro-organisms. Within the marine ecosystems, tropical coral reefs account for the largest diversity of species.

The following map (Fig. 1) shows the distribution of vascular plant species on Earth. Due to several correlations, it can be assumed that a similar distribution applies to animal species. However, a comparable map of the distribution of fauna has not been created yet.

Ecosystem services and functions

Ecosystem services are services provided by nature or ecosystems, which are useful to human beings (see below: "Economic aspects of biodiversity"). They include, for instance, the provision of freshwater through precipitation and soil filtration, carbon sequestration in vegetable biomass, pollination of plants by insect colonies and climate regulation, but also primary production of plants that are of use to human beings. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, ecosystem services can be broken down into four categories: supporting, provisioning, regulating and cultural services. 

As part of biodiversity loss, the decimation of ecosystems by human activities may have serious impacts on the reliability of an ecosystem, which in turn may affect human well-being. For example, satellite pictures have shown that coastal areas in the tropics with intact mangrove forests were much less affected by the 2004 tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia than areas where the forests had been cut down.

Biodiversity loss

As it is difficult to determine accurate numbers of species and to precisely quantify diversity (e.g. of ecosystems), the assessment of biodiversity loss is a very challenging task. However, it is a fact that biodiversity is threatened at the global level; this is e.g. reflected in the destruction of ecosystems (such as rain forests or coral reefs) or in the threat of extinction of species (such as the panda or the Przewalski's horse). Key drivers of biodiversity loss are: 1. habitat change, 2. climate change, 3. invasive alien species, 4. overexploitation of species (e.g. overfishing), and 5. pollution, including overfertilisation. In this regard, the regulation of agriculture is of great importance: For example, the results of the global study of the PREDICTS project on land use attribute 13.6 percent of the loss of species in regional ecosystems to agriculture. In addition to helping assess the current loss of biodiversity, its verified causes also help make predictions about expected future biodiversity loss

As a response to the increasing loss of biodiversity, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. By the year 2015, 196 countries, including Germany, were contracting parties to this international nature conservation agreement.

II. Economic aspects

Biodiversity as an economic good

One object of study in economic science is the satisfaction of human needs through scarce resources, which can be used in different ways. Hence, biological diversity can be considered an economic good provided it (1) can be used to satisfy human needs, (2) is scarce, and (3) has alternative uses. A few selected examples will be presented in the following to demonstrate to what extent the above-mentioned criteria can be applied to biodiversity.

(1) Satisfaction of human needs
On the one hand, biological diversity provides mankind with essential resources for sustainable food security, for the development of new medicines and for the discovery and development of industrial raw materials. On the other hand, biodiversity plays a major role in the fields of bionics and bioindication. Furthermore, the so-called ecosystem services are of major direct or indirect importance for agricultural and industrial production processes. In addition to its being utilised for economic purposes, biodiversity is also associated with aesthetic and recreational values, which are difficult to measure in a commercial sense. The beauty of plants and animals, for example, is appreciated by many people who enjoy nature to go on trips or on holiday. However, which components of biodiversity are necessary for the aforementioned uses is a controversial topic and partly unknown. The decision to conserve biodiversity as fully as possible can be justified with reference to the aim of a long-term satisfaction of basic human needs, for example by strengthening the resilience and functionality of ecosystems.

(2) Scarcity and (3) alternative uses
In economics, scarcity of a good basically means relative scarcity compared to other goods, supposing that the goods are, to a limited extent, substitutable. Against this background, scarcity always has to be considered as a problem of exchange: in order to obtain an additional unit of one good, a certain amount of other goods must be spent (money, consumer goods, time etc.). The focus of economic science on the problem of relative scarcity has also influenced the way in which biodiversity is perceived in economics: in this context, relative scarcity means that the provision or the conservation of biodiversity necessarily involves (opportunity) costs. Thus, the creation of additional biodiversity, e.g. by setting up biotopes, requires the renunciation of other goods, such as money or alternative uses of the area where the biotope is established. The economic approach reveals possible paths to an efficiently organised use of biodiversity conditioned by a scarcity of goods.

Economics and biodiversity conservation

The increasingly publicly known rapid loss of biodiversity has caused the available options for the conservation of biodiversity to progressively be examined economically. A comprehensive conservation of biodiversity is not feasible given natural, scientific, legal and political restraints. The creation of justified priority lists of the areas of biodiversity that should be protected thus plays an important role. These priority lists are based on the economic value of biodiversity.

The economic valuation of biodiversity is carried out following a series of various types of values: On its outermost layer, total economic value of biodiversity is a result of combining use and non-use values. Use values are generated from the actual or potential use of an economic good and can be broken down into direct use value, indirect use value, and option value. The attribution of non-use values to a good, on the other hand, is not related to a potential use; non-use values include: perceived use value, bequest value, and existence value.

In addition to a differentiated valuation of the parts of biodiversity, economics offers solutions to the political realisation of conservation concepts. They achieve this by explaining biodiversity loss with help of market and government failure analysis, on the one hand, and through economic incentives that further the conservation and use of biological diversity. The study The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), initiated by Germany and the European Commission, is representative of the connection between economic valuation of biodiversity and economic incentives. The reports of the study were published in three phases and served the purpose of creating an effective database to guide qualitative decisions for the protection of biodiversity. Furthermore, the surveying and differentiation of uses and their values for biodiversity create a foundation on which to set priorities within the protection of biodiversity and guide a weighing of the goal of biodiversity conservation in relation to other social goals.

III. Legal aspects

The legal regulations of biodiversity are firstly directed at the protection of biological diversity, exemplified by the effort to establish a worldwide consistent regulation of trade with endangered species through species protection treaties. Secondly, regulations aim at sustainable uses of biodiversity in order to combine the objectives of protection and sustainable development. Lastly, these legal regulations focus on the problems of equitable distribution of the economic benefits from the utilisation of biological diversity between the resource-rich - often economically weak - countries and the - often resource-poor - industrial nations that endeavour to gain access to genetic resources. Given the international dimension of this issue, the individual states' national legislation is assigned a weaker importance than the importance assigned to intergovernmental agreements. 

International level

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
The Washington Convention is an example for the endeavor during the second half of the 20th Century to stop the loss of species through international treaties. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (abb.: CITES) was first signed by 80 states in March 1973 at the founding conference in Washington, D.C. By 2016, 183 states had ratified the convention. The convention lays down regulations concerning the monitoring of trade with wild animals and plants and replaces the London Convention Relative to the Preservation of Fauna and Flora in their Natural State, which was signed by nine states in 1933 and dealt solely with the trade with African wild animals. In its appendix, the CITES-Text lists approximately 5,000 animal species and 28,000 plant species which are considered as critically endangered and hence specifically worthy of protection. A distinction is made between such species with whom trade is generally prohibited and such species which are subject to specific import and export rules. Federal and scientific authorities in the single member states decide upon the approval or rejection of an application for import or export. The executing organ concerning the control of import and export of listed species and, if applicable, the confiscation of individual exemplars is constituted by customs in the respective countries. According to the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), German customs in 2014 confiscated 73.217 exemplars of listed animal and plant species or rather products from these animals and plants. In comparison to 2013, this marked an increase by approximately 4.312 specimen. From 2012 to 2013 an increment of 17.402 specimens and products had already been recorded. The continuous actualization of the individual regulations is being guaranteed by means of the international conference on species conservation which takes place at a regular basis. In December 1996, regulation no. 338/97, which is consistent with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and which reinforces and modifies the CITES-regulations within Europe, was accepted in the European Union. The EU regulation arranges for a duty to inform for the single member states which has to be fulfilled in the form of annual reports documenting the volume of listed species. Furthermore, European trade with wildlife animals and plants shall become more standardized by means of an obligation to register concerning rejections of approvals of import and export licenses.

Convention on Biological Diversity

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, was the first treaty to ever designate all of biodiversity as subject to protection. In the convention, biodiversity is declared a "common concern of mankind". Following Art. 1, it combines the aim of conserving biological diversity with that of the sustainable use of its components, as well as the fair distribution of the thus produced benefits.

The protection and sustainable use of biodiversity are i.a. regulated in Art. 8 and 9 (In-situ and Ex-situ Conservation) as well as Art. 10 (Sustainable Use of Components of Biological Diversity). The central issue of legal and regulative debates, though, is the regulations concerning the third aim of the convention: the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of biological diversity.

  • Pursuant to Art. 3 CBD, "States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies." At the same time, they have "the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction." In addition, Art. 5 CBD provides that "each Contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate, cooperate with other Contracting Parties in areas of mutual interest, for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity".
    More precisely, in order to achieve the above-mentioned goals, each Contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate, create economic and social incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity (Art. 11 CBD).
  • Art. 15 CDB makes provisions for the development of a multilateral access and benefit-sharing system (ABS system) for the genetic resources of the Contracting Parties. Based on the recognition of the sovereign rights of each State over its resources, Art. 15 para. 1 stipulates that "the authority to determine access to genetic resources rests with the national governments and is subject to national legislation." Pursuant to Art. 15 para. 2, "each Contracting Party shall endeavour to create conditions to facilitate access to genetic resources for environmentally sound uses by other Contracting Parties". According to Art. 15 para. 4 CBD, access shall be granted on mutually agreed terms and in accordance with the provisions of Art. 15 CBD: Art. 15 para. 5 CBD, for example, stipulates that "access to genetic resources shall be subject to prior informed consent of the Contracting Party providing the resources, unless otherwise determined by that Party." The "country providing genetic resources" is defined in Art. 2 CBD as "the country supplying genetic resources collected from in-situ sources including populations of both wild and domesticated species, or taken from ex-situ sources which may or may not have originated in that country".
  • According to Art. 15 para. 6 CBD, each Contracting Party shall endeavour to develop and carry out scientific research based on genetic resources, with the full participation of the countries that have provided the resources. Art. 15 para. 7 CBD stipulates that each Contracting Party shall take appropriate legislative, administrative and political measures "with the aim of sharing in a fair and equitable way the results of research and development, as well as the benefits arising from commercial and other utilisation of genetic resources with the Contracting Party providing such resources. Such sharing shall be upon mutually agreed terms." In addition to the participation of countries providing the resources in the direct commercial benefits arising from the utilisation of biological diversity, Article 16 of the CBD also provides for the participation in technologies "that are relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity or make use of genetic resources without causing significant damage to the environment" (Art. 16 para. 1 CBD).

The convention itself and the concrete plans necessary for its implementation are being further developed at the Conference of the Parties (COP), which takes place every two years. The Cartagena Protocol of 2003 on Biosafety and the Nagoya Protocol of 2010 on Access and Benefit Sharing are milestones in this regard. The last three meetings took place in October 2012 in Hyderabad, India (COP 11), in October 2014 in Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea (COP 12) and in December 2016 in Cancun, Mexico (COP 13).

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)
Since 2012, the implementation of the CBD is accompanied by an intergovernmental platform for biodiversity and ecosystem services. The establishment of the international platform IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) was agreed upon in July 2010 by the international community at an intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder meeting in Busan (Republic of Korea). IPBES shall act as a world biodiversity council and serve as a scientific policy advisor, modelled after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC. As an intergovernmental body, its task is to provide scientific knowledge on the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services for political decision makers through an independent and trustworthy platform. The IPBES was officially established on 21 April, 2012, in Panama. Shortly after, the establishment of the IPBES’ secretariat in Bonn was decided upon. In their second plenary meeting in December 2013 in Antalya (IPBES 2), the member states adopted a work program for the time period spanning from 2014 to 2018. During the seventh plenary meeting, the second work program was adopted, which replaced the former one as a strategic guideline which is valid untill 2030. This is primarly further refinement and adaptation of the first work program, but with a flexible ("rolling") and demand-driven approach to fulfil the changing research and information needs.

European and National Level

The European Union is party of the Convention on Biological Diversity, too, since 1994. In 1998, the EU Biodiversity Strategy was issued. In 2006, a comprehensive action plan for the conservation of biodiversity followed that combined previous strategies. In 2011, the EU issued the Biodiversity Strategy 2020. The Birds Directive of 1979 and the Habitats Directive of 1992 are closely aligned with the aims of the CBD. With help of these directives, endangered target species shall be conserved in their habitats (In-situ) through the declaration and maintenance of protection areas.

By ratifying the UN Convention on the protection of biodiversity, the individual states have indeed committed themselves to developing a strategy which guarantees and promotes the protection of biodiversity. While Germany has disposed of such a strategy as early November 2007, Switzerland adopted a strategy in April 2012. In March 2015, the National Assembly of France passed a draft law for the conservation of biodiversity that stipulates, i.a., the establishment of a national agency for biodiversity.

Further sources of law with regard to equitable benefit-sharing

FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
On 29 June, 2004, the "International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture" by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) came into force. The objective of the Treaty is the implementation of the principles stipulated in the CBD. At the core of the Treaty are regulations on a multilateral system of access to genetic resources for food and agriculture and on the sharing of the benefits arising out of their utilisation, and a funding strategy, as agreed by the Contracting Parties at their first conference in June 2006. However, the Treaty is considered to be of low practical relevance.

Andean community
The so-called Andean Community provides an important example of national access and benefit-sharing regimes. In the "Cusco Declaration on Access to Genetic Ressources, Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Property Rights of Like-Minded Megadiverse Countries", signed in 2002, it agreed to take meaures for the establishment of its own ABS systems and for the alignment of national legal systems with regard to property rights of genetic resources. Comparable approaches also exist in different countries, e.g. in Australia, Brazil, Africa and the Netherlands.

Case-by-case arrangements
In the last years it has been observed that the establishment of ABS systems (and the alignment of property right and patent law structures concerning biological resources, rather than being regulated by national legislation or international agreements, are more and more frequently regulated on a case-by-case basis through individual treaties between the private sector companies using the resources, on the one hand, and the public or private institutions of the country providing the resources, on the other hand. A prominent example of this is the so-called "Merck-INBio Agreement" between the company Merck & Company and the "National Biodiversity Institute" (Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad; INBio) in Costa Rica.

Patent law
The protection of biodiversity is highly problematic in terms of national patent law regulations: as soon as a user of a resource has been granted a patent on a specific use of this resource, the country of origin of the resource is excluded from any utilisation falling within the scope of protection of this patent.

IV. Ethical aspects

The concept of biodiversity always includes descriptive aspects that relate to measurable and describable characteristics of the diversity of e.g. species. At the same time, the term "biodiversity" is used to refer to the diversity of nature as something that is worthy of protection. Biodiversity protection is often considered a worthwhile objective; yet it can be challenged on philosophical and ethical grounds. The subject of this discussion is how human behaviour towards non-human nature can be justified and which value (or even intrinsic value) can be attached to nature. The moral debate on biodiversity thus mainly focuses on its right to protection. What exactly is the value of biodiversity? Is it a purely instrumental value that has to be contextualised with respect to the benefit for human beings, or does nature, or do specific areas of nature, have value in its/their own right?

Nature and environmental ethics approaches:

Nature and environmental ethics' argumentation often follows basic patterns, which can be broken down into anthropocentric, pathocentric, biocentric and holistic positions. These approaches differ in terms of the range of objects to which intrinsic value is being attached and which are hence directly entitled to protection. All four approaches have in common that they are anthroporelational. This means that the value assigned to nature is reflected in rights to protection that always relate to the human being. Only humans can bear the obligation for protection; only humans have the ability to establish rules and to assume responsibility.

From an anthropocentric (only applying to human beings) environmental ethics point of view, nature is only valued insofar as it is of significance or value for human beings. According to this theory, only human beings have intrinsic value. Moral duties are only owed to other human beings; there is no direct obligation to protect non-human creatures. Hence, if from an anthropocentric perspective it is claimed that biodiversity is to be conserved, this is based on human beings potentially being affected by these actions, and not on an intrinsic value being assigned to nature. Particularly with regard to the real, or potential, benefits of biodiversity and the question of who takes advantage of these benefits, and to what extent, the notion of justice is a central aspect of the ethical debate.

In the pathocentric approach, inherent value is attributed to those living beings that are able to experience pain, which becomes manifest in observable behaviour, such as trembling or attempts to flee. Hence, at least higher animals and human beings have a right to protection. From the pathocentric point of view, the value of biodiversity is only indirectly derived from the direct value attributed to sentient organisms. Thus, an ecosystem must not be destroyed for example if apes are likely to suffer from the consequences.

In biocentrism there is a greater obligation for protection than in pathocentrism, as the biocentric approach includes all living organisms. Thus, human responsibility not only extends to organisms that are valuable to humans, or to sentient organisms, but to all living organisms. Proponents of this approach often argue that, whether it be consciously or unconsciously, each living organism has an "interest" in living, which is not to be violated without any reason by human beings.

In holism, living and non-living nature in its entirety is the bearer of moral value. This approach focuses not only on individual living organisms, but on nature as an integrated whole, including natural systems (such as ecosystems or ecological niches). As a result, human beings should protect nature as a whole - not because it is valuable, able to experience pain or alive, but simply because it exists.

Suggested citation

German Reference Centre for Ethics in the Life Sciences (2022): In Focus: Biodiversity. URL [date of access]

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