In the last few decades, human activity has continually shaped and reshaped our rural and urban environment. In 2020, over two thirds of the UK is still used for agriculture and another 8% has been built on – leaving little room for nature. © Wallpaper Flare

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Natural History Museum reveals the world has crashed through the ‘safe limit for humanity’ for biodiversity loss

The Natural History Museum has developed the Biodiversity Trends Explorer, to help negotiators at COP15 and other policymakers compare the state of local ecosystem biodiversity among countries. 

·       Natural History Museum analysis has also revealed that the UK, with an average of only 53% of its biodiversity left - is in the bottom 10% of the world’s countries, last in the G7 and a long way behind China

·       The Natural History Museum has developed the Biodiversity Trends Explorer, to help negotiators at COP15 and other policymakers compare the state of local ecosystem biodiversity among countries. It also lets them compare the impacts of different economic futures on nature in developed and developing countries over the coming decades

·       Ahead of the pivotal COP meeting next week, Natural History Museum researchers call for evidence-based, ambitious, coordinated action that recognises that different countries are starting from very different levels of biodiversity intactness – a global ‘levelling up’

New number crunching from Natural History Museum researchers, using a scientifically rigorous metric they have developed, the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII), * has revealed that:

·       global biodiversity intactness was just 75% in 2020 - when every square kilometre is given equal weight in calculations - and below 69% if areas are weighted by their ecological productivity

·       These are both significantly lower than the 90% average which the Planetary Boundaries framework sets as the ‘safe limit’ to prevent the world tipping into an ecological recession – a future in which ecosystems lose resilience and can no longer be relied on to meet our needs enough to avoid widespread shortages

The BII is a rigorous approach to estimating biodiversity loss across an area using a combination of land use, ecosystem, species and population data to give a simple figure for ‘intactness’, that is, how much nature is left in a given area.  It is underpinned by the Museum’s PREDICTS database - a global, open database (version 1 of which can be freely downloaded from the Museum’s data portal), which now comprises 4.7 million data points, from over 41,000 sites in over 100 countries – a taxonomically representative set of 58,000 plant, animal and fungal species.

The UK

The UK’s average BII – 53% – is well below the global average and places us in the bottom 10% of the world’s countries, last in the G7 and also a long way behind China, the host of the UN biodiversity conference. The UK’s low position in the league tables reflects a combination of history and what is happening today. The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions transformed the UK landscape. The result of this combined immense destructive forces meant the UK has been among the most nature-depleted countries on Earth for a long time.

In the last few decades, human activity has continually shaped and reshaped our rural and urban environment. In 2020, over two thirds of the UK is still used for agriculture and another 8% has been built on – leaving little room for nature.

Coordinated Action Needed on Biodiversity and Climate Change

Projections of BII under five plausible socioeconomic futures, mapped out by an international team of climate scientists, economists and energy systems modellers – The Shared Socioeconomic Pathways – suggest that reversing biodiversity’s downward trajectory will require ambitious, coordinated action. In four of the five scenarios, in which the world does not come together to tackle both biodiversity loss and climate change seriously, levels of biodiversity continue to fall. In only one, ‘Taking the Green Road’, is this avoided:

·       Fossil-fuelled Development – Rapid use of non-renewable energy sources drives economic growth, betting everything on technology somehow preventing climate catastrophe.

·       Growing Inequality - inequalities grow both within and among countries, leading to a world economy that limits opportunities for the world’s poor. With environmental protection focused on richer countries, the global South sees rapid degradation

·       Regional rivalry - nationalism and protectionism prevent effective action on global environmental issues while also slowing economic and technological progress even in richer countries

·       Muddling through (Middle of the road) – this route sees global environmental efforts intensifying along their recent trajectory, taking some of the sting out of the ongoing degradation but not stopping it

·       Taking The Green Road - This route focuses efforts on a global ‘levelling up’, prioritising both human wellbeing and environmental stewardship, and so reducing inequality within and among countries

The projections of BII do not include direct effects of climate change on biodiversity, so the difference between the “Taking the green road” (which produces the least climate change) and the others will be even wider once climate impacts are considered. 

Natural History Museum Biodiversity Researcher Professor Andy Purvis, a world-renowned expert on biodiversity metrics, led the analysis team. He says: “Biodiversity loss is just as potentially catastrophic for people as climate change, but the solutions are linked. Stopping further damage to the planet requires big change, but we can do it if we act now, togetherMuddling through as we currently are doing is nowhere near enough to halt, let alone reverse, the ongoing worldwide decline in biodiversity.

“It’s imperative world leaders seize this opportunity at COP15 to choose a path to a sustainable future. Global levelling up is also the fairest path. We, the developed world, mustn’t export our biodiversity damage to lower-income countries – which often have many more unique species and whose people often depend critically on what their local ecosystems can provide them with. Governments possess the power – economic, political and legal – to address the planetary emergency, and it looks like there’s still – just – time, but they must act now.”

The Biodiversity Trends Explorer

Biodiversity measurement is complicated - encompassing species abundance, species diversity, ecosystem health and much more – yet it has never been more critical to be able to monitor change and predict future losses. The Natural History Museum has opened-up the Biodiversity Intactness Index data through a digital tool which makes this data easy to find, understand, visualise, filter and download for anyone who wishes to use it.

Responding to a genuine need for rigorous, transparent and interpretative data, the Biodiversity Trends Explorer allows users to track modelled biodiversity changes since 2000 – globally, nationally and regionally. Future versions will also demonstrate what is driving that loss – and how those drivers have changed.

Each country’s biodiversity intactness, where established, is visualised to place their statistics in a global and a regional context.  Using these statistical models based on the 4.7m records, the tool shows projections under the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways to 2050.

Global map of modelled Biodiversity Intactness Index for the year 2020

Global map of modelled Biodiversity Intactness Index for the year 2020. Only dark green areas are still within the proposed planetary boundary (see key; note that data for Sudan and South Sudan are largely missing from this release). The map highlights a challenge facing negotiators at the CBD COP. BII has been largely stable since 2000 – but at a low level – in most of the developed world, whereas it has been falling much more rapidly – but is still often at a relatively high level – across much of the developing world. This means that developed nations will tend to find it easier to reach targets based on trends whereas targets based on levels would be more achievable for developing nations. 

Natural History Museum Director of Comms, Digital, Marketing and Publishing Dan Phelan says: “It is impossible to develop or implement the bold, global transformational policies needed to tackle biodiversity loss if you cannot understand the patterns of loss and the different pressures on habitats and ecosystems.

“This game-changing new tool makes understanding and sharing the vital data quick and easy for everyone from interested consumers, and communities, to companies and, critically, decision makers. The Biodiversity Trends Explorer can help forecast how biodiversity would be affected by different scenarios – which is essential to enable policy makers to make informed decisions if we are doing to bend the curve of biodiversity loss and make the planet a sustainable home for us all.”

Lord Zac Goldsmith, UK Government Minister for Pacific and the Environment, said: As Presidents of COP26, the UK has put nature at the heart of the agenda, and we very much welcome this important study which highlights the crucial connections between climate and biodiversity and the urgent need to protect nature.

“We wholly support this new tool and encourage all countries to increase their efforts to protect and restore nature as a solution not only to climate change, but biodiversity loss and poverty too.”

The Biodiversity Intactness Index data will be combined with the different, yet compatible metric of biodiversity, The IUCN Sampled Red List Index (SRLI) for Plants, in the Biodiversity Trends Explorer for even greater detail and accuracy in later versions to be released next year. The first iteration of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants was produced by the Museum’s Plants Under Pressure programme in partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and measures the overall extinction risk for plants worldwide. Because plants are such a huge and diverse group, this research programme has randomly selected a sample of 7,000 out of the world’s 380,000 known plant species to carry out IUCN Red List assessments to establish how many are threatened with extinction. Together these two complementary metrics, which have both been regularly published in leading scientific publications and global reports, reflect the historic rate of biodiversity change and can predict future changes in biodiversity. 

International disparity – helping find equitable agreements

There is enormous disparity among countries – and especially between developed and developing nations – when it comes to how much of their natural biodiversity they still retain. Many developed countries already have low but stable biodiversity intactness; centuries of unsustainable use of natural resources eroded nature, but more recent environmental protections have slowed losses. 

Developing countries, on the other hand, are often seeing ongoing rapid declines in BII – but are still at much higher levels than most developed nations. This disparity highlights how challenging it will be to translate global biodiversity targets into national targets that are truly fair to all parties. Developed countries would find it relatively easy to stop further declines but very hard to raise biodiversity intactness to any agreed global threshold, while the reverse is true for most developing countries. 

Natural History Museum Researcher Dr Adriana De Palma explains: “The negotiations at COP26 and COP15 can only be successful if the validity of both sides’ positions is clearly understood. The Biodiversity Intactness Index shows this clearly, by providing each country with accurate information, not only on its recent biodiversity trend but also how much nature it has retained. Accessing the Biodiversity Intactness Index via our Biodiversity Trends Explorer tool can help negotiators reach equitable agreements.” 

Further Context

As NHM scientists helped to show in an important paper in Nature last year (“Bending the curve of terrestrial biodiversity needs an integrated strategy”), there are multiple combinations of ambitious and coordinated policies that can lead us towards the “green road”. Key planks are likely to include large-scale protection and restoration of natural ecosystems, improving the trade-off between agricultural yield and biodiversity, and shifting towards more plant-based diets. 

Although such actions may be able to bend the curve by 2050, delaying action by a decade could double the cost of enacting the necessary policies while also jeopardising success, according to a report produced last year, by NHM scientists and their collaborators, for the Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity. Ends

Notes for editors

*The BII is produced as part of the PREDICTS project, led by the Natural History Museum, which has produced the biggest global database of how local ecological communities worldwide have been affected by human impacts. Using a wide evidence base to analyse how local terrestrial biodiversity responds to land use and related pressures, researchers are able to estimate biodiversity losses across space and time. Small differences in estimated BII between countries should not be overinterpreted. Further updates to BII are planned in the coming months, with more detailed models and an expanded evidence base.

Natural History Media contact: Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654/ (0)779 969 0151 Email:

About the Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited natural history museum in Europe. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.

It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.

The Museum’s 300 scientists continue to represent one of the largest groups in the world studying and enabling research into every aspect of the natural world. Their science is contributing critical data to help the global fight to save the future of the planet from the major threats of climate change and biodiversity loss through to finding solutions such as the sustainable extraction of natural resources.

The Museum uses its enormous global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome over five million visitors each year; our digital output reaches hundreds of thousands of people in over 200 countries each month and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 30 million people in the last 10 years.