Straightforward data and targets to drive global, national and corporate progress on biodiversity shouldn’t be a pipe-dream. Thanks to new ways of providing data on nature and ecosystems, they aren’t.
Biodiversity loss has joined climate change as one of humanity’s greatest threats. One of the biggest blockers to combating it is a lack of data, and the simple targets and measures which data enables.
Unlike climate change, which can be measured in molecules of CO2, biodiversity does not have one single, simple measure, and this has dramatically impeded our capacity to address the biodiversity crisis. The Net Zero Emissions target for climate change is now being enshrined in law, as evidenced by emerging net zero emissions laws in the UK, and new formal corporate measures and reporting systems like TNFD. But for biodiversity, all 20 global targets set a decade ago have been missed, despite a recent surge in corporate interest in the concept of Net Positive Impact.
For businesses to measure biodiversity, it must be simple. This is necessary for reporting at all levels. But if we aim only for simplicity, without taking into account the inherent complexity of biological communities, we invariably end up with meaningless, tick box measures. This will do little to reduce the alarming rate of biodiversity loss and its impacts on lives and livelihoods.
Where We Are
In the past, measuring biodiversity required binoculars, cameras, microscopes and waterproof notebooks, and relied on human observers to record and identify species, one at a time. Such methods focused on measuring surface-level biodiversity characteristics — body size, population size and ease of recognition.
Measuring biodiversity like this is time-consuming, expensive, risky and unscalable. In addition, the threat to humanity posed by biodiversity loss is not driven by the potential loss of the megafauna that we can easily see and measure using conventional monitoring. Losing polar bears, orangutans and pandas is desperately sad, but is not the biggest threat to business or humanity. The true threat is the unseen loss of the small organisms that run the world — the invertebrate animals and microscopic organisms that are the building blocks of our ecosystems. These are the species that cycle nutrients, maintain soil health, protect against outbreaks of disease or pests and maintain a fine balance in nature that provides clean water, productive agriculture and healthy forests.
Along with unscalable and expensive traditional monitoring, biodiversity measurement today is overly reliant on historical data in global databases. These data sets provide a poor proxy for the current state of nature and biodiversity. A recent report by WWF estimated that we’ve lost nearly 70% of natural populations in the last 50 years. This is a rate of loss too steep for data from even five years ago to provide meaningful insight into the cost of destruction today. That report, one of the most detailed assessments of global biodiversity loss available, only measured 21,000 of the millions of species still living on earth today. We simply cannot combat biodiversity loss without a consistent supply of usable, comprehensive and accurate data.
Where We Could Be – Measuring Nature With True Efficacy
The search for simple measures and targets that can be used globally and which take into account the full diversity of nature is no longer untenable, thanks to new ways of providing data on nature and ecosystems.
There are now technologies that allow biodiversity data collection at an unprecedented pace and scale. NatureMetrics provides monitoring solutions using DNA, detecting organisms similar to how you might use DNA to detect someone at the scene of a crime. We can detect whole communities of species — from bacteria to whales — just from DNA left behind in water or soil.
Our simple DNA-based methods remove a huge bottleneck in the collection of data, a process which previously required taxonomic experts to be present in the field, or to be looking down a microscope to draw conclusions. Our field sampling kits are so simple to use that our trained scientists are getting the same quality of data as their kids. This simplicity democratises data collection and provides a scalable solution for monitoring the true diversity of life and making the right decision. This works in tandem with other modern methods like drones and Earth observation, which are revolutionising vegetation surveys and even large mammal surveys across vast terrestrial ecosystems.
Measuring nature from the ground up
Because of the fragmented availability of usable data, trying to simplify biodiversity measurement into a single ‘top down’ measure without concern for the complexity of life is bound to fail.
This doesn’t mean that data on biodiversity can’t be aggregated and simplified to steer global goals or targets at an investment or supply chain level. It does mean that we must lay the foundations of good data first, however. By building robust data baselines, we lay the foundations for our understanding and management of the natural world. We can then simplify this data from the ‘bottom up’ to create stronger aggregate measures.
As biological data layers become increasingly available on an unprecedented scale, we can unlock powerful knowledge about how life on Earth responds to human impacts. We can then act before it’s too late.
The timing could not be more opportune, as businesses are now acutely aware that they cannot decouple climate change management from business growth.
The collection of vast data baselines for biodiversity is now both possible and economically feasible. In fact, it would only cost in the low tens of millions to baseline the biodiversity of every major river basin in the world. Considering the global importance of these freshwater ecosystems and how rapidly they are being degraded, the cost of generating this important data set is a drop in the ocean — or river, in this case.
This is data that can tell us how ecosystems are coping, responding and functioning in relation to the stressors we apply to them through mining, infrastructure, hydro dams etc. The time has come to put the necessary investments into understanding nature more deeply — a recent SwissRe report warns that failure to act on biodiversity loss has put a fifth of countries at risk of ecosystem collapse.
With modern technology, businesses and governments can now set and measure targets to rapidly reverse biodiversity decline.
Data-driven, bottom-up biodiversity management – an onsite example
Once we have established baseline data as a foundation, we can begin to build up biodiversity sustainability plans as required by those assessing risk and strategy.
In the context of impact site management, those managing sites would receive detailed site or landscape biodiversity data. Month-by-month or season-by-season, they would get detailed insights from multiple sites and would better understand how this impacts their business. A ‘living’ interactive interface for site managers would clearly show this crucial biodiversity insight. This yields many benefits, from meeting their regulatory obligations to building back the health of their soil. With digitised data, a lot more can be achieved.
At the site level, rapid assessments of risk and baselines at project outset can completely change the way a project evolves, putting biodiversity at the heart of decision-making rather than applying shallow remedies after a project is complete.
At the next level up, company decision-makers might want to understand an aggregate measure of how their business is impacting the stocks and flows of natural capital in and out of their system boundaries. Pairing the big data from nature with metadata from crop productivity, pollination services, disease resilience or local fish stocks will enable us to understand the real financial and socio-economic impacts of the changes to biodiversity being caused by the site in question.
Finally, at the top level, these indicators can be aggregated into clear science-based targets and enable meaningful measures for commitments such as Net Positive Impact on Biodiversity.
What it means
Through this globally connected understanding of nature will come many new ways to enhance our lives and all life on our planet. From improved productivity by working in harmony with the billions of organisms in our soil to understanding trophic interactions or migratory activities which could help to restore our fish stocks, with data we can do so much more.
Our natural world hangs in the balance along with our climate. To save it we need global targets for governments, business and the finance sector to reach. These targets must be set and measured using the same science-based rigour now being applied to climate change. Those with the greatest impacts must bear the responsibility for meaningful monitoring and use better data to drive real change. DNA-based monitoring puts the power to collect data in the hands of us all through simple sampling, delivering robust results. With great data, will come the best opportunity yet to finally set and deliver on a new deal for people and nature.
NatureMetrics releases a guide on eDNA-powered nature intelligence in coastal ecosystems at COP28. The guide highlights the role of coastal ecosystems in climate change mitigation and conservation, and the potential of eDNA technology to monitor biodiversity.