Biodiversity on Earth has been significantly and increasingly eroded over some forty years,  while attempts to compensate for these losses have frequently met with failure. Yet over the same period, biodiversity research has taken a variety of new directions, underpinned by agreements between scientists and between nation-states. Initially focused on issues relating to inventories of species, the trend in biodiversity research is now towards evaluating what biodiversity does for human beings. This anthropocentric approach, known as ‘ecosystem services’, should help to convince the general public and decision makers of the need for action.

Research at the University of Geneva looks at biodiversity, at ecosystems and at the services that these provide to society. It is based on field observations, laboratory studies and statistical and spatial modelling.

Human beings and the plant and animal species around them are highly interdependent. Yet, despite the scientific records of species that have been compiled over more than two centuries, our knowledge of biological diversity remains very patchy: there are an estimated nine million species on Earth (setting aside microbial diversity), but we are aware of probably only about 20% of them.

What is more, we still have very little understanding of the complexity and functioning of ecosystems. There is a strong link between a given ecosystem’s biological diversity and the way it functions. However, we are still unable to predict how massive alterations in biodiversity – accentuated by global changes – affect the functioning of ecosystems and the vital services that they provide to the human species. Do these functions and services decrease at the same rate as biodiversity is lost? Or do they diminish exponentially? Or, if they fall below some unknown threshold, will they even be lost forever?

Threats to biodiversity

Not only is biodiversity poorly understood, it is also endangered by human behaviour. Destruction of habitats, area fragmentation, climate change, invasive species, over‑exploitation of resources, pollution of ecosystems – these threats are the main causes of the massive erosion of species observed over the past forty years or more, with species loss estimated at 1,000 times the natural rate.

The concept of ‘ecosystem services’ or useful biodiversity

This situation becomes all the more alarming when we also take into account the fact that attempts to compensate for the worldwide loss of biodiversity have proved unsuccessful. One hope for reversing the trend lies in an innovative way of conceptualizing biodiversity, known as ‘ecosystem services’. This way of thinking offers an anthropocentric view of the importance of biodiversity, measured according to what it can do for the human species. Ecosystem services are provided by nature in the form of material goods – water, wood, food, etc. – and cultural goods, which contribute to maintaining balanced human relationships. Ecosystems also serve as natural regulators of Earth’s processes (for example, through the formation of soils suitable for agriculture), and they maintain natural cycles that may, for instance, regulate invasive species or the spread of disease.

Therefore the real value of biodiversity goes well beyond the biological aspects and should be taken into account in political and economic decision-making. It is fairly easy to demonstrate that ignoring the importance of biodiversity is going to cost the economy a great deal more than it saves – and that the well-being of human societies is at stake. If fish disappeared from the oceans, the consequences for human beings would be incalculable…

The concept of ‘ecosystem services’, put forward by the United Nations in 2005, underlies the creation of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in 2012.

Biodiversity research: technical and social issues

Researchers face a number of challenges in handling the enormous complexity of investigating biodiversity, ecosystems and ecosystem services. And they face a no less daunting task when it comes to communicating their results in the form of convincing information that the general public and decision makers can easily understand.

Research questions

  • Biodiversity: what is it, where is it to be found and why is it important?
  • How can we record biodiversity correctly in space and over time?
  • What are the origins of biodiversity and what are the natural processes and evolutionary pressures that maintain it?
  • What is the link between biodiversity, the functioning of ecosystems and ecosystem services?
  • Why should we worry about loss of biodiversity?
  • What are the current trends and the important factors?
  • What is the future of biodiversity and ecosystem services in various different scenarios of future change?
  • What are the options that would help to reduce biodiversity loss while still improving the quality of human life?
  • What are the hopes of reducing the loss of biodiversity up to 2020 and beyond?

Analytical tools and foundations

To answer these questions, researchers at the University of Geneva study diversity and ecosystems in the field, explore the way they function in a laboratory setting and model their characteristics at both local and global scales.

Our Aquatic Ecology Laboratory studies changes in plant and invertebrate communities and signals the changes associated with human activities in lakes, ponds and watercourses.

Our Microbial Ecology Laboratory uses a combination of laboratory experiments, automated field observations and time series analyses in order to understand the mechanisms that control the origins and maintenance of microbial diversity and their role in the functioning of lake ecosystems and the services they provide.

Our Spatial Analyses Laboratory is developing methods based on Geographic Information Systems, remote sensing and statistical modelling in order to map and predict the distribution of species and ecosystems. These activities aim to assist decision-making on biodiversity conservation, such as the creation of reserve networks, the management of invasive or rare species and the impact of global changes on species and on ecosystem services.

Biodiversity targets to 2020

International: Aichi Targets

  1. address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society
  2. reduce the direct pressures on biodiversity and promote sustainable use
  3. improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity
  4. enhance the benefits to all from biodiversity and ecosystem services
  5. enhance implementation through participatory planning, knowledge management and capacity building

In Europe

  1. conserve and restore nature
  2. maintain and improve ecosystems and ecosystem services
  3. achieve more sustainable agriculture and forestry
  4. ensure sustainable use of fishery resources
  5. combat introduced invasive species
  6. help to tackle the global crisis of biodiversity loss

In Switzerland and Geneva

In Switzerland, the Federal Council has set out a ‘Swiss Biodiversity Strategy’, which is to be implemented at canton level.

This Strategy aims, by 2020, to use biodiversity sustainably; develop ecological infrastructure; improve the conservation status of national priority species; conserve and promote genetic diversity; re-evaluate financial incentives; record ecosystem services; generate and disseminate knowledge; promote biodiversity in urban areas; strengthen Switzerland’s international commitment; monitor changes in biodiversity.