Biodiversity is a concept difficult to understand or appreciate, let alone regulate and communicate. Defined in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as “the variability among living organisms from all sources including … diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems,” the term attempts to reflect the variation of, and interaction among, all life on Earth.

Biodiversity matters, whether or not we think that specific species, genes or ecosystems are of direct interest to human needs. Twenty years ago, the degree of scientific uncertainty was high, and action on biodiversity conservation was often justified on the basis of the precautionary principle. Nowadays, while gaps in knowledge still exist, particularly with regard to the interlinkages among nature’s systems, the knowledge base is getting increasingly clear that biodiversity underpins human well-being and livelihoods, and is vital to the achievement of most SDGs. This is the outcome of a series of major global scientific assessments, including:

Despite their different focus areas, all these assessments underscore that biodiversity underpins sustainable development, and stress the need for coordinated policy responses that address global challenges as a whole. Going far beyond the scope of SDG 14 and 15 that respectively address life below water and life in land, biodiversity and healthy ecosystems provide the essential resources and ecosystem services that directly support a range of societal sectors and economic activities, such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and tourism.

Biodiversity is thus immediately relevant to the achievement of SDG 1 on ending poverty and SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth. The recognition of rights to sustainable management of natural resources for indigenous peoples, local communities, and women, and implementation of the CBD objective on fair and equitable benefit-sharing has the potential to improve socioeconomic and political inequality among countries and social groups (SDG 10). Importantly, the world’s rural populations, including smallholders, fisherfolk, and forest dwellers, often directly depend on nature’s resources for their subsistence and livelihoods. Biodiversity is key for food security and nutrition, and contributes to the achievement of SDG 2 on zero hunger. Agricultural genetic diversity, including crop and livestock, is crucial for the resilience and adaptation of agricultural systems to pests and changing environmental conditions. All food systems depend on biodiversity and the ecosystem services that support agricultural productivity, soil fertility, and water quality and supply.

As more and more deaths globally are attributed to environmental factors, the links between biodiversity and health (SDG 3) are increasingly recognized. Healthy ecosystems help to mitigate air, water, and soil pollution, and are the source of both modern and traditional medicines. They underpin the delivery of water supplies, water quality, and protect against water-related disasters (SDG 6); they are the source of energy (SDG 7); they can provide reliable and cost-effective natural infrastructure (SDG 9); and in general provide basic services to cities, and nature-based solutions to challenges related to urban well-being (SDG 11) and to climate change (SDG 13). All these are however undermined by current unsustainable production and consumption patterns (SDG 12), as well as illegal wildlife trade, fishing, and timber trade (SDG 16).

At the forefront of international policy making on biodiversity is the CBD and its Protocols, along with several other biodiversity-related conventions and bodies, including the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Convention, and the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

The potential of biodiversity to contribute to sustainable development features in many of the decisions that CBD Parties adopted at the latest UN Biodiversity Conference, held in November 2018, in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. This Conference included the 14th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 14) to the CBD, the ninth meeting of the COP serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (COP/MOP 9), and the third meeting of the COP serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits arising from their Utilization (COP/MOP 3).

Parties acknowledged the links between achieving the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the SDGs. They expressed the concern that most of the Aichi Targets are not on track to be achieved by 2020, which will jeopardize the SDGs and, ultimately, the planet’s life support systems; and requested the CBD Executive Secretary to communicate through the UN system, including the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), that failure to achieve the Strategic Plan jeopardizes the attainment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Decision 14/1). Mainstreaming of biodiversity into different economic activities is considered necessary to both halt biodiversity loss and achieve the SDGs, and Parties highlighted in particular the interlinkages between biodiversity and human health (Decision 14/4). At the same time, the interlinkages between biodiversity and the SDGs will be a basis for the development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, as outlined in the SDG Hub Policy Brief on the post-2020 framework.

As research increasingly draws attention to the links between biodiversity loss and climate change, CBD Parties once again stressed that destruction, degradation, and fragmentation of ecosystems reduce their capacity to store carbon, lead to increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, reduce their resilience and stability, and exacerbate the climate change crisis. Biodiversity and ecosystems contribute significantly to climate change adaptation, mitigation, and disaster risk reduction (DRR), while at the same time, climate change is a major and growing driver of biodiversity loss. Development and implementation of coherent, integrated, and co-beneficial policies is required across the biodiversity, climate change, and sustainable development arenas, as exemplified in the adopted Voluntary Guidelines for the design and effective implementation of ecosystem-based approaches to climate change adaptation and DRR (Decision 14/5). These detailed guidelines present a step-wise approach for planning and implementation of ecosystem-based climate change adaptation and DRR, as well as principles, safeguards, and overarching considerations on integrating knowledge and practices of indigenous peoples and local communities, mainstreaming, capacity building, and awareness raising.

The scourge of pollinators’ decline, and its impact on ecosystems, particularly agricultural ecosystems and, as a result, food security, has resulted in increased societal awareness and policy action. CBD Parties adopted an updated plan of action 2018-2030, aiming to promote coordinated action worldwide to safeguard wild and managed pollinators and promote the sustainable use of pollination, which is a recognized vital ecosystem service for agriculture and for the functioning and health of ecosystems. Showcasing the interlinkages between biodiversity and several SDGs, activities under the plan of action address: the integration of pollinator-related policies into broader sustainable development agendas; implementation of effective pesticide regulation; control of the trade and movement of managed pollinators; co-design (with farmers, beekeepers, and others) and implementation of pollinator-friendly practices in farms, grasslands, and urban areas; promotion of connectivity, conservation, management, and restoration of pollinator habitats; public awareness actions; and business and supply chain engagement (Decision 14/6).

The CBD and its Protocols have a long tradition of deliberating on new technologies and addressing their potential impacts on biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, and fair and equitable benefit-sharing. Technological innovation, along with other means of implementation, stand at the heart of SDG implementation and CBD deliberations alike. CBD ongoing work on synthetic biology and exchanges of digital sequence information arising from genetic resources can contribute to ensuring the fair distribution of risks and benefits, with the aim that technological progress serve the society as a whole, particularly those in need.

IISD Reporting Services and the SDG Knowledge Hub will be following biodiversity and sustainable development negotiations, including the 2019 HLPF session currently meeting at UN Headquarters in New York, US, and the UN Biodiversity Conference in October 2020 in Kunming, China, aiming to bring information and enhance transparency in decision making.