Electricity pylons cut through a forest

Power lines were one of the most common types of infrastructure found in some of the world's Key Biodiversity Areas. Image © Vladimka production/Shutterstock

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Biodiversity at risk as development encroaches into 80% of vital habitats

Only a fifth of the world's most important places for biodiversity are untouched by human development.

Development in these sites, called Key Biodiversity Areas, poses a risk to the stability and survival of unique ecosystems, with many more set to be developed in the coming years.

Roads, power lines and housing cut through some of the most important sites for biodiversity on the planet.

A new study has found that almost 80% of the world's Key Biodiversity Areas contain at least one type of human infrastructure. Developing these sites can pose threats to the wildlife living there, such as hunting, habitat fragmentation and wildfires.

The authors of the paper have called for efforts to avoid building in Key Biodiversity Areas where possible and to minimise damage where development can't be avoided.

Wendy Elliott, who co-authored the research and is the Deputy Leader for Wildlife at the Word Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), says, 'Infrastructure underpins our societies, delivering the water we drink, the roads we travel on, and the electricity that powers livelihoods.'

'This study illustrates the crucial importance of ensuring smart infrastructure development that provides social and economic value for all, whilst ensuring positive outcomes for nature. Making this happen will be the challenge of our time, but with the right planning, design and commitment it is well within the realms of possibility.'

The paper was published in the journal Biological Conservation.

Wooden steps leading down through bushes to a beach

Phillip Island, in Australia, is among the 16,000 Key Biodiversity Areas found around the globe. Image © Benny Marty/Shutterstock

What are Key Biodiversity Areas?

Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) are areas that are important for maintaining the range of life on the planet. There are more than 16,000 KBAs globally, including large geographical features such as the UK's Severn Estuary and protected areas such as Australia's Philip Island nature park.

Areas that are chosen as KBAs are selected based on a set of strict criteria. They may, for instance, be one of the few remaining places an endangered species or ecosystem are found, or preserve an almost pristine ecosystem that is hard to find anywhere else.

Despite their importance, however, many of these sites are set to become more developed in the coming years. Over 1,000 KBAs already contain mines, with proposals to build many more in the future.

To assess how developed these sites have become, the researchers compared the boundaries of KBAs on land with sources such as satellite observations and maps. In total, they found that over 12,000 contained at least one type of human infrastructure, and on average they had two.

While the presence of human development in KBAs isn't in itself a sign of biodiversity loss, it can make it more likely that it could happen in future. Three quarters of KBAs contain roads, which allow greater access to sites that may otherwise be inaccessible to humans.

This can be the catalyst for more infrastructure, with power lines and urban areas the next most common developments in KBAs. As might be expected, infrastructure was more common in densely populated countries such as Switzerland, where all of its KBAs contained some human development.

Many of these developments aren't a threat to the integrity of KBAs, however. The study only identified around 1,100 that were directly threatened by infrastructure at present, though reports weren't available for the majority of sites.

Diggers in an open cast mine, with trees lining the rim

Mining concessions could be constructed in hundreds of Key Biodiversity Areas in future. Image © Red ivory/Shutterstock

Future threats to Key Biodiversity Areas

As well as looking at the present, the study also assessed how pressures on KBAs may change in the near future. The researchers compiled a list of proposed developments for the sites, which mostly concerned plans for new mines, power plants and fossil fuel infrastructure.

As many as a third of terrestrial KBAs could contain these developments in the future, including 544 that currently have no infrastructure within them. While it's unlikely that all of these developments will go ahead, it demonstrates just part of the scale of the biodiversity crisis.

Unfortunately, dealing with some of these threats are not as simple as cancelling the projects. Preventing the extraction of materials important for renewable energy generation would impede the ability of the world to tackle climate change, which also contributes to biodiversity loss.

Moving the extraction of these minerals off land and into the sea, meanwhile, presents its own set of challenges.

Ash Simpkins, a PhD student who led the study, says, 'We recognise that infrastructure is essential to human development but it's about building smartly. This means ideally avoiding or otherwise minimising infrastructure in the most important locations for biodiversity.'

'If the infrastructure must be there, then it should be designed to cause as little damage as possible, and the impacts more than compensated for elsewhere.'

The researchers have called for more research into the impacts different types of infrastructure can have in order to develop better ways of mitigating any damage they cause.