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Effective Biodiversity Indicators

The UK is committed to targets under international biodiversity agreements to value, conserve and restore the variety of life on earth (biodiversity). Progress towards targets is tracked using indicators, which are designed to summarise complex monitoring data. This POSTnote reviews indicator use and development in the context of the post-2020 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Global Biodiversity Framework.

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Biodiversity refers not only to the diversity of the biological components of a system (genes, species, ecosystems), but also more broadly to the interactions between species, structures of biological networks, and the overall functioning or resilience of ecosystems. These broader concepts are often hard to understand, define and measure. This complexity can be measured in various ways but no single metric can adequately describe biodiversity as a whole. Indicators are composed of one or more measures that summarise complex data into simple, standardised and communicable figures. Individual indicators (such as forest area as a proportion of total land area, or estimates of bird population; POSTbrief 41) may be used to monitor specific aspects of biodiversity, whereas multiple indicators can be used to assess its overall state. 

The UK is committed to multiple international biodiversity goals and targets, such as those set out by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Oslo/Paris Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic. Biodiversity is rapidly declining (PN 617PN 627), and most of the Aichi Targets set out in the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 have not been met, either globally or in the UK. The 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the CBD in 2021 will agree the new 10–year post–2020 Global Biodiversity Framework objectives. Global, regional, national and local biodiversity indicators will be used to measure and communicate progress towards the new targets. The development and use of biodiversity indicators are challenging, but they can provide a basis for communicating progress towards targets and can also be used to evaluate policies underpinning conservation measures. This POSTnote describes the challenges surrounding the effective use of biodiversity indicators. These challenges are interlinked and include the types, varieties and number of indicators used; challenges of assessing progress towards targets; and data availability. Possible future indicator developments and advances in monitoring are also outlined. 

Key Points: 

  • Links between biodiversity loss and drivers of change are complex; indicators are used to describe and communicate trends in aspects of biodiversity, and can be used to aid policy decisions. 
  • The types, varieties and numbers of indicators can be a source of confusion, but they can help to identify important location-specific trends in biodiversity. 
  • The difficulty of setting appropriate baselines for reference, the ambiguity of biodiversity targets and the differing sensitivity of indicators to change over time create challenges for assessing progress towards biodiversity targets. 
  • The quantity and quality of representative data available for indicator development is a key limitation. Researchers suggest greater clarity about global biodiversity targets would aid the selection of indicators. 


POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including: 

Dr Abigail McQuatters-Gollop, University of Plymouth*

Dr Amy Molotoks, Stockholm Environment Institute – York*

Andy Nisbet, Natural England

Jane Lusardi, Natural England*

Professor Andy Purvis, Natural History Museum*

Caryn Le Roux, Welsh Government

Sara Lloyd-Mackay, Welsh Government*

Dr Christopher Lynam, Cefas*

Dave Johnston, Natural Resources Wales*

David O’Brien, NatureScot

Dr Emily Dennis, Butterfly Conservation*

Dr James Williams, Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC)*

Christine Holleran, Defra

Dr Jasmin Godbold, University of Southampton

Professor Martin Solan, University of Southampton

Jemilah Vanderpump, Defra

Dr Katherine Boughey, Bat conservation Trust*

Mark Preston, DAERA Northern Ireland

Ken Bradley, DAERA Northern Ireland

Richard Gray, DAERA Northern Ireland

Matthew Bird, The Scottish Government

Dr Nick Isaac, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

Dr Oliver Pescott, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology*

Dr Nisha Owen, On The Edge Conservation*

Dr Prue Addison, Berks, Bucks, and Oxon Wildlife Trust

Professor Richard Gregory, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)*

Professor Steve Ormerod, Cardiff University*

Dr Tim Newbold, University College London*

Tom Hunt, Association of Land Environmental Records Centres (ALERC)

* denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing

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