Biodiversity: the variety of life
The term biodiversity, also known as species diversity, is understood to mean a richness of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms. The term also encompasses the genetic diversity within the different species, the diversity of ecosystems and the interactions within and between these levels. Generally speaking, biodiversity describes the variety of life.
Functions of biodiversity and the problem of its loss
The diverse nature of the term biodiversity already suggests that its functions are extraordinarily comprehensive. Biodiversity ensures the functioning of all ecosystem services that are indispensable for humans. It provides us with drinking water, forms the basis for the production of food and provides sources of energy. It regulates the climate and provides natural protection against natural hazards. Biodiversity is, therefore, not only of central importance for nature, it is also a foundation for our society and the entire economy. A large proportion of businesses are directly or indirectly dependent on it and its services. This may seem obvious for farming and food production. The dependency, however, goes much deeper. For example, a large number of medicines are produced from natural resources such as plants, fungi and bacteria, which means that pharmaceutical companies and the entire health sector are dependent on biodiversity. The same applies to cosmetic products and their manufacturers. Furthermore, the construction and textile industries are also significantly influenced by biodiversity and its services. Biodiversity also makes a significant contribution to Switzerland's attractiveness as a business location and thus sustains tourism. In short, biodiversity is relevant to all of us.
Against the background of its fundamental functions, it is obvious that the conservation of biodiversity is essential not only from an ethical, but also from an economic point of view. This makes it all the more worrying that biodiversity is rapidly declining worldwide; in Switzerland alone, according to a recent report by the Federal Office for the Environment, more than one-third of the approximately 11,000 plant, fungus and animal species studied are considered endangered or have already become extinct. The steadily advancing loss of biodiversity is largely due to human activities (e.g. deforestation, urbanisation, overfishing and emissions) and, according to the Global Risks Report 2023, declining biodiversity is now considered one of the greatest global risks alongside climate change, given that the decline in biodiversity and climate change are closely linked and mutually reinforcing. However, while the issue of climate change is on everyone's lips, the loss of biodiversity receives less publicity despite its momentous impact on the economy and society. One reason for this may be that biodiversity loss is only partially visible.
Legal aspects of biodiversity
Biodiversity does not stop at national borders, and combatting the ongoing loss of habitats and species is a global task. At the legal level, there are various international agreements for the conservation of biodiversity. One of the most important international agreements is the Rio 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which has been in force in Switzerland since 1 February 1995.
With the signing of the CBD, the signatory states committed themselves to developing a national biodiversity strategy. Accordingly, the Federal Council adopted the "Biodiversity Strategy" for Switzerland in 2012. This was concretised in the 2017 Action plan, which contains measures for the direct and long-term promotion of biodiversity, aims to strengthen the use of synergies between federal biodiversity policy and interfaces such as agriculture, spatial planning, transport, etc., and contains measures to raise public awareness of the problem of biodiversity loss. Recently, the Federal Council decided to extend the first implementation phase of the action plan (2017-2023) until 2024.
The conservation and promotion of biodiversity is also a cross-sectoral task, which means that its legal reference points are particularly diverse. An authoritative framework at the national level is the Federal Act on the Protection of Nature and Cultural Heritage (NCHA). Among other things, its purpose article lists the conservation of biological diversity and the promotion of the sustainable use of its components as an explicit goal (art. 1 let. d and dbis NCHA). Important regulations on the protection of biodiversity can also be found in the Agriculture Act, Water Protection Act, Spatial Planning Act, Forest Act, Hunting Act and associated ordinances. In addition, there are also various regulations at the cantonal and communal level that also affect biodiversity. In particular – but by no means conclusively – the various regulations of the cantons and municipalities in the area of spatial planning should be mentioned.
More and more companies are actively addressing the issue of sustainability. However, the protection of biodiversity in Switzerland has not (yet) found its way into the ESG reporting obligations of companies (Art. 964a et seq. of the Code of Obligations). This is different in the European Union, where biodiversity and ecosystems are considered a partial aspect of ESG reporting obligations. It is by no means impossible that Switzerland will catch up with the EU here in the medium term.
Current developments and outlook
In September 2020, the so-called Biodiversity Initiative was submitted in Switzerland. With an amendment to the Federal Constitution, the federal government and the cantons are to be obliged to better protect biodiversity and to make more areas and more money available for this purpose. Although the Federal Council rejects the initiative, according to its dispatch it supports the initiative in principle and agrees with the urgent need for action. Therefore, it submitted an indirect counter-proposal to parliament, which was not accepted by the Council of States. Consequently, the initiative will be put to the vote without a counter-proposal. If the initiative is accepted, its concrete implementation is likely to give rise to much discussion.
Future legal developments in the area of biodiversity are still highly uncertain in Switzerland. However, there is already fundamental agreement on one thing: action is urgently needed. It is therefore of central importance for companies to deal with the issue at an early stage, also in order to be prepared for future legal developments.