A measure to make biodiversity relevant

By Adrian Dellecker, Head of Programme, Luc Hoffmann Institute

For years we have been losing the battle for biodiversity. The recent global assessment report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) gave a sensational and much reported wake-up call, citing one million species at risk of extinction due to human activity.

But what does this mean exactly? One million species is precise but the figure is hard to grasp. More importantly, it is hard to relate to and can lead to a sense of powerlessness.

One of the main reasons we are losing species is that they are not valued. ‘Value’ has many meanings, including economic but also social, moral or aesthetic, and not being able to value biodiversity in our global systems may be because we have failed to meaningfully convey the consequences of its loss for nature and people. Although many individual indicators exist, these can be technical, confusing, and even alienating to many people. This can be used as an excuse for inaction.

To reverse biodiversity’s downward spiral and establish a healthy and lasting relationship between environment and development, we need nothing less than a fundamental change in often deep-rooted systems. In a world where biodiversity is still too frequently considered a barrier to growth, we need a simple-to-convey mechanism to prove its value and contribution to sustainable development. One that speaks to people.

In this spirit, the Luc Hoffmann Institute and UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) have embarked on a bold and challenging adventure: to see if we can foster a new ‘multidimensional biodiversity index’ that transforms biodiversity loss from an abstract notion into a tangible entity that people can understand and act on. This tool would also help better integrate biodiversity in the sustainability agenda, notably the Sustainable Development Goals.

The premise is simple. Just like the measure of poverty has evolved from a dollar-a-day figure to a rich, Multidimensional Poverty Index that captures aspects such as education, health, living standards, and people’s own perceptions of poverty, so too can environmental metrics evolve to generate better decision-making. Our quest is not only for quantity, but also quality of life on earth.

Indeed, a headline index for biodiversity would not only capture the quantitative dimensions of biodiversity (such as number of species, habitats, and genetic diversity) but also the quality of biodiversity and how it relates to nature and human well-being. Such an index might include people’s perceptions of biodiversity, their access to and frequency of interactions with nature. It should also include some of the health, educational and other values that biodiversity has for society and people. This is a potent way to overcome apathy.

In 2017, the Luc Hoffmann Institute and UNEP-WCMC agreed on a joint approach to researching the social, political and technical feasibility of such an index. We began imagining what it could look like. We spoke to the teams behind other composite indices to learn from their experiences: what drove these indices in the first place? What was key to their success? How did they ensure uptake? What lessons would they have for us?

On the basis of this research, we are bringing together diverse thought leaders from the public and private sectors on 25 and 26 June 2019 to weigh in on the debate. There, we hope to share the experiences of other multidimensional indices, to listen to the needs of those who have an interest in using such an index and to discuss its overall feasibility. I very much look forward to sharing what emerges from the discussions.

If this resonates with you and you’d like to be part of the adventure, please get in touch: adellecker@wwfint.org

See our project page for more on the thinking behind a multidimensional biodiversity index.