Measuring and monitoring for biodiversity: one of Earth's key planetary boundaries

Learn about the latest UN-backed agreement signed in 2022 to protect 30% of the world's biodiversity, and why data is so important for monitoring and measuring progress on targets.

Phakellia fan sponge. Photo credit: Shirley Pomponi, NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration.
Jul 21, 2023
Table of contents

Setting targets for protecting biodiversity

In 2010, leaders from around the world met in Aichi, Japan, to discuss and set protective targets around one crucial <span class="term" data-def="In 2009, scientists identified nine planetary boundaries, or thresholds, that can’t be pushed beyond their limits without placing our societies at risk. One of them is the integrity of our biosphere, largely determined by biodiversity, or rather biodiversity loss.">planetary boundary</span>: the integrity of the biosphere, or the state of biodiversity on Earth.0 The Aichi Biodiversity Targets defined 20 clear goals that nations should aim to meet by the year 2020 to effectively curb the destruction of our planet’s biodiversity. 

10 years later, each of those targets had gone unachieved.

At COP15 in December 2022, a new, landmark United Nations agreement was signed: the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). <span class="term" data-def="Nearly all of them. One of which did not is, notably, the United States.">190 countries</span> in total agreed to fully protect 30% of our planet’s sea and land by 2030, colloquially framed as 30x30. The framework establishes a total of 23 targets to protect or restore our planet’s remaining biodiversity, with overarching categories such as reducing threats to biodiversity, making sure to meet people's needs sustainably, and establishing clear tools and solutions for implementing efforts.1

Two agreements for the protection of biodiversity, and roughly seven years to go. The main difference between the two? The 2022 agreement arrived with one key decision: an entire framework outlining how to precisely monitor target progress, make data readily available, and share out results.

Image following the signing of the agreement at the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference, COP15. Photo courtesy of Convention of Biological Diversity

Biodiversity loss, as big an issue as climate change

Biodiversity serves as the unquantifiable body of evolutionary knowledge on this planet. Responsible for medicine, climate resiliency, our diversity of food options when daydreaming dinner plans, not to mention the richness of places we love to visit and steward, biodiversity is critical to the functioning health of our planet.

And it’s in disarray.

Scientists already consider global biodiversity as undergoing as big a crisis as our changing climate; one that’s undoubtedly both affecting, and affected by, climate change. When a species goes extinct, we lose what it represented to an ecosystem that evolved with that species over potentially millions, if not billions, of years. When we lose entire ecosystems, we lose not only the species within them, but the resiliency, or rather balance, that they embodied.

For movie buffs, here’s an anecdote. Remember Interstellar, the 2014 sci-fi hit directed by Christopher Nolan? The start of the film depicts an Earth slowly losing its remaining crops, until only corn is left standing. Though grim, that’s what a planet without crop, or plant diversity, would look like. For my <span class="term" data-def="'Foodies', or anyone who doesn't want to only eat popcorn. For those still reading this, when the characters in the movie eventually go on to (spoiler alert) lose corn as well, that's technically due to a lack of genetic biodiversity. Genetic diversity among a species allows for better resilience against disease and pests. In the case of Interstellar, it's blight." data-img-url="https://media.giphy.com/media/jqPQSKqSYUE0TAABrf/giphy.gif">foodies</span> out there, that’s big. 

Why biodiversity monitoring and assessment programs are important

One of the biggest challenges to biodiversity is that it is difficult to measure. With so much to account for, different methods, indicators, and approaches require careful defining. Although many biodiversity monitoring and assessment programs (BMAP) existed prior to the 2022 agreement, reaching global targets like those proposed require establishing guidelines and indicators for how everyone measures and reports progress. Importantly, ‘indicators’ here is used loosely. When it comes to biodiversity monitoring, we can speak of biotic indicators to specifically monitor for, like <span class="term" data-def="An indicator species is an organism whose state of being (present, absent, populous, etc) reflects a specific environmental condition.">indicator species</span>, but we can also speak of monitoring indicators, those that track, signal, and inform progress.

A significant decision made at COP15 was the Monitoring Framework for the Global Biodiversity Framework. It established different levels of monitoring indicators that could be used to track the implementation of these 23 targets at global, national, regional and local levels. Some were high-level global indicators like funding toward programming and implementation, and others data-based indices like the Environmental Intactness Index. Indeed, the importance of indicators and data is stated often throughout the framework, with one of the 23 targets specifically naming how important it is that data be available to the public and to officials to push for progress and implementation.2

If we're serious about taking scalable action toward the biodiversity crisis, environmental data is not only necessary but requires mainstream awareness, organizing, and people with a desire to help map it.

Mapping biodiversity data

So, what does biodiversity data look like? Fortunately, there are organizations and people who work on exactly that: visualizing datasets to better put data into practice and use it for monitoring, verification, and reporting.

Our staff was thrilled to incorporate two such datasets into Lens: the Map of Biodiversity (MoBI) species richness dataset from NatureServe, and the Biodiversity Intactness dataset from Impact Observatory and Vizzuality. Let's take a look at what datasets for biodiversity monitoring can look like right in Lens.

The Map of Biodiversity Importance (MoBI) species richness dataset

An image of the MoBI dataset in Lens.

The MoBI species richness dataset provides information on 2,216 species in the continental US that are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and/or considered to be in danger of extinction. Because biodiversity has multiple levels to it, from genetic diversity within a specific species, to individual species diversity within an ecosystem writ-large, to the diversity of ecosystems themselves, different datasets can comparably vary in their own field of scope. In this case, the MoBI species richness dataset can be particularly useful for monitoring at the species level, specifically, targeting those under threat. NatureServe creates this dataset with the help of ESRI, The Nature Conservancy, and Microsoft’s AI for Earth program, and is free and publicly available.

The Biodiversity Intactness dataset

An image of the Biodiversity Intactness dataset, captured in Lens

The Biodiversity Intactness dataset depicts the intactness of terrestrial biodiversity globally at a 100-meter resolution for the years 2017 to 2020, built with data from the PREDICTS database. Unlike the species richness dataset, which looks at individual species count and only in the United States, the Biodiversity Intactness dataset is global, and measured both on abundance of individual species and how similar the species composition is to what’s considered a fully intact baseline. This dataset is a collaboration between Impact Observatory and Vizzuality and is, in fact, listed as an indicator in the monitoring framework for the 2022 Kunming-Montreal agreement.

And oh, it’s also free and publicly available.

Alongside other datasets in Lens, like the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), which already helps users monitor for changes in vegetation, Lens is a viable tool for monitoring and reporting on some indicators of biodiversity, and can help an organization of any size to include this in their stewardship, conservation, or restoration plans.

Pushing the work forward

Estimates place nearly 17% of land and 10% of our seas as currently protected.3 It’s not an understatement to say we have a long way to go, and in the meantime, our global biodiversity remains in crisis. The good news? There are an increasing number of tools available to better understand the state of our biodiversity and to tell a more powerful story about it. From indices and datasets that visualize biodiversity on our planet, to frameworks that help define what indicators we measure, all that’s left is to take action and protect and restore what biodiversity we have left. Interested in using this data today? Sign up for Lens and get started.

For further reading, please take a look at some of our sources for this piece, alongside other relevant assessments, target goals, and more details on the 2022 Kunming-Montreal agreement.

Other sources

  1. Planetary boundaries
  2. List of targets
  3. Target 21
  4. Currently protected estimates