Sustainability Theme of the Month: April is for Supporting Biodiversity

Spring is finally upon us! To many, this means it’s time to start planning your garden for the season and spending more time outdoors. It’s also the time that the Earth seems like it’s “waking up” from its winter slumber, and you can truly appreciate the role of biodiversity in creating beauty and supporting our wellbeing.

During the month of April, the Sustainability Office will be focusing on the importance of biodiversity for the wellbeing of the planet and humanity. This blog post covers all things biodiversity – what biodiversity means, its role in maintaining our health and wellbeing, why biodiversity loss is a major issue, what is being done on campus and in the community, and what YOU can do to promote biodiversity.

What is biodiversity?

To get started, let’s define biodiversity. Put simply, biodiversity (or biological diversity) is the variety of biological species on the Earth. This ranges from diversity at the genetic level within one species to diversity between species and diversity among ecosystems. Plants, animals, and insects all  contribute to biodiversity! The more genetically diverse individuals and species there are, the greater our global biodiversity.

Why we need biodiversity

Ecosystem servicesBiodiversity plays many critical functions to support all life around the world, including humans. Biodiversity supports resilience. The greater the diversity in our ecosystems, the better these ecosystems can withstand disturbances (like wildfires, drought, or invasive species). Think of it as natural insurance: if multiple species perform similar functions in an ecosystem, the ecosystem will not be significantly impacted if one species cannot perform this function anymore. This is especially important as climate change causes extreme weather events and conditions that unequally stress species.

Biodiversity also supports ecosystem services, which are natural services and functions that humans and the planet benefit from. These include provisioning services (goods and products obtained from ecosystems like food, water, timber, etc.), regulating services (regulating ecosystem processes like pollination, climate regulation, etc.), supporting services (the basis for all other ecosystem functions, such as photosynthesis and soil formation), and cultural services (non-materials benefits of nature like spiritual value, recreation and leisure, mental health, etc.). Although it’s very difficult to measure the value of non-material services like carbon sequestration and pollination, it is estimated that the value attributed from ecosystem services each year is worth 125 trillion dollars!

The threat of biodiversity loss

The nine planetary boundariesBiosphere integrity (i.e. biodiversity) is considered one of the nine planetary boundaries that contribute to earth’s stability and resilience. The planetary boundaries framework, developed by the Stockholm Resilience Institute, illustrates where planetary systems like biodiversity are relative to their “safe operating space” – that is, how well they can support human life for the long-term. Leaving these safe operating spaces increases the risk of unpredictable, sudden environmental damage that threatens human life and wellbeing. All this to say, we need to do whatever we can to return and stay in these safe operating spaces. Biodiversity loss has already left its safe operating space: the current rate of biodiversity loss is 1,000 to 10,000 times greater than the natural extinction rate, with approximately 0.01 to 0.1 percent of species going extinct annually. However, it’s important to note that these are just estimates and are difficult to determine, given the number of species that we have yet to discover. Nonetheless, biodiversity loss is a serious issue that threatens people and the planet and is happening at an increasing rate.

There are many reasons that biodiversity is declining around the world, most of which are a result of human activities. Some of these activities include:

  • Deforestation
  • Contamination/pollution
  • Spread of invasive species
  • Desertification
  • Monocropping
  • Coral bleaching

At the national level, habitat loss, climate change, pollution, unsustainable harvesting (especially of aquatic species) and invasive species are major threats to Canadian biodiversity. To get a better sense of the extent of biodiversity loss that is happening, the Living Planet Index (LPI) tracks the population sizes of wildlife over time at local, national and global scales. Globally, the Living Planet Index indicates that there has been a 68 percent decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish from 1970 to 2016. Canada is fortunate that our biodiversity is relatively stable at the moment, however continuous exploitation and destruction of natural habitats could reverse this trend in the future. Additionally, actions taken in Canada have broader impacts, such as on international waters and air. That’s why it’s crucial for everyone to take action to promote biodiversity.

What is being done to promote biodiversity

The ENV-ARTS Garden on campusBiodiversity has been recognized as crucial to environmental and human wellbeing for decades. The most significant acknowledgement of this importance at the global scale is the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Since 1992, this international treaty has helped harmonize efforts to protect biodiversity amongst 196 nations.

Translating this to local action, organizations like Reep Green Solutions show us how to promote biodiversity in the community and at home. Their annual Bloom {in} Box charity provides residents of Waterloo Region with native, pollinator-friendly plant kits that support local biodiversity; all of the funds raised go towards other biodiversity-supporting community projects. The Region of Waterloo also promotes individual-led actions, with funding opportunities like the Community Environmental Fund to support planting and other biodiversity-supporting projects in community spaces.

The University of Waterloo is also taking important steps to promote biodiversity on campus. For example, the University has been planting native species on campus since 1997, has installed numerous green roofs to support biodiversity in underutilized spaces, and has integrated permeable pavement at three locations on campus. In alignment with Objective O9 of our Environmental Sustainability Strategy, by 2025 the University strives to maintain all grounds according to sustainable landscaping standards and develop plans for remediation and preservation of specific natural areas of concern. As of 2020 the University was maintaining 100 percent of campus grounds according to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) principles, which includes promoting plant and soil stewardship, using environmentally preferable materials, sustainable water, materials and waste management, and snow and ice management.

What you can do to promote biodiversity

Promoting biodiversity in your personal life is simple and doesn’t require a garden (although having one is definitely beneficial). Here are some of the simple things you can do to promote biodiversity from home or in your community:

  • Plant native, pollinator-friendly species. Invasive plant species can out-compete native species for resources and growing space, which in turn reduces food sources for native wildlife. Protect native ecosystems by planting species that are naturally a part of them! In addition, pollinators are crucial for maintaining biodiversity around the world, so look for plant species that support them too.
  • Provide food and shelter for local wildlife. Pollinator-friendly plants are one way to feed local species, but also consider putting out nuts, seeds and fruit as well as creating shelters (like a bee hotel!) for our outdoor friends.
  • Decrease your water consumption. This reduces our demands on our limited supply of freshwater, which promotes the conservation of important habitats like wetlands, and helps recharge water tables (which support biodiversity AND supply us with drinking water in Waterloo Region!).
  • Practice smart salt management in the winter. Road salts can adversely impact waterways, aquatic life and terrestrial species that interact with these waterways. Follow the Region of Waterloo’s tips for smart road salt use.
  • Contribute to citizen science. When there are so many plants and animals roaming around, it can be difficult to keep track of what species are where! That’s why portals like iNaturalist are great for individuals to contribute meaningful data about local species they spot. iNaturalist is also a great education tool for learning about the species in your area! 
  • Volunteer at a community garden or biodiversity project. This is a great way to promote biodiversity when you don’t have your own garden or balcony. If you know of a great place to plant a community garden or trees, you could apply for the Community Action Fund through the Region of Waterloo for funding to support this project!
  • Visit a conservation area. Supporting your local conservation areas simply by going for a visit can foster appreciation for local biodiversity and educate you on the species that exist in your community. Any fees you pay to enter these areas go directly towards conservation initiatives!

Summary and additional resources

In summary, biodiversity is crucial to all life on Earth. There are many things you can do personally to promote biodiversity across your community, demonstrating just how valuable individual actions can be at creating broader positive change.

In addition to the tips shared above, check out these resources to help you support biodiversity from home and in your community:

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