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How do humans affect biodiversity?

Humanity impacts the planet's biodiversity in multiple ways, both deliberate and accidental. The biggest threat to biodiversity to date has been the way humans have reshaped natural habitats to make way for farmland, or to obtain natural resources, but as climate change worsens it will have a growing impact on ecosystems.

The main direct cause of biodiversity loss is land use change (primarily for large-scale food production) which drives an estimated 30% of biodiversity decline globally. Second is overexploitation (overfishing, overhunting and overharvesting) for things like food, medicines and timber which drives around 20%. Climate change is the third most significant direct driver of biodiversity loss, which together with pollution accounts for 14%. Invasive alien species account for 11%. 

Some models predict that climate change will become the primary cause of biodiversity decline in the coming decades. The impact of all the main drivers of biodiversity loss is accelerating and, as a consequence, so is the pace of biodiversity decline.

Growing demand for natural resources due to the increasing human population, more rapidly increasing per capita consumption and changing consumption patterns has meant that ever more natural habitat is being used for agriculture, mining, industrial infrastructure and urban areas.

Key areas of human activity causing biodiversity loss include:

  • Deforestation. Tropical rainforests are particularly rich in biodiversity and are being destroyed
  • Habitat loss through pervasive, incremental encroachment such as that caused by urban sprawl
  • Pollution such as that associated with widespread pesticide use and overuse of fertiliser which are 6 and 12 times greater than they were before 1961 respectively
  • It is estimated that half of the species at risk are threatened by agriculture
  • Water use in some of the largest water catchments in the world where dams and irrigation reduce water flows
  • Hunting and the over-exploitation of species such as in wild capture fisheries but also for wildlife trade
  • Spread of invasive species and diseases through trade and travel 
  • Climate change, as warming and changing rainfall patterns alters species ranges and the underlying water and chemical cycles which define current ecosystems 
  • Pollution from plastic waste although its long-term effects on biodiversity are far from clear

For more on this issue visit: Amazonia’s future: Eden or degraded landscapes? | Royal Society; Preserving global biodiversity requires rapid agricultural improvements | Royal Society; and Past and future decline and extinction of species | 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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