Is UK biodiversity on target to 2020?

As a way to track the UK’s progress towards meeting the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, biodiversity indicators were developed in order to track biodiversity changes within the UK and highlight areas for further policy and conservation action. Last week, the latest review of these indicators was released by Defra and the Office for National Statistics. The results of this will help form part of a 2014 National report to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The biodiversity indicators cover a range of areas, from species and habitats to ecosystem function and services and require data from government, research bodies and voluntary sectors. The review process of these indicators is designed to provide insight into biodiversity trends and enable anyone, from the public to scientists alike, to gauge an understanding of how biodiversity is faring in the UK. Whilst there are concerns over the methodology and statistical grounding for comparing and generating such indicators, the indicators provide a useful tool in which at least a broad overview of UK biodiversity status can be understood.

Assessment of the indicators uses a traffic light system to report on the status of the trend, which is derived from statistical analysis undertaken by Defra statisticians. The results range from improvement (green) to deteriorating (red) or insufficient or no comparable data (white). There are a total of 25 indicators covering terrestrial, freshwater and marine systems. Of the 25 indicators, there are 36 ‘measures’ used to assess their state. An overview of these 36 measures revealed that 15 showed short term (ST) improvement, 16 showed long term (LT) improvement, while 12 showed ST declines and 11 showed LT declines. Some of these indicators are summarised below:

  • Agricultural and forest area under environmental management schemes, incl:
    • entry level and high level schemes = improving ST & LT
    • forest listed as sustainably certified = improving LT, little/no change ST
  • Pressure from pollution
    • Air pollution = improving ST & LT
    • Marine pollution = improving ST & LT
  • Pressure from invasive species
    • Freshwater invasives = deteriorating LT, little/no change ST
    • Marine invasives = deteriorating ST & LT
    • Terrestrial invasives = deteriorating ST& LT
  • Status of threatened species
    • Priority species = deteriorating ST & LT
    • Species of EU importance = improving ST, LT unknown
  • Status of habitats of European importance = deteriorating ST, LT unknown

Birds, mammals, insects and plants were also assessed, showing various statuses in trends at ST and LT levels. However, many other indicators remain unassessed due to unavailable data or because they are still to be developed. This includes indicators relating to the value people place on nature and the integration of biodiversity in business and economic thinking, the use of biodiversity data for decision making, habitat connectivity and terrestrial ecosystem services.  Into the future, it is extremely important that for those indicators that lag behind in terms of development, data availability or assessment receive greater attention in order for a full understanding of how the UK is meeting Aichi targets can be met.

It is clear from the review that the UK’s biodiversity differs in its current trends, both from ST and LT viewpoints, giving cause for optimism and concern in equal measure. Whilst providing a basic broad overview, unfortunately the review does not provide a summary of whether the indicators suggest whether the UK is on track to meet the Aichi targets, but perhaps this is being left for the full report due next year. With regards to further development of these indicators and what they actually tell us, delving into the status of those that are, in particular, declining, could help to better understand why and what is causing such trends to occur. Additionally, understanding how these trends have occurred in relation to policy development could provide an interesting insight, but how to explicitly test this would cause numerous problems. However, these indicators serve as a useful platform for enabling anyone to better understand the status of UK biodiversity.