Technology for Biology: Preserving Biodiversity

In 2009, a group of globally respected scientists identified the nine critical planetary processes that determine the stability and resilience of Earth’s ability to support life: stratospheric ozone levels, biodiversity, chemical pollution, ocean acidification, climate change, the freshwater cycle, changes in land use, excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil and oceans, and aerosols in the atmosphere. The scientists also set up metrics to determine at what point any of these processes would be so far out of balance that they would risk creating abrupt, massive, and potentially irreversible changes to the environment. The resulting concept of “planetary boundaries” gives us the limits within which humanity has to stay if it hopes to continue thriving.

The biodiversity boundary is now perilously close to being breached.

Biodiversity refers to the variety of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and other forms of life in a specific geographic area, from a small patch of land to the entire planet. Every organism and species in that area is part of an intricate web of connections known as an ecosystem. An ecosystem works as a whole to support the life within it by purifying water, cycling nutrients, regulating the climate, controlling pests, pollinating and spreading plants, and so forth.

The habitat loss from agricultural and industrial expansion, overexploitation of natural resources, destruction from pollution and excess waste (notably plastics accumulating in the oceans), and the spread of invasive species are compounding the effects of climate change – to the point where the scientific community agrees that human activity is not just destroying wildlands but causing a mass extinction event across the planet.

Hundreds of animal species will probably vanish forever in the next 20 years, and as many as 1 million of the 8 million known plants and animals will become endangered. The problem is especially acute in places like tropical rainforests, which have the widest variety of species as well as the highest rate of habitat destruction. But a ripple effect, in which any change in the complex web of an ecosystem forces changes throughout it, endangers the planet-wide systems that meet humanity’s basic needs, like food, shelter, and fuel.

Want a quick overview?

Read, “Technology for Preserving Biodiversity.”

Biodiversity as good business

Keeping the planet within the biodiversity boundary is vital, urgent work – not least because it’s hard to have a healthy business without a healthy planet to do business on. It will require us to develop technologies that can help us identify the areas most at risk, report on wildlife status at global and hyper-local levels, and begin to restore damaged ecosystems.

The challenge will demand massive investment and effort – but just as the space race generated technological leaps that made their way to consumers as products we now take for granted, like freeze-dried foods and cordless tools, this scientific quest will undoubtedly give rise to innovative, sustainable consumer products and services. In fact, the World Economic Forum says that if businesses start to put nature first now, they’ll create 395 million new jobs by 2030 and generate US$10.1 trillion a year in business opportunities.

And, of course, taking action will also help fend off environmental catastrophe – something that customers care deeply about.

Female scientist working with test tubes in a lab

Global collaborations to spot and solve problems at scale

With the current mass extinction underway and possibly even accelerating, researchers, businesses, and the public are working together to create solutions to drive understanding and action worldwide. These are a few notable current efforts:

Virtual reality technology

Sensors to detect and protect species at risk

Biodiversity is both a global issue and a hyper-local one. New technologies, from robots and drones to sensors that can be attached to an insect, are evolving to focus on a particular animal or habitat, with the potential of moving from detecting species at risk to defending their homes.

Flock of flamingos traveling through water

Remediation and restoration

Once we halt biodiversity loss, we have to reverse the trend with bioremediation technology that helps us restore what we’ve damaged. These are a few emerging possibilities:

The ways we break things are the ways we can fix them

The human driver behind the loss of biodiversity is simple: there are more people in the world than ever, and all of our activities in pursuit of a higher standard of living are straining the ecosystems on which we all depend – to the point that we risk irreparable damage.

But if we now choose to apply technological innovation to the challenge of conserving and restoring biodiversity, we can start repairing the planet and the well-being of every species on it – and create a future that’s more environmentally and economically stable and resilient.