On 26 January, 2021 POST invited speakers from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Commons Library, to hold a closed briefing on Census 2021. These are the notes from the briefing. As this was a closed event for Parliamentarians and parliamentary staff, questions and comments during the different rounds of discussion have not been attributed.
This event was held to launch the publication of the new POSTnote on ‘Effective Biodiversity Indicators’, which reviews indicator use and development in the context of the post-2020 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Global Biodiversity Framework, and the accompanying POSTbrief on ‘Biodiversity Indicators’ that sets out the suite/suites of biodiversity indicators the UK and each devolved nation have that are used to assess progress towards biodiversity goals and targets. Focus was given to discussing how the quantity and quality of representative data available for indicator development is a key limitation and whether greater clarity about global biodiversity targets would aid the selection of indicators.
This event, sponsored by the British Ecological Society, was chaired by Barry Gardiner MP, and the speakers were:
- Dr Nick Isaac, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (General features of terrestrial biodiversity indicators)
- Professor Steve Ormerod, Cardiff University (Freshwater biodiversity: out of sight, out of mind?)
- Dr Cristina Vina-Herbon, Joint Nature Conservation Committee (Measuring environmental change using benthic habitat data: Limitations, challenges and opportunities)
- Professor Richard Gregory, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (Getting the measure of nature)
- Professor Andy Purvis, Natural History Museum (Combining indicators, targets and policies)
- Dr Amy Molotoks, Stockholm Environment Institute – York (Applicability of biodiversity indicators for examining impacts of trade)
- Dr James Williams, Joint Nature Conservation Committee (UK Biodiversity Indicators)
- Dave Johnston, Natural Resources Wales, (Biodiversity indicators in Wales)
- Christine Holleran, Defra (Statistics for the Public Good)
Chair’s Welcome: Barry Gardiner MP
Barry Gardiner welcomed the attendees and speakers and highlighted the large number of biodiversity indicators that are around today.
Dr Nick Isaac
General features of terrestrial biodiversity indicators
Most of the time when we think about biodiversity indicators we think about indicators that measure the ‘state’ of biodiversity (e.g. how much biodiversity do we have now compared to in the past). The suite of UK Biodiversity Indicators has 23 ‘state’ indicators. However, there are also many other types of metric that fall under the umbrella of Biodiversity Indicators. In the UK Biodiversity Indicators, we have 5 indicators about awareness of biodiversity, 13 about pressures on biodiversity, 3 about ecosystem services that biodiversity provides, and 5 about knowledge and expenditure on biodiversity.
The focus on ‘state’ indicators reflects the need to know how much biodiversity there is. There are many ways in which we can measure the state of biodiversity. The most common way is to measure trends in the populations of animals and plants, the most well-known example being the Living Planet Index. We might choose instead to measure trends in the distributions of species (e.g. UK indicator of pollinating insects) or to measure trends in the status of species extinction risk (e.g. the global Red List Index, which measures how species move away from or towards extinction). These three types of indicator take data on species and calculate an average across those species, but we could instead try and measure something about the ecosystem within which those species live. The Biodiversity Intactness Index is one such measure that attempts to capture that that level of complexity.
There is a very broad set of metrics that make up biodiversity indicators, but they mostly relate to trends in populations. An example is the UK butterfly indicators. The data for the two UK butterfly indicators come from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme that has been running since Ernie Pollard started walking transects in the 1970s. The scheme now operates over 1000 sites across Great Britain and Northern Ireland and there are many thousands of individual butterfly populations that have been monitored over a long period of time. These are aggregated up to high-level, multispecies indicators. Each species has several populations, which are monitored over time. The abundance of those individual populations fluctuates up and down, which are summarised in one value for each species, with a statistical model created for each species to describe its national trend, and then the trend is summarised across species. This is the general approach that applies across most of the biodiversity state indicators that we have today.
One issue that is emerging for most of the UK Indicators is that they are based on relatively small numbers of species (e.g. the farmland bird indicator, which is based on very high quality data from the Breeding Bird Survey and reports trends in 19 species of farming birds). We know exactly what’s happened to farmland birds, and we have a really good idea why they have declined to the extent they have. In contrast, many more recent indicators take a different approach as they have a much broader taxonomic scope, (e.g. the Scottish indicators that CEH contributed to recently covers over 2,000 species, mostly insects). They are more representative of the state of biodiversity, but it is more difficult to say why the line has changed in the way it has.
Professor Steve Ormerod
Freshwater biodiversity: out of sight, out of mind?
Freshwater biodiversity is very often out of sight and quite often out of mind. Freshwater ecosystems are remarkably diverse from the array of organisms that are represented and the array of processes within them. For example, we know that freshwater organisms can integrate processes across very large spatial extent, as river systems drain very substantial areas, and the characteristics of rivers tend to reflect the quality of broad scale ecosystems. This means that they tell us something about changes that are going on in landscapes, such as when there is substantial change in land use and management.
Although they some come with some limitations at global scales, most freshwater biodiversity indicators are telling us biodiversity in freshwater may be declining, perhaps at least as rapidly, if not more rapidly, than other ecosystem types. We can see these trends at very large global scales, but we can also see them at small scales. For example, an array of streams in central Wales illustrates how populations of invertebrates have been progressively falling through time but raises questions not only about the status of ecosystems, but around interpreting the patterns that are actually occurring. As we understand quite a lot about the ecology of river organisms and their habitat requirements, some assessment can be made of the processes driving trends. For example, data looking at the effects of wastewater treatment works on river invertebrates shows an increase in the quality of clean water indicator organisms through time, suggesting there is clear evidence of a trend of improvement.
Nevertheless, there are still limitations. Urban river environments are still below the quality of rural river environments, as shown by data on the species present and chemical quality. These data give us the opportunity to interpret patterns behind biological indicators. They can also tell us something about emerging and novel problems. For example, over the past few years we’ve been looking at how materials like plastic now appear to affect river insects in South Wales. Around 50% of insects appear to be contaminated by plastic material. If we do calculations of the amount of plastic in river bird prey alongside the energetics, the energy requirements that these birds have, we can start to make some assessment of the volume of plastic being ingested. Individual adult birds, for example, are ingesting about 200 microplastic fibres every day and feeding around 5000–8000 microplastic fragments to their chicks before those chicks fledge. Indicators are highlighting problems that we’re not currently regulating. We don’t know about the effects of microplastics, but we’re aware that some kind of new changes developing in the freshwater environment. Freshwater biota integrates long term trends, throws light on pressures that affect catchments and it reveals new processes and new problems that might be occurring.
Dr Cristina Vina-Herbon
Measuring environmental change using benthic habitat data: Limitations, challenges and opportunities
For the past 10 years the JNCC have been developing indicators under the UK Marine Strategy, which contains targets for the achievement of good environmental status that takes into account elements like ecological diversity of the seas, and clean, healthy, productive seas that are sustainable. We need to look not just at the condition of the marine waters now, but also for future generations. Good environmental status is based on 11 descriptors or components and the ones that the JNCC is more closely involved with are those looking at biological diversity, food webs, and sea floor integrity. To calculate these indicators, JNCC uses a range of different types of biological and environmental data from intertidal habitats to those of the deep sea, including data on sensitive species and commercially important species. Data about human activities is also collected to understand pressures are on the marine environment. The data is collected using a wide range of mechanisms such as simple monitoring surveys, remotely operated vehicles, but also data collected by citizen science projects. Taxonomic data comes from different sources including direct observations and modelled data because the size of UK waters means it is impossible to have the perfect monitoring programme that collects data everywhere. Collecting data on human activities shows the kind of impact humans are causing on the benthic habitats (e.g. the marks from a fishing trawl creates an indication of the disturbance on the sea floor).
If data about biodiversity were collected without the background of environmental changes, particularly the effects on species that are exacerbated by climate change, then it may not show the true story. For example, marine plants (macroalgae) may not be able to adapt to future climate change. If there are increases in sea surface temperatures, they may have less ability to change and accommodate to this.
All the data collected is being compiled in a series of indicators to give an overall assessment of whether good environmental status has been achieved or not. The condition of physical state of benthic communities in different habitat types and the density of species in those communities can indicate the current status of marine waters. This is just one example of an indicator. You can see the standard physical diagrams with the dark green areas representing where GES proportionally has not been achieved and the light green when they have been achieved. The orange colouration on the map shows high levels of disturbance caused by humans on the sea floor. It’s important to remember that these results need to consider the confidence that we have in the data and where we have gaps in the evidence, knowledge or data collection. From this you can make assessments on the basis of the data collected and presented by indicators and the extent to which it can inform policy or management actions.
An improvement on data quality and quantity is not always the top priority for some of these indicators, but it is important for understanding more about what is happening in marine waters if big changes are to be detected before it is too late. So working with the industry, NGOs, and academia to improve the quality of the data and keep this quality sustainable in the long term will help to understand the changes in marine waters and understand what the gaps in our knowledge are, and what the limitations are to have strong science for policy actions. Not just to inform the progress of policy implementation, but also to inform the implementation of management measures that are happening for those activities in the sea.
- Why have the indicators of quality for freshwater gone up, despite all of the evidence on poor quality of rivers? Those were data from the 1990s onwards. As in many urban parts of the United Kingdom, something like 70 to 80% of rivers were grossly polluted, and the long-term trend is recovery. From that point, the richness of organisms levels off and potentially declines. Potentially what we’re seeing is a recovery from gross organic pollution but risks now are rising from other kinds of pollutants that drain out of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) and wastewater treatment works. We have to do a lot more to unpick this pattern to really understand what’s going on. In particular, to understand the marginal additional effect that CSO’s have, we need to know more not only about how often they discharge, but exactly what they are discharging. There’s a difference between the ecological status of rivers, how good that is for biodiversity and whether people safely can swim in them.
- How do we get more data in the places that we are not monitoring well and how important is on-boat monitoring of marine catch and bycatch, not just in our waters, but globally? Isn’t the biodiversity crisis sufficiently large that we should now require large companies to report on the biodiversity and their operations?
- The cost of data collection is critical. Marine waters are very costly to monitor and there are different mechanisms for data collection. Remotely operated vehicles can collect large amounts of data with less crew. Industry data is interesting as they have offered on several occasions to share data, via reports, but the access to the raw data itself is difficult because they present a lot of information in PDF format instead of the raw format that that you want to analyse and they vary a lot in terms of the way the data is being collected. So, when you try and put it all together, you have too much noise in the analysis and you cannot come up with any sensible conclusions.
- The objectives of the fishing industry may not be sympathetic to the objectives of ecologists? How do you ensure that the data being collected are standardised given the difference in objectives?
- It is possible to work with industry to improve the data collection or to understand the location where the impacts are taking place. There will be areas that are heavily modified because of fishing activities, and we need to understand how the modified system works. There is a lot of distrust in the fishing industry and the distrust is causing the blockage on the data sharing. The more we work with them, the more they can understand why we are analysing this, what the information is going to tell us and how it can help them understand what gear modifications can take place
Professor Richard Gregory
Getting the measure of nature
As already noted, biodiversity is quite a complicated concept and has different components, and so it’s a challenge to measure. Having effective biodiversity indicators are a critical part of that. This POSTnote is incredibly timely. At the moment, there are emerging biodiversity ambitions within the global biodiversity framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity, with ambitions in the draft agreement about increasing the protected land area and the integrity of natural ecosystems, reducing the threat to species and increasing species abundance. Secretary of State, George Eustice only last week announced a very exciting amendment to the Environment Bill in the UK Parliament calling for an additional legally binding target for species abundance for 2030, aiming to halt the decline of nature. These are exciting ambitions to raise the bar for biodiversity with many benefits for climate as well, through nature based solutions (NBS). and of course, for people, as we rely so much upon nature for the provision of goods and services.
But of course, those ambitions need evaluation. They say, “you can’t manage or improve what you can’t measure”, so that need has two parts to it. We first need SMART targets, those that are Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic and Time bound. And then we need effective biodiversity indicators to measure how we move forward and adapt in terms of management and decision making to achieve our goal. So that means it is important that indicators are scientifically robust, representative, simplifying, and communicable. They also need to be scalable (i.e. work at different spatial scales), and, of course, they need to be highly policy-relevant, such that they will have real effect.
The State of Nature Partnership has come together and presented some important new biodiversity indicators and developed them over time. There have been three UK State of Nature reports bringing that information together with partnership of nearly 80 partners. The report focusses on measuring three significant components of nature: species abundance, species extinction risk, and habitat quality and extent (or ecosystem integrity). There are some really great examples of these State of Nature indicators and Nick presented some of those a little bit earlier. One of the headline indicators from the State of Nature Partnership is an example of an Effective Biodiversity Indicator based on population trends of nearly 700 species, which shows how the abundance of species is changing through time based upon high quality information for lots of different taxa. Butterflies, moths, birds and mammals are the sorts of animals represented.
There are however challenges for different types of evidence, including uncertainties and knowledge gaps, which have been touched upon by other speakers. One first things we need to ask ourselves about indicators is about their fitness for purpose: that is the alignment of these biodiversity indicators to the question in hand. We’ve seen the challenge already in the marine environment and fisheries data, so it comes down to the question of the quality of the data and the quantity of the information at the same time. And personally, I think there’s a real issue about spatial scale. Some of these indicators work really well at one scale, but really badly at another; and getting that understanding is important for policy makers. But of course, as we are recognising in this conversation, the UK is genuinely a world leader in this field. However, there is a recognised need for greater national investment in biodiversity monitoring and research. In terms of species in the UK, we have information probably on perhaps only 10% (probably less) of over 60,000 species, so we need to do better at getting well-designed biodiversity monitoring and research in place to understand the environment better. The ultimate purpose of effective biodiversity indicators is to make better policy decisions for nature, for climate and for people.
Professor Andy Purvis
Combining indicators, targets and policies
A few points on how to coherently combine indicators, targets and policies, starting with what the targets should be. For example, if we decide that our main focus is on saving these species, then these are the parts of the world where we would need to focus our actions and our policies, because they are the parts of the world where those species are concentrated. Where these are species found only a very narrow geographic regions in huge numbers, we could use perhaps an indicator based on extinction risk. Something like the Red List index that Nick Isaac mentioned as a way of tracking progress.
An alternative target would be to focus on healthy ecological communities: communities that are healthy enough to provide the ecosystem services that we need. This map of the Biodiversity Intactness Index shows communities aren’t all that healthy, so the redder the colour, the less healthy it is. So we could aim to bring the bad ones up to a reasonable level, using the Biodiversity Intactness Index as an indicator.
These two choices lead to very different sets of actions in very different places and need different indicators. Richard and Nick and others have spoken about the complexity of biodiversity; there isn’t a single numerical target or any indicator or measure that will save the rare species and ensure healthy ecosystems. We need multiple targets.
This is a traffic light figure from a paper published last year. We’re after the green light here-the road to recovery and bending the curve of biodiversity loss. This will require multiple goals on different aspects of biodiversity: ecosystem goals, species goals, and ecosystem services goals. In order to get to recovery, the multiple goals have to be coherent so they feed off one another. So, if you meet this ecosystem goal, it will benefit species too, to an extent. If instead you aim lower than achieving co-benefits, you get a vicious circle of everything getting worse, and then we’re knowingly planning to degrade nature.
Another point, which the next speaker will be discussing more, is the need to have targets, policies and actions that focus on global scale, not just national, because we risk perverse outcomes with a national focus. This map shows the land used around the world to provide the UK with soya or soy derived products and it amounts to 20% of the UK’s cropland. Now importing foodstuffs is good for UK biodiversity as it means land can be taken out of intensive agriculture. However, if it’s being grown in countries higher in vulnerable biodiversity that is not a net gain. If we take an exclusively national focus, we risk these sort of perverse outcomes. If we’re aiming for biodiversity net zero, we need to do the sums based on consumption, not on production as with CO2. I would argue that only models can link the indicators, targets and policies. We need models that say how biodiversity responds to the drivers because we need indicators with forecasts to check whether policies and targets need to be adjusted to keep on track for our goal. Monitoring data can also refine models.
In 2014, there was a report showing we’re on course to miss every Aichi target six years later but adjustments weren’t made. The right models and monitoring have to work together and to ensure that policies are linking up.
There have to be multiple ambitious targets with a global perspective. The models are not perfect, but model-based indicators are the best sat nav that we have to navigate our way to a sustainable future.
Dr Amy Molotoks
Applicability of biodiversity indicators for examining impacts of trade
The Trade Hub Project examines the social and environmental impacts of agricultural commodity production and trade. The majority of deforestation worldwide is concentrated only in a few global locations and trade players. For example, soy production in Brazil and palm oil in Indonesia cause very high rates of deforestation, but are also very important on a national scale for economic development. This is what the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) York is interested in, linking deforestation and other biodiversity indicators to trade models. One of the trade models is called Trase, which is on the upper right-hand corner of the slide. Trase uses publicly available data to map the links between consumer and production countries by a trading company data to show the on the ground impacts of exports in terms of the environmental and social risks. In the graphic on the slide you can see that China is one of the major importers of soy produced in Brazil, followed by the Netherlands, which often re-exports the soy for UK consumption.
The Trade Hub project is looking at biodiversity indicators other than deforestation, as deforestation alone isn’t very representative of true biodiversity impact, as it only really measures one aspect of biodiversity, which is habitat loss. A scoping exercise based on a large database of different biodiversity indicators was conducted to examine the different aspects of biodiversity that are represented, such as species richness, species abundance and genetic diversity. These were filtered these according to the criteria that the indicators need to meet to be able to link them to trade models. A couple of these criteria include being quite high resolution and spatial explicitness, as well as being globally applicable so they can be applied to multiple trade flows. The indicators also need to be a function of land cover so they can be linked to crop production maps.
Although they use the same data inputs, a lot of these indicators vary quite significantly in their complexity and accessibility. For instance, indicators like deforestation are quite simplistic and easy to understand and apply, but aren’t particularly representative of biodiversity impacts, whereas some other indicators are very complex, more difficult to understand and apply, but are more representative of biodiversity.
One of the indicators that sits somewhere in the middle of this scale is what colleagues at SEI have developed with collaborating institutions – called the Persistence score. The Persistence Score is derived from a proportional loss of habitat for specific species, and you can see that we’ve applied this to the Cerrado in Brazil for soy production (on the map on the left hand side of the slide) and aggregated the biodiversity score for each municipality. It shows the hot spots and the areas in the Cerrado region where soy production has the highest impact on biodiversity. We can also map impacts over time for specific species. The middle graph on the slide shows the Persistence Score over time for five iconic species from the Cerrado in Brazil. And I’ve also included a photo of the giant anteater because one of the results from this study was that European Union consumption of soy was one of the main drivers behind habitat loss for this species. It provides a lot more granular detail for the impacts of trade on biodiversity. However, some key information gaps still remain. For example, recent crop distribution data and the lack of supply chain transparency. Hence this is only being applied to this context so far. So, to expand the application of this indicator increased transparency of supply chains is needed.
In conclusion, although deforestation is a good place to start for looking at biodiversity impacts, it isn’t sufficient. There are many different biodiversity indicators available, but there’s often a trade-off in terms of their applicability and their ability to represent biodiversity impacts. Increased supply chain transparency is needed in order to measure the sustainability of our trade.
- In the persistence score, what is it that is persisting? It is the persistence of the species derived from a proportional loss of their habitat. The persistence score depends on how much habitat each specific species has lost. For example, if a species loses a large proportion of its habitat, it’s given a lower persistence score, which reflects that it is very vulnerable.
- All of this presupposes that we have adequate baselines, and inevitably we have very different baselines for different things that we’re measuring. How much does that impact on the ability to take this through from raw data itself to getting effective policies coming out the other end? There is a distinction between biodiversity baselines and reference points. Where we have a lot of data goes back a decent length of time (quite a lot of the abundance data goes back to 1970). You can choose a baseline anywhere along that period to compare to, but the reference point is how far back we are able to go to. Some of the negotiating positions on the CBD subsidiary body on science, technology, and technological advice, that are being taken by South American countries are pushing hard for pre-industrial baselines. It isn’t possible to measure that far back, but there is a real issue figuring out what it is you are trying to achieve. If you wanted to recreate how the UK looked in pre-industrial times, an awful lot of infrastructure would have to be removed from the UK, which wouldn’t be publicly acceptable.
- As well as measuring against a reference point or baseline, the other issue is whether you are measuring trend or whether you are measuring against a threshold, because those again have different perspectives on how you present the indicator and what the answer might be.
- The different negotiating positions are a natural consequence of different countries being in different positions on effectively having traded in their national capital for economic capital. It should be easy for the UK to improve our biodiversity because we’ve reached such a low level of what would be present naturally. But it’s almost impossible for developing countries with high biodiversity. So, we need to recognise that different countries have different roles to play in increasing the global stock of natural capital depending on where they are on that spectrum. Things that are sensible in post-glacial, biotically impoverished countries such as the UK, might be detrimental in parts of the world that are rich in endemic species and vice versa.
- How do we make this as simple as possible for politicians and decision makers? We need the right indicators for the right problem, but are models the right way to convey information? Are there other ways of simplifying this so that we don’t get crazy decisions like net biodiversity gain, which lumps great crested newts together with the last individual of a particular species. Is there any way of simplifying it for politicians that would allow them to make decisions without having to understand in detail what the implications are of different indicators for different problems?
- What lies behind the communicable part of the indicator, is a whole lot of quite sophisticated research to understand the system and understand how decisions are being made. All speakers are talking about a different parts of this picture. Our work is focused on the ‘state’ of the nature indicators, where we talk about species and how they’re going down and why that matters to people. That’s the right communication at that level to your audience – it’s about audiences and fitness for purpose.
- The draft targets for COP 15 for the reduction in threatened species has been mocked resoundingly, because the easiest way to make sure that you reduce the number of threatened species is to allow them to go extinct. Similarly, the current Defra targets announced by George Eustice on halting the decline of biodiversity, but against what baseline? When we started the net gain in biodiversity in 2010, there was no baseline for it. Does that not make the indicators meaningless?
- The indicator framework that is feeding into the CBD now is putting in place, specific SMART targets for those indicators for different components for the rare threatened species (Red List Indicators), living planet indicators, state of nature indicators for species abundance, and we’re recommending biodiversity intactness to measure ecosystem integrity and so on. Behind the ‘headlines’ there’s a lot of work by lots of us here, and lots of my colleagues in BirdLife International and lots of other institutes who were trying to inform that process so that we get those genuine SMART targets and address the really important questions you raise.
- Is there confidence that these indicators will come through in the COP? Confident at this stage that the right information is there, but the decisions that get made in Kunming, late this year it is arguably the outcome of a political, irrational process. One way of thinking about this is, for the last 15 years we’ve been talking about ‘what can we measure?’ but now the conversation is ‘what do we want to achieve?’ and that does change debate very much, in a very positive way.
Dr James Williams
UK Biodiversity Indicators
JNCC is the UK body that advises government and the devolved administrations on UK-wide conservation, we are very focused on use of evidence and the UK’s statistics are used for a variety of different products and projects. Measuring progress towards international targets involves bringing together a huge variety of information, which is a subset of all of the countries’ level information. The CBD secretariat can’t cope if we give all of the UK’s data. What we’re doing with the UK biodiversity indicators and for example, the 25 Year Environment Plan Outcome Indicator Framework is producing a set of official statistics which are a subset of those country’s statistics that overlap with providing progress towards those international targets. This is to ensure that the information that we’re producing is fit for purpose and is going to help us to understand that bigger picture that others have been talking about.
The UK indicators have been published more or less annually since 2007. Initially they were developed to measure progress to the 2010 biodiversity target of reducing the current rate of biodiversity loss. Really all you needed to do there was to flex the line (if it was declining less steeply, you’d met the target). In some ways that’s not good enough, and that was recognized with a strategic plan for biodiversity 2011 to 2020, and the Aichi targets within it. We used the indicators that we produced to try and measure progress in the 4th, 5th, and 6th National Reports to the CBD. These indicators will be reviewed again to fit with the Post-2020 targets.
We publish the indicators about annually (not always exactly, but near enough) and the next publication is due in October 2021. These indicators comply with the Code of Practice for statistics, meeting the three pillars for the Code of Practice; trustworthiness, quality and value. Value is really important in terms of value for the policy makers in terms of policy effectiveness. The UK biodiversity indicators is a set of indicators to which nearly 100 organizations contribute data. There are some figures here that give you an idea of the amount of work that’s going on. This all has to be pre-announced as being published on a particular day, and under the statistics and Regulation Services Act, we have to hit that deadline – which creates quite a project management burden.
We’ve talked quite a lot about different sorts of indicators, but there’s also another aspect about pragmatism versus idealism. There are many indicators that may be useful, but can’t be produced at the moment. We either don’t have the data or it’s just not feasible to bring that information together at the moment.
If we now reflect on the breadth of the indicators that we’ve got, there are those about awareness, volunteering, measures of the pressures on biodiversity such as heavy metals in the marine environment, and invasive alien species. These are about impacts on, not just numbers of, species. We’ve got some information on policy responses, such as the protected area indicator where we can see a massive increase in the number of marine protected areas over the last decade. We’ve got information about other things like animal genetic resources and lots of species indicators, as previously highlighted. We’ve also got information which is about the benefits that we get from biodiversity, such as pollinators and the large fish index which is a proxy for the health of our marine ecosystems. We’ve also got information here about resources for conservation and because without resources we can’t make a difference.
What we do is to assess each of the indicators using a traffic light system to show whether they are getting better or worse. We can then compare that over the long term and over the short term, but this is not just about lines on graphs. This is actually about species, habitats, genes – biodiversity. From the very small Vertigo snail to the large golden eagle, what happens at night with bats and the day in terms of butterflies, our freshwater environment (the return of the otter is a big success story as a result of the cleaning up of the rivers around the UK) and the marine environment (where we have less indicators that we’ve got within this set and that’s one of the things that I’m keen that Christina and I work together into the future to try and improve).
In parallel with the biodiversity crisis, we of course have the climate crisis. Purple saxifrage up on the tops of the mountains is facing some fairly severe threats. We talk about our biodiversity, but the UK sits in the middle of migratory routes from the North (for species that breed in the Arctic in winter in the UK), but also for species that winter in the South, (sub-Saharan Africa) and in many cases come back to the UK to breed, such as swallows.
Biodiversity indicators in Wales
NRW’s environmental reporting team’s job is making all of our statutory reports, which is really about ensuring that data is translated into the appropriate high-quality evidence and made available to allow policymakers and legislators to make the decisions that they do. NRW’s remit is driven by two world-leading pieces of legislation that give the pursuit of sustainability a statutory basis: the Well-being of Future Generations Act and the Environment Act. Both of these have biodiversity at their heart and drive the development of indicators and assessments. The Welsh Government report 46 national well-being indicators, all of them linked to the seven well-being goals that represent the Wales we all want to live in now and in the future. Although several of the indicators are relevant to biodiversity, two of them are specifically about biodiversity: the area of healthy ecosystems in Wales and the status of biological diversity. Those indicators and their framing within the Act firmly link biodiversity to prosperity, resilience, community, health, culture, and to Wales playing its part globally.
To report indicator 43, the area of healthy ecosystems, we use a proxy, which is the extent of semi-natural habitats. This is currently an experimental statistic. The indicator is calculated using a number of sources, including the phase one habitat map, Sentinel 2 satellite imagery, terrain features and agricultural data from Welsh Government. This data is used to identify the semi-natural habitats and rule out, for example, the improved grasslands. Overall, 31% of Wales is deemed to be semi-natural and significantly higher proportion of that in the uplands. Indicator 44, the status of biological diversity, is currently in development and is subject to a contract with CEH. It’s also intending to use a proxy (priority species) and will be based around the method for the UK biodiversity indicator -the priority species distribution C4. Indicator 44 is going to focus on the Environment Act section 7 priority species list, but we intend to access a wider data set than the UK indicator using the unstructured Local Ecological Record Centre data.
The Environment Act includes an obligation to publish the State of Natural Resources Report (SoNaRR) every five years. It’s expected to be published in advance of every election, and the most recent publication, though only the second, was fully published in March this year. SoNaRR is different from traditional state of environment reports as it uses the integrated reporting approach used by the UN Environment Program, the European Environment Agency and others. It seeks to draw conclusions about relationships between natural resources and well-being to help Wales plan for its future. SoNaRR focuses on addressing the drivers of change and managing the risks and potential consequences for well-being. The emphasis on sustainable management allows us to question not just the “what”, but the “so what?”.
Assessments are made at different scales, starting with the 8 broad ecosystems that make up Wales and eight cross cutting themes, including the main drivers and pressures such as climate change, land use and resource efficiency and includes a specific assessment of biodiversity. Each of those chapters makes its own assessment of drivers, pressures and impacts and recommends opportunities for action. The evidence has been used to feed into the main assessment of the report, which is against the four aims of sustainable management in Wales: that stocks of natural resources are safeguarded, ecosystems are resilient, we have healthy places for people, and a regenerative economy. The last of these is the route to the transformative change we need for the first three need to be maintained, and to deal with the with the climate and nature emergencies. The focus on addressing the drivers of change and the need to assess sustainable management, not simply the ‘state’ of biodiversity, SoNaRR 2020 doesn’t lend itself easily to having its own official indicator suite. It was felt in part of the negotiations around that that indicators themselves might detract from the purpose of addressing change rather than simply documenting it. However, assessing state and trends is a key part of the assessment process we followed, and the report is not short of things that look just like indicators.
SoNaRR collates evidence from elsewhere, such as the State of Nature Report, UK Biodiversity Indicators, river basin management plans, greenhouse gas inventories, and many other sources to make their assessments. The evidence is presented throughout the narrative report, but the evidence with access to more of the data behind it and behind the assessments is also available through our new Wales Environmental Information portal. The portal presents the evidence in interactive maps, charts, story maps and provides the SoNaRR evidence space in an accessible format. The format allows Welsh Government, public bodies, and indeed the public, to make the appropriate decisions about how to manage our natural resources into the future. The user can not only view the headline indicators, but can also apply their own filters by ecosystem, political boundaries and ecosystem services that are impacted to inform their own decisions about action.
There are further developments in Wales for biodiversity indicators. We’re working with Welsh Government and JNCC to understand which of the UK Biodiversity Indicator Suite could be produced to the Wales scale and so develop a suite comparable to the to the UK Biodiversity Indicators. This will allow us to report better progress for Wales on the Nature Recovery Action Plan which is our response to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Aichi Targets. That will be reviewed alongside the UK Biodiversity Indicators in light of the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework and the outcome of the COP later this year.
SoNaRR presents the evidence to make clear that connection between our actions, the state of our natural resources, the climate and nature emergencies and our well-being and ensuring access to that evidence and the evidence behind the assessments helps us to ensure that we make the right decisions to move us along that path to a sustainable future.
Statistics for the Public Good
Statistician at Defra working closely with JNCC on the production of biodiversity indicators. The biodiversity indicators are Official Statistics. A brief overview of the UK statistical system; the aspects of making up the system, the different types of Official Statistic, the Code of Practice for Statistics and the UK Statistics Authority Strategy for Statistics. The UK statistical system encompasses all aspects of statistical work from collaboration of data and information, to the publication and regulation of statistics, which touch on every aspect of daily life in the UK. And that’s the collective mission of the UK statistics system; for high quality data analysis to inform the UK, improve lives, and build the future. The UK statistical system comprises The UK Statistical Authority, the Office for Statistical Regulation, the Office for National Statistics and the Government Statistical Service.
The UK Statistical Authority is an independent body at arms-length from the government with the statutory objective of promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good. The chair is Sir David Norgrove. The Office for Statistical Regulation is the regulatory arm of the UK Statistical Authority. It assesses official statistics for compliance with the Code of Practice for Statistics. It operates independently of statistical producers, including the Office for National Statistics. The Office for National Statistics is the largest independent producer of Official Statistics in the UK, but not the only one. The Government Statistical Service is a community of all those involved in the production of official statistics in the UK. It’s a cross-Government network of the government departments such as Defra led by the National statistician, Professor Sir Ian Diamond.
The UK biodiversity indicators are Official Statistics, and some of them are National Statistics. An Official Statistic is produced by an organisation named by the Statistics and Regulation Service Act and described by that organisation as an Official Statistic. And Official Statistics follow the Code of Practice. National Statistics are Official Statistics that follow that Code and they’ve been assessed by the Office for Statistics Regulation and are fully compliant. Experimental Statistics are newly developed or innovative statistics and they are published so that users and stakeholders can be involved in the assessment of their suitability and quality from an early stage.
The Code of Practice of Statistics sets the standard that producers of official statistics must commit to. It benefits users because compliance with the Code gives confidence that statistics have public value, that they are good quality, and are produced by organisations that are trustworthy. The framework of the Code is based on those three pillars of trustworthiness, quality, and value. Each pillar containing several principles and detailed practices that producers commit to. There’s also three cross-cutting themes of collaboration, coherence, and transparency.
Finally, the UK statistics Authority’s new five-year strategy, Statistics for the Public Good, has core principles underpinning the statistical system of being ambitious, radical, inclusive and sustainable. It has the aim of keeping up the momentum of the statistical systems response to the pandemic to make permanent the features of greater data sharing, innovation and wider reach across society and greater collaboration. For the biodiversity indicators, that means continuing to follow the Code of Practice, continuing to innovate and continuing to collaborate.
- What is achieved at a national level can have a perverse outcome at an international level. How much at national level are we thinking about the impacts that we have by securing our national biodiversity at the expense of the international? Has that fed into policy at all? UK indicators not talking about all the biodiversity for which we are responsible. What about biodiversity indicators for the UK Overseas Territories, which contain ~90–95% of the biodiversity of which the UK is responsible for?
- For the global impact side of things, there’s been a huge amount of work done over the last three or four years. JNCC has been working with Defra Policy, NGOs, and very closely with Amy and her colleagues at Stockholm Environment Institute in York. We published last week, an initial report on a set of metrics that we’re starting to produce and we’re looking to have an experimental statistic on UK Overseas Impact as a global impact indicator towards the Autumn. That is hugely challenging because the information about sustainable sourcing doesn’t necessarily flow through the trade models. Multi-regional input-output models tell you what’s going where, but the different models have different levels of detail (either for sectors or for countries). One of the things that Stockholm Environment Institute have been able to do is to start to look at environmental extensions that start to look at what the impacts are, but it is technically really complex. It’s not just about the direct imports, such as soy, but the indirect imports as well, where soy is used to feed animals is a major part of the impact. You have things coming from a country, going to second country, possibly a third one, and then coming to us. So tracing how much of that is sustainable is actually quite a challenge.
- Exports of soy are going to the Netherlands, and the Netherlands re-exports that soy for UK consumption. So Trase actually maps the export from the pace of production to the first place of import. There is some work to incorporate re-exports into that, but it’s very complex. Colleagues from the Stockholm Environment Institute have recently used a data set that other collaborators have produced on deforestation and done a similar thing to these collaborators except run it through a different multi-regional input-output model. The results that they produced are slightly different because of the differences in the model. It is very difficult to get an accurate representation of biodiversity impacts when you have very different methodologies and definitions involved with these models.
- Is Defra speaking to the Department for International Trade to highlight these trade impacts and the sort of models that SEI have been producing? In Defra you maybe have a very full understanding of the impacts of international trade on biodiversity, both nationally and globally. But if it’s not figuring in the thinking of the Department for International Trade on how it’s going about trade relations globally, then the government isn’t operating as a unified processor of the information available to it.
- Part of the aims of the strategy is increased collaboration. JNCC are collaborating widely and working very closely, particularly with BEIS. We were working very closely with DfID and now with FCDO. There is work that JNCC being involved with another hat on, which is looking at nature-based solutions and how those can help work well with our overseas development aid spend. The big picture aim is to provide overseas assistance aid that helps people but also doesn’t degrade the environment. In terms of understanding our impacts from our exported supply chains, we are looking to try to be able to measure those so that we can hopefully drive the sorts of improvements that you’ve described. Work with the Department for International Trade is more at the departmental level rather than the work that we’re directly involved with at the immediate moment. But those departmental-departmental links are being made by the policy leads in Defra.
- State of Natural Resources Report (SoNaRR) in Wales – the brief for that is to assess the sustainable management of natural resource is in relation to Wales not in We have tried to map out our global impact and our impact overseas in terms of our ecological footprint, but it’s very difficult. We’ve done it for the first time this time and will certainly take feedback on how well we’ve done it. One of the 46 indicators that wasn’t mentioned in the talk as being specifically about biodiversity, is the ecological footprint of Wales. That uses the Stockholm Environment Institute method for devising the ecological footprint of Wales.
- The UK has global level responsibility for some species, like seabirds, and much of our knowledge about where the seabirds are when they’re not nesting on our cliffs comes from work that was part funded by the oil industry in order to understand the impacts about the exploitation of North Sea oil and gas. That has led to an enormous amount of increase in knowledge about where the birds are when they aren’t on the nesting cliffs.
- JNCC works very closely with all of the UK Overseas Territories and the Crown Dependencies to help provide biodiversity advice to them. They have a wide variety of capabilities, but some of them are very small indeed. One of the things that we have been doing through the 25 Year Environment Plan is to help develop indicators which are looking at the extent of protected areas in the overseas territories, both on land and at sea. There are plans to assess their condition, although this technically challenging and may require use of Earth observation techniques to derive information. Earth observation techniques are limited in the marine environment as it is less easy to collect data beyond about 30 m depth. We are working to produce an indicator on the status of threatened and endemic species in the overseas territories, but this requires work with territories rather than imposing requirements on them, so they can take ownership of the results. The global impacts indicator also fits within that 25 Year Environment Plan. One Territory in particular, the Falkland Islands is involved very strongly with the agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, and the JNCC has a member of staff there to help with implementation of that agreement.
On 3 December, 2020 POST and the non-partisan International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI) hosted a closed briefing as one of a series of “Cryosphere 1.5°C Briefings”. These are the notes from the briefing. As this was a closed event for Parliamentarians and parliamentary staff, questions and comments during the different rounds of discussion have not been attributed.
On 21 January, 2020 POST and the APPG for Future Generations hosted a closed briefing on future biosecurity risks: pandemics, infectious diseases and beyond, considering trends in globalisation and emerging technologies. These are the notes from the briefing. As this was a closed event for Parliamentarians and parliamentary staff, questions and comments during the different rounds of discussion have not been attributed.