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Biodiversity Data for our Planet

Published onAug 20, 2023
Biodiversity Data for our Planet

In April 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Sixth Assessment Report which to date, represents the most comprehensive summary of the physical science of climate change. The 3,949-page report collates over 14,000 research studies and shows that human activity is responsible for global mean temperature change (IPCC Report: ‘Code Red’ for Human Driven Global Heating, Warns UN Chief, 2021) The assessment’s alarming conclusions are a result of “improved data on historical warming” (United Nations, 2021). The recent IPCC AR6 Synthesis report reiterates that the time for action is now.

UN Secretary Guterres states that “now” is the moment to act and a “quantum leap” is required. The most recent IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report represents a final warning to humanity. (United Nations, 2023) Image: Dearborn, 2023

Gregory Nemet, IPCC Author and Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison emphasizes the need to ramp up carbon removal efforts from current rates of two gigatons to eight gigatons per year within the next ten to fifteen years and states that “the goal of 1.5 °C degree warming is at great risk – we are 1.2 °C  degrees; 1.5 °C  is coming fast and furious by 2030” (Nemet, Deich, Cohen-Brown, & Anderson, 2023). The collective failure to decarbonize our atmosphere will increase the frequency of extreme weather events. Already, the impacts of the triple planetary crisis of pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss are proving devastating to human health, economic output, food security, coastal and island communities, and terrestrial and marine habitats (Diffenbaugh & Barnes, 2023). These impacts are not distributed equally; rather, marginalized, disadvantaged, and impoverished communities, both human and organism, remain among the most vulnerable to climate shocks (Edmonds et. al., 2022)(Worlds Most Vulnerable Nations Suffer Disproportionately, n.d.)

Novel approaches to carbon removal are emerging and will need to ramp up dramatically to meet Paris Agreement targets. All CDR methods will need to be deployed strategically in tandem. Image: (Nemet,, 2023)

Despite the bleak outlook, there is still time to change course. Largely off the table, are past predictions that we are tracking against RCP8.5, the high-emissions scenario in which energy consumption relies primarily on coal and its expansion (Harrisson, 2021). Instead, the focus has shifted from doomsday scenarios to collective action — now — towards decreasing consumption, scaling renewable technologies, and removing excess carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere. Forests, mycorrhizal-rich soil, and micro-algae are the lungs of our planet acting as carbon sequestration power-houses. Revegetating our planet, bolstering the earth’s mature ecosystems, and conserving Earth’s biodiversity could mitigate the worst effects of climate change, yet to come. Conventional carbon dioxide removal (CDR) methods dubbed “nature-based,” solutions account for almost all (99.9% or 2 GtCO₂ per year) carbon removal today (The State of Carbon Dioxide Removal Report, 2023).

Alongside carbon removal approaches, standard measurement, reporting, and verification is needed to monitor global progress and incentivize good actors.  Data interoperability across datasets, metrics, and systems continues to impede collective action around carbon sequestration goals. Major investments to improve technical infrastructure is required for international coordination (Nemet,, 2023) Monitoring the health of the planet is contingent on large inputs of interoperable, clean, openly accessible data from a variety of sources with a shared technical infrastructure to support it. 

Central to global biodiversity data aggregation and dissemination efforts is the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), which provides free and open access to biodiversity data. Climate change research and subsequent policy recommendations rely on the quality and quantity of data in GBIF. In short, GBIF-mediated data is used to determine environmental policy decisions made by nation-states and intergovernmental organizations (Global Biodiversity Information Facility, 2019). Moreover, two events represented a watershed moment for climate policy:

  • The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP-15), and

  • The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP-26).

The development of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework at CBD COP-15 and the adoption and adherence to national emission targets by countries at COP-26 will largely determine the fate of our planet. High-level decision-makers now rely heavily on data-driven research to inform policy:

“To effectively conserve biodiversity, it is essential to make indicators and knowledge openly available to decision-makers in ways that they can effectively use them. The development and deployment of tools and techniques to generate these indicators require having access to trustworthy data from biological collections, field surveys and automated sensors, molecular data, and historic academic literature.” (Gadelha et al., 2020).

The Biodiversity Heritage Library has done an exceptional job of serving the needs of researchers. The next challenge for the global consortium will be to rapidly disseminate the 60 million-page textual corpus as structured data on the web. Extract, transform, and load (ETL) pipelines will need to be piloted with a focus on big data brokers: GBIF and Wikidata. The further release of BHL’s data will:

  1. Improve scientific understanding of ecological change, deeper into time, at both global and hyper-local scales;

  2. assist decision-makers in shaping global environmental policy informed by the historical record; and

  3. bridge knowledge gaps and facilitate information exchange regarding our planet’s history.

“Having access to historical literature is essential to characterizing what ecosystems used to look like, what species were present, and what peoples’ opinions of the health of the ecosystem were like throughout time. Taxonomic literature allows me to see the whole history of a species laid out before me. I rely on [it] to get a glimpse of how these wonderfully diverse ecosystems used to look… before widespread development…[and use] those baselines to evaluate how current conservation measures are succeeding.”

Dr. Joshua Drew, Marine Conservation Biologist at The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago (Costantino, 2018).

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