Perspective | Published:

A biodiversity-crisis hierarchy to evaluate and refine conservation indicators


The Convention on Biological Diversity and its Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 form the central pillar of the world’s conservation commitment, with 196 signatory nations; yet its capacity to reign in catastrophic biodiversity loss has proved inadequate. Indicators suggest that few of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi targets that aim to reduce biodiversity loss will be met by 2020. While the indicators have been criticized for only partially representing the targets, a bigger problem is that the indicators do not adequately draw attention to and measure all of the drivers of the biodiversity crisis. Here, we show that many key drivers of biodiversity loss are either poorly evaluated or entirely lacking indicators. We use a biodiversity-crisis hierarchy as a conceptual model linking drivers of change to biodiversity loss to evaluate the scope of current indicators. We find major gaps related to monitoring governments, human population size, corruption and threat-industries. We recommend the hierarchy is used to develop an expanded set of indicators that comprehensively monitor the human behaviour and institutions that drive biodiversity loss and that, so far, have impeded progress towards achieving global biodiversity targets.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


  1. 1.

    Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R. & Dirzo, R. Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, E6089–E6096 (2017).

  2. 2.

    Walpole, M. et al. Tracking progress toward the 2010 biodiversity target and beyond. Science 325, 1503–1504 (2009).

  3. 3.

    Tittensor, D. P. et al. A mid-term analysis of progress toward international biodiversity targets. Science 346, 241–244 (2014).

  4. 4.

    Western, D. The biodiversity crisis: a challenge for biology. Oikos 63, 29–38 (1992).

  5. 5.

    Yap, T. A., Koo, M. S., Ambrose, R. F., Wake, D. B. & Vredenburg, V. T. Averting a North American biodiversity crisis. Science 349, 481–482 (2015).

  6. 6.

    Butchart, S. H. M., Di Marco, M. & Watson, J. E. M. Formulating smart commitments on biodiversity: lessons from the Aichi targets. Conserv. Lett. 9, 457–468 (2016).

  7. 7.

    McOwen, C. J. et al. Sufficiency and suitability of global biodiversity indicators for monitoring progress to 2020 targets. Conserv. Lett. 9, 489–494 (2016).

  8. 8.

    Campbell, L. M., Hagerman, S. & Gray, N. J. Producing targets for conservation: science and politics at the Tenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Glob. Environ. Polit. 14, 41–63 (2014).

  9. 9.

    Rands, M. R. W. et al. Biodiversity conservation: challenges beyond 2010. Science 329, 1298–1303 (2010).

  10. 10.

    Liu, J. et al. Systems integration for global sustainability. Science 347, 1258832 (2015).

  11. 11.

    Tscherning, K., Helming, K., Krippner, B., Sieber, S. & Paloma, S. G. Y. Does research applying the DPSIR framework support decision making? Land Use Policy 29, 102–110 (2012).

  12. 12.

    Díaz, S. et al. The IPBES Conceptual Framework — connecting nature and people. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 14, 1–16 (2015).

  13. 13.

    Crist, E., Mora, C. & Engelman, R. The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection. Science 356, 260–264 (2017).

  14. 14.

    Fischer, J. et al. Human behavior and sustainability. Front. Ecol. Environ. 10, 153–160 (2012).

  15. 15.

    Machovina, B., Feeley, K. J. & Ripple, W. J. Biodiversity conservation: the key is reducing meat consumption. Sci. Total Environ. 536, 419–431 (2015).

  16. 16.

    Urban, M. C. Accelerating extinction risk from climate change. Science 348, 571–573 (2015).

  17. 17.

    Pecl, G. T. et al. Biodiversity redistribution under climate change: impacts on ecosystems and human well-being. Science 355, eaai9214 (2017).

  18. 18.

    Hughes, T. P. et al. Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals. Nature 543, 373–377 (2017).

  19. 19.

    Wilson, S. K. et al. Exploitation and habitat degradation as agents of change within coral reef fish communities. Glob. Change Biol. 14, 2796–2809 (2008).

  20. 20.

    Zhang, X.-P. & Cheng, X.-M. Energy consumption, carbon emissions, and economic growth in China. Ecol. Econ. 68, 2706–2712 (2009).

  21. 21.

    Krausmann, F. et al. Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century. Ecol. Econ. 68, 2696–2705 (2009).

  22. 22.

    Hughes, T. P., Day, J. C. & Brodie, J. Securing the future of the Great Barrier Reef. Nat. Clim. Change 5, 508–511 (2015).

  23. 23.

    IPCC Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report (eds Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R. K. & Meyer, L. A.) (IPCC, 2015).

  24. 24.

    Hughes, T. P. et al. Coral reefs in the Anthropocene. Nature 546, 82–90 (2017).

  25. 25.

    Yu, Y., Chen, D., Zhu, B. & Hu, S. Eco-efficiency trends in China, 1978–2010: decoupling environmental pressure from economic growth. Ecol. Indic. 24, 177–184 (2013).

  26. 26.

    Crowley, K. Up and down with climate politics 2013–2016: the repeal of carbon pricing in Australia. WIREs Clim. Change 8, e458 (2017).

  27. 27.

    Conference of the Parties 21st Session (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 2015);

  28. 28.

    Downie, C. Business actors, political resistance, and strategies for policymakers. Energy Policy 108, 583–592 (2017).

  29. 29.

    Aulby, H. & Ogge, M. Greasing the Wheels. The Systemic Weaknesses that Allow Undue Influence by Mining Companies on Government: A QLD Case Study. (The Australia Institute, Canberra, 2016).

  30. 30.

    Aronson, M. F. J. et al. A global analysis of the impacts of urbanization on bird and plant diversity reveals key anthropogenic drivers. Proc. R. Soc. B 281, 20133330 (2014).

  31. 31.

    Seto, K. C., Guneralp, B. & Hutyra, L. R. Global forecasts of urban expansion to 2030 and direct impacts on biodiversity and carbon pools. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 16083–16088 (2012).

  32. 32.

    Newport, J., Shorthouse, D. J. & Manning, A. D. The effects of light and noise from urban development on biodiversity: implications for protected areas in Australia. Ecol. Manag. Restor. 15, 204–214 (2014).

  33. 33.

    Yi, H., Güneralp, B., Kreuter, U. P., Güneralp, İ. & Filippi, A. M. Spatial and temporal changes in biodiversity and ecosystem services in the San Antonio River basin, Texas, from 1984 to 2010. Sci. Total Environ. 619–620, 1259–1271 (2018).

  34. 34.

    Nilon, C. H. et al. Planning for the future of urban biodiversity: a global review of city-scale initiatives. Bioscience 67, 331–341 (2017).

  35. 35.

    de la Cruz, E. E. R. Local political institutions and smart growth: an empirical study of the politics of compact development. Urban Aff. Rev. 45, 218–246 (2009).

  36. 36.

    Radeloff, V. C. et al. Housing growth in and near United States protected areas limits their conservation value. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 940–945 (2010).

  37. 37.

    Groom, C., Mawson, P., Roberts, J. & Mitchell, N. Meeting an expanding human population’s needs whilst conserving a threatened parrot species in an urban environment. WIT Trans. Ecol. Environ. 191, 1199–1212 (2014).

  38. 38.

    Deng, X. Z., Huang, J. K., Rozelle, S. & Uchida, E. Economic growth and the expansion of urban land in China. Urban Stud. 47, 813–843 (2010).

  39. 39.

    Morley, B. Causality between economic growth and immigration: an ARDL bounds testing approach. Econ. Lett. 90, 72–76 (2006).

  40. 40.

    Dolado, J., Goria, A. & Ichino, A. Immigration, human-capital and growth in the host country - evidence from pooled country data. J. Popul. Econ. 7, 193–215 (1994).

  41. 41.

    York, R. Demographic trends and energy consumption in European Union Nations, 1960–2025. Soc. Sci. Res. 36, 855–872 (2007).

  42. 42.

    Mathur, S. Impact of urban growth boundary on housing and land prices: evidence from King County, Washington. Hous. Stud. 29, 128–148 (2014).

  43. 43.

    Landry, S. & Pu, R. L. The impact of land development regulation on residential tree cover: an empirical evaluation using high-resolution IKONOS imagery. Landsc. Urban Plan. 94, 94–104 (2010).

  44. 44.

    Beninde, J., Veith, M. & Hochkirch, A. Biodiversity in cities needs space: a meta-analysis of factors determining intra-urban biodiversity variation. Ecol. Lett. 18, 581–592 (2015).

  45. 45.

    Sushinsky, J. R., Rhodes, J. R., Possingham, H. P., Gill, T. K. & Fuller, R. A. How should we grow cities to minimize their biodiversity impacts? Glob. Change Biol. 19, 401–410 (2013).

  46. 46.

    Villaseñor, N. R., Tulloch, A. I. T., Driscoll, D. A., Gibbons, P. & Lindenmayer, D. B. Compact development minimizes the impacts of urban growth on native mammals. J. Appl. Ecol. 54, 794–804 (2017).

  47. 47.

    Dodson, J., Coiacetto, E. & Ellway, C. Corruption in the Australian land development process: identifying aresearch agenda. in Second State of Australian Cities National Conference, Griffith University, Brisbane, 30 November to 2 December 2005 (2006).

  48. 48.

    Murray, C. K. & Frijters, P. Clean money, dirty system: connected landowners capture beneficial land rezoning. J. Urban Econ. 93, 99–114 (2016).

  49. 49.

    Blomqvist, L. et al. Does the shoe fit? Real versus imagined ecological footprints. PLoS Biol. 11, e1001700 (2013).

  50. 50.

    Hortal, J. et al. Seven shortfalls that beset large-scale knowledge of biodiversity. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 46, 523–549 (2015).

  51. 51.

    Schmeller, D. S. et al. A suite of essential biodiversity variables for detecting critical biodiversity change. Biol. Rev. 93, 55–71 (2017).

  52. 52.

    Worker, J. & De Silva, L. The Environmental Democracy Index Technical Note (World Resources Institute, Washington DC, 2015).

  53. 53.

    Ritchie, E. G., Driscoll, D. A. & Maron, M. Communication: Science censorship is a global issue. Nature 542, 165–165 (2017).

  54. 54.

    Westwood, A., Walsh, K. & Gibbs, K. United States: Learn from Canada’s dark age of science. Nature 542, 165–165 (2017).

  55. 55.

    Carroll, C. et al. Defending the scientific integrity of conservation-policy processes. Conserv. Biol. 31, 967–975 (2017).

  56. 56.

    MacGregor, S. Barriers to the influence of evidence on policy: are politicians the problem? Drugs (Abingdon Engl.) 20, 225–233 (2013).

  57. 57.

    Lijphart, A. From the politics of accommodation to adversarial politics in the Netherlands: a reassessment. West Eur. Polit. 12, 139–153 (1989).

  58. 58.

    Riedy, C. & Diesendorf, M. Financial subsidies to the Australian fossil fuel industry. Energy Policy 31, 125–137 (2003).

  59. 59.

    Gao, L. & Bryan, B. A. Finding pathways to national-scale land-sector sustainability. Nature 544, 217–222 (2017).

  60. 60.

    Lutz, W. & Qiang, R. Determinants of human population growth. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 357, 1197–1210 (2002).

  61. 61.

    Juran, S. & Pistiner, A. L. The 2010 round of population and housing censuses (2005–2014). Stat. J. IAOS 33, 399–406 (2017).

  62. 62.

    Lux, S., Crook, T. R. & Woehr, D. J. Mixing business with politics: a meta-analysis of the antecedents and outcomes of corporate political activity. J. Manag. 37, 223–247 (2011).

  63. 63.

    Teye, J. K. Corruption and illegal logging in Ghana. Int. Dev. Plan. Rev. 35, 1–19 (2013).

  64. 64.

    Petermann, A., Guzman, J. I. & Tilton, J. E. Mining and corruption. Resour. Policy 32, 91–103 (2007).

  65. 65.

    Kaufmann, D., Kraay, A. & Mastruzzi, M. The worldwide governance indicators: methodology and analytical issues. Hague J. Rule Law 3, 220–246 (2011).

  66. 66.

    Klopp, J. M. & Petretta, D. L. The urban sustainable development goal: indicators, complexity and the politics of measuring cities. Cities 63, 92–97 (2017).

  67. 67.

    Joppa, L. N. et al. Filling in biodiversity threat gaps. Science 352, 416–418 (2016).

  68. 68.

    Global Roads Open Access Data Set, Version 1 (gROADSv1) (CIESIN, Columbia University, InformationTechnology Outreach Services, University of Georgia, NASA SEDAC, Palisades, 2013).

  69. 69.

    Ibisch, P. L. et al. A global map of roadless areas and their conservation status. Science 354, 1423–1427 (2016).

  70. 70.

    Lenzen, M. et al. International trade drives biodiversity threats in developing nations. Nature 486, 109–112 (2012).

  71. 71.

    Moran, D. & Kanemoto, K. Identifying species threat hotspots from global supply chains. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 1, 0023 (2017).

  72. 72.

    Jiang, B., Li, D. Y., Larsen, L. & Sullivan, W. C. A dose-response curve describing the relationship between urban tree cover density and self-reported stress recovery. Environ. Behav. 48, 607–629 (2016).

  73. 73.

    Wall, D. H., Nielsen, U. N. & Six, J. Soil biodiversity and human health. Nature 528, 69–76 (2015).

  74. 74.

    Gill, D. A. et al. Capacity shortfalls hinder the performance of marine protected areas globally. Nature 543, 665–669 (2017).

  75. 75.

    Reyers, B. et al. Getting the measure of ecosystem services: a social-ecological approach. Front. Ecol. Environ. 11, 268–273 (2013).

  76. 76.

    Bennett, E. M. Research frontiers in ecosystem service science. Ecosystems 20, 31–37 (2017).

  77. 77.

    Geijzendorffer, I. R. et al. Ecosystem services in global sustainability policies. Environ. Sci. Policy 74, 40–48 (2017).

  78. 78.

    Lebel, L., Wattana, S. & Talerngsri, P. Assessments of ecosystem services and human well-being in Thailand build and create demand for coproductive capacity. Ecol. Soc. 20, 12 (2015).

  79. 79.

    Miyasaka, T., Le, Q., Okuro, T., Zhao, X. Y. & Takeuchi, K. Agent-based modeling of complex social-ecological feedback loops to assess multi-dimensional trade-offs in dryland ecosystem services. Landsc. Ecol. 32, 707–727 (2017).

  80. 80.

    Moreno-Pires, S. & Fidélis, T. A proposal to explore the role of sustainability indicators in local governance contexts: the case of Palmela, Portugal. Ecol. Indic. 23, 608–615 (2012).

  81. 81.

    Fulton, E. A., Smith, A. D. M. & Punt, A. E. Which ecological indicators can robustly detect effects of fishing? ICES J. Mar. Sci. 62, 540–551 (2005).

  82. 82.

    Collen, B. & Nicholson, E. Taking the measure of change. Science 346, 166–167 (2014).

  83. 83.

    Ferrier, S. et al. (eds). Summary for Policymakers of the Methodological Assessment of Scenarios and Models of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Bonn, 2016).

  84. 84.

    Griggs, D. et al. An integrated framework for sustainable development goals. Ecol. Soc. 19, 49 (2014).

  85. 85.

    Ehrlich, P. R. & Holdren, J. Impact of population growth. Science 171, 1212–1217 (1971).

Download references


We thank D. Tittensor, S. Butchart, G. Mace, M. McGeoch, B. Brook and G. Hays for helpful suggestions on earlier drafts.

Author information

D.A.D., T.M.N., E.G.R. and T.S.D. conceived the ideas, with L.M.B., E.N. and B.A.B. contributing further ideas throughout writing. L.M.B. and E.N. provided expert guidance on indicator concepts. D.A.D. lead writing, analysis and synthesis, with contributions from B.A.B., T.M.N., E.G.R. and T.S.D. T.S.D. helped with Fig. 1 and provided additional feedback, writing and proofing.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Don A. Driscoll.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods, Supplementary Tables 1–4, Supplementary references.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Further reading

Fig. 1: The Biodiversity-crisis hierarchy is used to evaluate the coverage and adequacy of indicators for the Aichi biodiversity targets.