Balanced, inclusive and grounded in reality?

16 January 2013 | Article

Dr Thomas Brooks, Head of IUCN’s Science and Knowledge Unit takes a look at some of the characteristics needed to make the new intergovernmental science-policy platform effective.

Establishing the new Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) required five years of negotiations between governments beginning in Malaysia in 2008 and concluding in Panama last year.

During this time a number of key characteristics for IPBES were agreed. While these characteristics are clearly recorded in the meetings’ official documentation, what is often not recorded is the substantive justification of why these characteristics are important.

Here then, are some of IUCN’s views on these justifications.

The platform should ensure participation across geographic regions and across terrestrial, inland water, and marine biomes. These were operating principles decided in Panama. They are important, because while biodiversity—and people, who use the ecosystem services which it provides—are distributed very unevenly over the planet’s surface, there is at least some biodiversity everywhere.

IPBES should be inclusive to obtain input from different sectors of society, including not only governments, intergovernmental agencies, and scientific institutions but also civil society, indigenous and local communities, and the private sector.

This is important, because the latter groups are often aware of the impacts of the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services earlier and more keenly than are governments and scientists. In a similar way, it should ensure gender equity.

IPBES should be balanced across its stated objectives of improving conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, thereby improving human well-being and sustainable development. This is important in maintaining a constituency across both intrinsic and utilitarian perspectives on the value of biodiversity.

The platform should balance its functions across knowledge generation, assessment, policy support, and capacity building. This is a major difference from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the most similar existing mechanism to IPBES, which focuses wholly on assessment. This difference is explained by the fact that while climate change is amenable to ‘top-down’ science (satellite remote sensing, computer modelling), biodiversity requires ‘boots-on-the-ground’.

Moreover, the greatest concentrations of biodiversity occur in tropical nations, countries with the least capacity in their science and policy communities. There are some exceptions (climate change adaptation requires ‘bottom-up’ science while ecosystem changes can be addressed ‘top-down’) but overall this fundamental difference explains why IPBES requires four functions rather than just assessment.

IPBES should ensure engagement from across the biological and social sciences. This is important, because while the biological sciences are essential to understanding biodiversity per se, the social sciences are essential in understanding threats to biodiversity, responses through conservation and sustainable use, and the ecosystem service benefits which biodiversity provides to humanity.