Biodiversity loss: what is causing it and why is it a concern?

Plant and animal species are disappearing at an ever faster rate due to human activity. What are the causes and why does biodiversity matter?

Beautiful woodland bluebell forest in spring.
© Bratt

Biodiversity, or the variety of all living things on our planet, has been declining at an alarming rate in recent years, mainly due to human activities, such as land use changes, pollution and climate change.

The European Commission presented the new 2030 Biodiversity Strategy in May 2020, following calls from the Parliament in January 2020 to address the main drivers of biodiversity loss and set legally binding targets.

During the June 2021 plenary session, Parliament adopted its position on the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030: Bringing nature back into our lives to ensure that by 2050 the world’s ecosystems are restored, resilient and adequately protected.

In February 2024, MEPs backed a new law on nature restoration, which is part of the EU’s efforts to preserve biodiversity in Europe. This law binds all EU countries to work towards restoring natural habitats.

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is traditionally defined as the variety of life on Earth in all its forms. It comprises the number of species, their genetic variation and the interaction of these lifeforms within complex ecosystems.

In a UN report published in 2019, scientists warned that one million species - out of an estimated total of eight million - are threatened with extinction, many within decades. Some researchers even consider we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history. Earlier known mass extinctions wiped out between 60% and 95% of all species. It takes millions of years for ecosystems to recover from such an event.

Find out facts and figures about endangered species in Europe

Why is biodiversity important?

Healthy ecosystems provide us with many essentials we take for granted. Plants convert energy from the sun making it available to other life forms. Bacteria and other living organisms break down organic matter into nutrients providing plants with healthy soil to grow in. Pollinators are essential in plant reproduction, guaranteeing our food production. Plants and oceans act as major carbon sinks.

In short, biodiversity provides us with clean air, fresh water, good quality soil and crop pollination. It helps us fight climate change and adapt to it as well reduce the impact of natural hazards.

Since living organisms interact in dynamic ecosystems, the disappearance of one species can have a far-reaching impact on the food chain. It is impossible to know exactly what the consequences of mass extinctions would be for humans, but we do know that for now the diversity of nature allows us to thrive.

Main reasons for biodiversity loss

  • Changes in land use (e.g. deforestation, intensive mono-culture, urbanisation)
  • Direct exploitation such as hunting and over-fishing
  • Climate change
  • Pollution
  • Invasive alien species

What measures does the Parliament propose?

MEPs strongly supported the EU targets of protecting at least 30% of the EU’s marine and terrestrial areas (forests, wetlands, peatlands, grasslands and coastal ecosystems) and that 10% of the EU’s oceans and land, including all remaining primary and old-growth forests and other carbon-rich ecosystems, should be left essentially undisturbed.

They want the targets to be binding and implemented by EU countries at national level, in cooperation with regional and local authorities.

Concerned by the decline of pollinators, MEPs also called for an urgent revision of the EU Pollinators Initiative.

More information about what the EU does to preserve biodiversity