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Why ESG Matters: Biodiversity and Health

 7 Jun 2023

The decline in biodiversity is having an ever-greater impact on human health and well-being services, with linkages to disaster risks, diseases, nutrition, medicine, air and water quality being increasingly recognised.

In this edition, we explore how decreasing levels of biodiversity are negatively affecting human health outcomes and examine the support provided by the Convention on Biological Diversity and its various Parties in restoring balance.

Biodiversity is all the different kinds of life you’ll find in one area and how they interact with the ecosystem - the variety of animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms like bacteria that make up our natural world. Each of these species and organisms work together within ecosystems, like an intricate web, to maintain balance and support life. Biodiversity is essential for providing us with resources we need to survive, such as food, clean water, medicine and shelter[@biodiversity-and-health-1].

Did you know?

Source: ‘Clean water’, Our World in Data, 2019, FAO, ITPS, GSBI, SCBD and EC. 2020. State of knowledge of soil biodiversity - Status, challenges and potentialities, Convention on Biological Diversity, What Is Marine and Coastal Biodiversity?, 2022, Ibid, New Nature Economy Report II, The Future of Nature and Business, World Economic Forum, 2022

1. Increasing awareness

Biodiversity and health are interlinked

The crucial role of biodiversity in supporting ecosystems and delivering ecosystem services is closely connected to human health. Biodiverse ecosystems provide essential services such as food, clean air, medicine, natural disaster risk reduction and spiritual values, which fundamentally influence the mental and physical health of human populations.

This is increasingly being recognised globally by intergovernmental and subnational parties. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) One Health approach (see below) has been supported by many parties such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations (UN), the World Bank and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The One Health approach aims to achieve optimal health outcomes for ecosystems, people and all living beings by recognising the fundamental linkages between them. It brings together expertise from multiple sectors, strengthening collaboration and data sharing, to address the common drivers of biodiversity loss (Chart 1) and integrate approaches to prevent and detect health risks. Key components of this transition include: conserving and restoring ecosystems, and promoting safe (and legal) use of wildlife, sustainable agriculture, healthy cities and sustainable consumption[@biodiversity-and-health-2] .

Despite the fundamental role that biodiversity plays in health, its levels continue to decline due to various human activities (Chart 1), which inhibit essential ecosystem services and often lead to negative outcomes for health and well-being. In 2015, the CBD and WHO collaborated on a review of the linkages between biodiversity and health, the risks that biodiversity loss poses to health, and ways forward[@biodiversity-and-health-3]. We dive into these in the following section.

Source: CBD, WHO, UNEP, HSBC

2. Biodiversity and health

Biodiversity loss poses a risk to the health and well-being of our society across multiple areas which we discuss below.

Water

Biodiversity underpins water systems via regulating nutrient cycles, soil erosion, pollution and water purification. However, while clean water is essential for human health, it’s often polluted by water-intensive industries, such as agriculture, textiles and construction as well as mining activities, which put freshwater and mountain ecosystems at risk. Roughly 2.2bn people don’t have access to safely managed drinking water and sanitation services[@biodiversity-and-health-4] and it’s estimated that unsafe water sources were responsible for 1.2m deaths in 2017[@biodiversity-and-health-5], with the most pronounced impacts on women, children and less developed regions.

Air

Clean air is vital for healthy outcomes, yet air pollution was responsible for approximately 7m deaths in 2012, with asthma and chronic pulmonary diseases becoming more prevalent. Biodiverse ecosystems can play a direct role in removing air pollution and altering meteorological patterns to improve air quality.

Food and nutrition

The agriculture and food sectors play a fundamental part in providing healthy diets and nutrients. However, farming relies on biodiversity to provide services like nutrient cycling, water regulation, pollination and pest control, which are necessary to support above-ground crops. Agricultural productivity has increased significantly over the last 50 years and approximately 50% of the planet’s terrestrial land is now used for agriculture[@biodiversity-and-health-6], but food insecurity and undernourishment remain prevalent globally. Modern agriculture methods rely on synthetic fertilisers, which can destroy ecosystems and increase the vulnerability of these production systems to yield reliable and nutritious food sources for human health[@biodiversity-and-health-7].

Medicine

Many of today’s infections and diseases are largely treatable with medicine that owes its existence to biodiversity. The discovery of natural products, particularly antibiotics, has contributed significantly to breakthroughs in healthcare. However, with many species threatened by extinction, we risk losing potential pharmacologic resources, which could have long-term impacts to human health.

Diseases and microbial diversity

At the microbial level, humans rely on the diversity within their bodies to regulate bodily systems. The depletion of microbial diversity in the human microbiome, which can result from reduced contact between people and the natural environment, has been linked to a range of non-communicable diseases across the globe, including allergic disorder, asthma and Crohn’s disease.

Pathogen and infectious diseases can likewise be linked to biodiversity. The encroachment of human activities and the destruction of ecosystems can increase the risk of emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases (infections transmitted from animals to humans)[@biodiversity-and-health-8]. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the pressure placed on habitats and the risk of disease outbreaks. It has also drawn attention to the need to address inequities in global health, including access to medicines.

Physical, mental and cultural dimensions of health

Biodiversity is an integral part of many cultures and traditions, and exposure to natural environments ultimately enhances mental and physical well-being. However, with urbanisation on the rise and an increasing number of people living in these urban areas, we’re depriving ourselves of the physiological and psychological benefits that nature provides.

Adaptation to climate change

The impact of climate change on human health is expected to intensify due to damaged food production, the spread of diseases, reduced air quality, heat stress and natural disasters. Sustainable consumption and production are essential because of demographic changes and their impact on biodiversity and the environment as a whole. Behavioural change is key to the transition, which seeks to protect biodiversity, human health and their complex linkages. Nonetheless, biodiversity can also help to restore ecosystems with the resources necessary to reduce greenhouse gases emissions and build resilience to climate disasters.

3. Global focus

As biodiversity is integral to sectors that influence health outcomes, such as pharmacy, biochemistry, biotechnology, tourism and agriculture, its health benefits can help to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly Goal 3, which is to promote “Good health and well-being”. Strategies like nature-based solutions, which encompass urban green spaces and regenerative agriculture practices, can help to find harmony between people and nature.

CBD actions

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has worked to raise awareness of the interlinkages between health and biodiversity in its efforts to safeguard biodiversity. At the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP10) in October 2010, the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity (2011-2020) was adopted, which included 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets. These targets aim to address the ongoing decline in biodiversity and to promote the sustainable use of natural resources.

Aichi Target 14 explicitly focuses on ecosystem services that contribute to health, livelihoods and well-being, and the CBD also states that all the Targets have potential linkages to health and well-being. This support for biodiversity and health outcomes was further emphasised at COP12 (2014) and COP13 (2016), where increased collaboration was called upon between the CBD, WHO and other organisations to strengthen the implementation of the plan.

As the global health crisis of COVID-19 swept across the world, a draft Global Action Plan for Biodiversity and Health was devised. This plan aims to support Parties in implementing a biodiversity-inclusive One Health approach and to encourage Parties to incorporate biodiversity and health linkages into national policies.

More recently, during COP15 in Montreal last year, a new Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) to 2030 was adopted. This frameworks covers conservation, sustainable use, access and benefits sharing, as well as the five main drivers of biodiversity loss - changes in land and sea use, exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species.

4. Conclusion

The health of humans and the health of the planet are intertwined. And healthy ecosystems require a diversity of biological interactions to deliver ecosystems services. To make progress towards the One Health approach, social and economic development therefore needs to support both humans and nature. Investors should be aware of the increasing focus on biodiversity when it comes to health and well-being so they can position for the opportunities that may arise within the theme. 

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