Earth observation as a tool for tracking progress towards the Aichi Biodiversity Targets

Brian O’Connor, Programme Officer for the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, describes how Earth Observation can provide essential data for policymakers and stakeholders, as they track progress towards international biodiversity targets. 

Earth observation as a tool for tracking progress towards the Aichi Biodiversity Targets

The escalating extinction of species worldwide and the reduction in their natural habitat has led to a dramatic decline in global biodiversity, widely recognized by the international conservation community as the next great extinction event.

In the face of this planetary and human crisis, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted 20 ‘Aichi Targets’ as part of their ‘Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020’. With a deadline for the targets set at 2020, policymakers and stakeholders are engaging with the conservation community to design targets and indicators which will help measure progress towards target achievements. Knowing what targets are more or less likely to be achieved will help focus global efforts to where they are needed most, and ideally identify ways to stem the tide of biodiversity loss.

Earth observation (EO) or satellite, ground and airborne passive and active sensing of the Earth’s surface, is widely recognised as a key tool in many Earth sciences but has not yet been fully integrated into global conservation assessments.


We evaluated the potential of EO in the monitoring frameworks of the CBD Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the burgeoning Essential Biodiversity Variables (EBVs) proposed by the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network (GEO BON).

Specifically, we asked conservationists and remote sensing scientists for their opinion on which existing biodiversity indicators could be enriched with EO data and what future indicators could be developed, both in support of the Aichi Targets and the EBVs.

We demonstrated that 11 of the 20 Targets can be partially or entirely studied using EO while 14 of the 22 candidate EBVs have a fully or partly remotely sensed component. Therefore we propose a subset of the proposed EBVs called the ‘Remote Sensing – Essential Biodiversity Variables’ (RS-EBVs).

Indicators that could benefit most from EO data include monitoring protected area coverage, habitat loss and fragmentation, and airborne and marine pollution. For example, monitoring forest loss within and around protected areas can be achieved through analysis of long time-series of satellite imagery, such as Landsat.

When protected areas are not managed effectively, natural habitats such as forest can be degraded or destroyed by logging and agriculture, threatening the survival of forest-dependent species. Therefore, EO-based evidence of habitat loss can bring more awareness to the problem of poor governance and management of protected areas.

Potential secondary measurements of biodiversity abound, both in the terrestrial and marine environment. These include the detection of land surface phenology, such as growing season length, net primary productivity, plant species distribution, animal migratory behaviour and habitat structure, coral reef health, mangrove extent as well as the location and intensity of oil spills in the marine environment. However, the global implementation and use of EO-based indicators by end users, such as the CBD Parties, is continuing to face significant technical, institutional and financial challenges.

Our study demonstrates the need for a more strategic and joined-up approach, with clear leadership towards a more efficient biodiversity monitoring strategy. A first priority for the terrestrial domain should be the production of a global, conservation-relevant and multi-annual land cover change product which can fulfil the needs of a number of indicators and their respective Aichi Targets.

Brian O’Connor, Programme Officer for the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Brian O’Connor was assisted by Yara Shennan-Farpon in writing this blog post.

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