Biological diversity, or biodiversity, is threatened by the deterioration of natural environments, the over-exploitation of natural resources, demographic pressure, urbanization, pollution, and climate change. However, implementing policies to protect biodiversity comes up against many obstacles: the divergence of interests and priorities between states; consideration of the numerous actors involved; the appropriate scale of action; favored mechanisms for action, and so on.

In three decades, biodiversity (biological diversity) has become a key public policy issue that cuts across all areas and operates at all scales, from genes and human microbiota through to biospheres. It has three components, which interact with each other: diversity of living species (fauna and flora), ecosystem diversity and genetic diversity.

Facing a probable sixth extinction

As the planet enters the Anthropocene era, awareness of the urgent need to preserve biodiversity is patchy.

Change in the distribution of anthropogenic biomes, 1700-2000

Source: Anthromes Working Group,

Comment: This map shows the distribution of the global land surface, according to type of biome, between 1700 and 2000. The proportion of wildlands and semi-natural areas has been halved within the space of 300 years: in 1700 it occupied over 90% of the earth’s surface compared with 45% today. Most land has now been transformed, even if partially, by human activity. This anthropization has mainly come about by land being turned into prairies, meadows, and grassland, pastures and cultivated soil, representing 40% of global cover in 2000.

The degradation of natural environments, terrestrial and aquatic, can be observed in an unprecedented rate of species extinction (cycads, conifers, corals, amphibians, mammals, birds, insects, etc.).

Endangered species, by major families, 2017

Source: The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “Red List of Threatened Species”,

Comment: The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) records and assesses threatened living species. Even within the different kingdoms of living organisms (animal, vegetable, and fungi), each class presents a very varied number of threatened species. Nevertheless, these are systematically above 13% (with the exception of green algae). Among all vertebrates, amphibians are the most threatened (32%). Among invertebrates, it is worms and spiders (82% and 68%). Among plants, it is mosses, flowers, and ferns (75%, 52%, and 51%) as well as lichens and fungi (77 %).

Soil and coastline erosion as well as the systematic degradation of forests, grasslands and wetlands (lakes, rivers, underground aquifers, mangroves, lagoons, peat bogs, marshes, oases, coral reefs, etc.) are weakening the ecosystems necessary to regulate water resources and purification and to prevent so-called natural disasters (floods, mudslides, fires, droughts, avalanches, etc.).

The overexploitation of natural resources is also damaging biodiversity. More than three-quarters of the earth’s land is now being used by humans – and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) estimates that this will increase to 90% of the total by 2050. The only remaining unused lands will be in areas unsuitable for humans: deserts, mountains, tundra, the polar regions. Intensive agriculture in Europe and America, based on the systematic use of chemical inputs (synthetic fertilizers, crop protection products, etc.), is diminishing the fertility of arable land – while monocultures and seed homogenization are further reducing diversity. Additional threats come from mass consumption, biopiracy and the international trafficking of protected species.

Aggravating factors

Demographic pressure and rapid urbanization (urban sprawl, growth in automobile use, incremental loss of arable land), especially in countries of the South, are eroding biodiversity. Continuous pollution of the air, soil, groundwater, rivers and oceans by industrial and agricultural activities, the growing production of waste linked with consumerist lifestyles, industrial accidents and oil spills, and the unchecked growth of invasive species are placing the biodiversity and biological productivity of natural environments under severe pressure.

Finally, climate change is amplifying some of the degradations mentioned above: ocean acidification; species loss, proliferation, and displacement; extreme meteorological events, etc.

The first biodiversity policies appeared in the late 19th century, with the creation of protected areas allowing for nature conservation while simultaneously controlling the territory of indigenous populations (North America, British colonial empire). International agreements were adopted to protect species regarded as “useful” for agriculture, fishing or hunting, supported by national nature conservation groups. More recently, scientists, UN institutions and organizations dedicated to biodiversity (International Union for Conservation of Nature [ IUCN ], World Wildlife Fund [ WWF ]), have worked to raise awareness and develop our understanding of the issues involved, creating new tools such as the system for classifying endangered species. The Biosphere Conference organized by UNESCO in 1968 was followed by conferences in Stockholm (1972, with the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme [ UNEP ]) and Rio, where the Convention on Biological Diversity was adopted (1992), and then by the creation of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in 2012: step by step, an international regime for biodiversity has taken shape – one which does, though, contain many ambiguities.

Ratification of 8 environmental agreements, 1974-2018

Sources: United Nations,; InforMEA,; FAO,

Comment: This series of graphs shows the dates when eight international treaties on the environment were ratified. Three conventions are old ones (over 35 years) which have only very gradually been ratified right up to the present day: they are those dealing with the trade in threatened species (CITES), wetlands (Ramsar), and the protection of migratory species (CMS). Two conventions in the 1990s were massively and swiftly ratified: one on biological diversity and the other to combat desertification. However, very few states have yet ratified the two treaties on genetic and phytogenetic resources.

Extending the scope of protection

The scale of the challenges involved raises the question of whether biodiversity protection should be contained within specific sectors – or extended across all public policy areas (mainstreaming), given that what is at stake is a shared resource, a public good, a common heritage and a shared pool of knowledge.

Negotiations expose the divergent interests of the various actors involved. Environmentalist NGOs of the North defend biodiversity as a common good, while countries of the South claim sovereignty in the management of their natural resources (leading to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2000, a compromise between the G77 nations and the European Union), asserting their intent to use them for their own development (Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing in 2010).

At a time when many countries are cutting back public expenditure on research and development, industry is playing a major and growing role in many areas: defining pollution standards, specifying compensation mechanisms for biodiversity destruction (REDD+ projects), setting up certification systems (fishing, forestry), leveraging biodiversity for its genetic resources and economic potential – and claiming biological material as intellectual property (bioprospecting, biopiracy), and using market mechanisms (often funded by the tourist industry) such as payment for ecosystem services, etc.

At local level, indigenous peoples living from natural resources are calling for more inclusive, community-based ways of managing these resources (community empowerment), making more effective use of indigenous and local expertise in maintaining or restoring them (agroecology, community forestry, permaculture, etc.).


To quote this article

" Biodiversity " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2018, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:


  1. Bonneuil, Christophe and Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste, L’Événement Anthropocène. La Terre, l’histoire et nous, Paris, Seuil, 2013.
  2. Compagnon, Daniel and Rodary, Estienne (eds), Les Politiques de biodiversité, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2017.
  3. Hrabanski, Marie and Pesche, Denis (eds), The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES): Meeting the Challenges of Biodiversity Conservation and Governance, London, Routledge, 2017.
  4. Mermet, Laurent and Leménager, Tiphaine (eds), Développement et biodiversité. Comment négocier le tournant environnemental? Paris, Agence française de développement, 2015.
  5. Oberthür, Sebastian and Rosendal G. Kristin (eds), Global Governance of Genetic Resources: Access and Benefit Sharing after the Nagoya Protocol, 2014.
  6. Thomas, Frédéric and Boisvert, Valérie (eds), Le Pouvoir de la biodiversité. Néolibéralisation de la nature dans les pays émergents, Marseille/Paris, IRD Éditions/Quae, 2015.
  7. Vadrot, Alice, The Politics of Knowledge and Global Biodiversity, London, Routledge, 2014.

Continue in the Atlas

ResourcesWater – a precious resourceResourcesFoodback to top