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How does climate change affect biodiversity?

The environmental changes being driven by climate change are disturbing natural habitats and species in ways that are still only becoming clear. There are signs that rising temperatures are affecting biodiversity, while changing rainfall patterns, extreme weather events, and ocean acidification are putting pressure on species already threatened by other human activities. 

The threat posed by climate change to biodiversity is expected to increase, yet thriving ecosystems also have the capacity to help reduce the impacts of climate change. 

If current rates of warming continue, by 2030 global temperatures could increase by more than 1.5°C (2.7°F) compared to before the industrial revolution. A major impact of  climate change on biodiversity is the increase in the intensity and frequency of fires, storms or periods of drought. In Australia at the end of 2019 and start of 2020, 97,000km2 of forest and surrounding habitats were destroyed by intense fires that are now known to have been made worse by climate change. This adds to the threat to biodiversity which has already been placed under stress by other human activities.  It is thought that the number of threatened species in the area may have increased by 14% as a result of the fires. 

Rising global temperatures also have the potential to alter ecosystems over longer periods by changing what can grow and live within them. There is already evidence to suggest that reductions in water vapour in the atmosphere since the 1990s has resulted in 59% of vegetated areas showing pronounced browning and reduced growth rates worldwide.

Rising temperatures in the oceans affect marine organisms. Corals are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures and ocean acidification can make it harder for shellfish and corals in the upper ocean to form shells and hard skeletons. We have also seen changes in occurrence of marine algae blooms.
Despite the threats posed by climate change to biodiversity, we also know that natural habitats play an important role in regulating climate and can help to absorb and store carbon. Mangroves are significant sinks for carbon and the Amazon is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet and is an enormous store of carbon – up to 100 billion tons, although a recent study has suggested the Amazon may now be emitting more carbon than it absorbs. Safeguarding these natural carbon sinks from further damage is an important part of limiting climate change.

To find out more: Past and future decline and extinction of species | Royal Society; Why efforts to address climate change through nature-based solutions must support both biodiversity and people | Royal Society; Amazonia’s future: Eden or degraded landscapes? | Royal Society; Evidence & Causes of Climate Change | Royal Society

Find answers to 16 key questions about biodiversity

  • Introduction

    At its simplest, biodiversity describes life on Earth – the different genes, species and ecosystems that comprise the biosphere and the varying habitats, landscapes and regions in which they exist. We've answered some of your most popular questions about biodiversity.

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  • What is biodiversity?

    Biodiversity is all the living things on our planet – from the smallest bacteria to the largest plants and animals. So far, we have identified around 1.6 million species but that is probably only a small fraction of the forms of life on Earth.

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  • Why is biodiversity important?

    Biodiversity is essential for the processes that support all life on Earth, including humans. Without a wide range of animals, plants and microorganisms, we cannot have healthy ecosystems.

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  • How do we measure biodiversity?

    There is still much we do not know about the complexity of biodiversity on Earth. There are a number of ways that we measure it, with counting species the most common approach.

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  • What is the scale of biodiversity loss?

    The list of known recent extinctions is still a small fraction of all species on the planet but it is far above prehuman levels and the evidence suggests it is rising fast.

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  • We regularly hear of new species being discovered - does that not offset the loss of existing species?

    Every year thousands of previously unknown species are discovered, described and named.

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  • Where is most biodiversity loss happening and why?

    Biodiversity loss has been most pronounced on islands and in specific locations around the tropics.

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  • Is the rate of biodiversity loss increasing or decreasing?

    Compared to the 1.6 million species known about on Earth, the number of recorded extinctions can seem very low.

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  • What is the state of biodiversity in the UK?

    The UK boasts more than 70,000 known species of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms.

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  • How do humans affect biodiversity?

    Humanity impacts the planet's biodiversity in multiple ways, both deliberate and accidental.

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  • How does the growing global population and increasing consumption affect biodiversity?

    Since the middle of the 20th century, the human population has grown dramatically.

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  • How does climate change affect biodiversity?

    The environmental changes being driven by climate change are disturbing natural habitats and species in ways that are still only becoming clear.

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  • How does deforestation affect biodiversity?

    Forests contain some of the richest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet. But between 1990 and 2020, around 420 million hectares of mainly tropical forest has been lost.

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  • What can we do to protect biodiversity?

    Loss of natural habitats has been taking place over thousands of years, but scientists are confident that we have ways to help biodiversity recover.

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  • What can I do as an individual to protect biodiversity?

    While large scale changes in behaviour, policies and measures will be essential, individuals have a vital part to play.

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  • Can we allow nature to regenerate without intervention?

    Biodiversity loss is a complex issue involving many overlapping processes. While nature can recover when left to do so, it requires dramatic changes in our behaviour for this to happen.

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  • How do we decide what is worth saving or putting our efforts into protecting?

    The value of the natural world can be interpreted in many ways, from their raw economic value to the inherent social, cultural and emotional benefits they provide.

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