Searching for an elusive idea: IPBES and Loch Ness
Hendrik Segers and Angélique Berhault from the Belgian Biodiversity Platform report on the formation of IPBES, an initiative which aims to inform and advise global environmental policy on biodiversity and ecosystem services, mirroring the work of the IPCC on climate change.
When George Spicer was riding his motorbike around Loch Ness in 1933, he claimed to have seen “the nearest approach to a dragon or pre-historic animal”. Since then, tourists and would-be monster hunters have been wandering around the loch, watching in hope for an elusive monster to suddenly appear… a situation that seems to compare, apparently, with that of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
IPBES – which is hoped to become for biodiversity and ecosystem services what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is for the climate change debate – would expand upon relevant initiatives, such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), to provide policy-relevant reviews of scientific knowledge, and help catalyse capacity building in the field.
In December 2010, the international media announced (see BBC, Environmental News Service and MedefTV coverage) the establishment of IPBES, yet the reality of its formation appears to be rather less straightforward. Scrutiny of the relevant resolution shows an apparent careful avoidance of the word “establish” or any synonym thereof.
This suggests that what has been agreed upon is that the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), in cooperation with relevant organizations (e.g. UNESCO, FAO, UNDP), is asked to take the necessary steps to set up IPBES. Much judicious peering through the haze of craftily worded resolutions establishes that – just like Nessie – IPBES has been announced, talked about, but not truly spotted as yet…
So where do we really stand? Starting off from the international conference “Biodiversity: Science and Governance” (Paris, France 2001), and after three dedicated “Ad Hoc Intergovernmental and Multi-Stakeholder” meetings (Putrajaya, Malaysia 2008; Nairobi, Kenya 2009; and Busan, Republic of Korea 2010), we are now at a stage where an open-ended intergovernmental plenary (i.e. a conference of all parties) is convened to finalise the arrangements and draft work programme of IPBES, in order to begin the initiative.
This plenary is provisionally scheduled for two sessions, October 2011 and early 2012, so it is hoped that by the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012, it will be possible to refer to IPBES as an important, new instrument which can support government action towards sustainable development.
For scientists involved in biodiversity and ecosystem services research and for policy makers eagerly awaiting relevant and useful results, the lengthy and tedious process of establishing IPBES may seem unnecessary. Consider, however, that the platform is planned to become an arena where scientific knowledge is legitimised for integration into governmental policy, and where policy questions are transferred to the scientific community for advice. Such a science-policy interface can only function adequately if underpinned by credible and transparent scientific and political processes.
Negotiating an appropriate array of governance procedures and institutional arrangements through a consensual intergovernmental process inevitably takes time, and much can be learnt from the IPCC case – including the idea that its reports should be “policy relevant, but not policy prescriptive”. Note that the first World Climate Conference organized by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) was held in 1979, while IPCC was only formally established by WMO and UNEP in 1988, and its first assessment saw the light of day in 1990.
The establishment of an IPBES, eventually, will undoubtedly stimulate research in biodiversity and ecosystem services, and improve the recognition of the science and its societal relevance. That much can also be learned from the IPCC experience.
On the other hand, one cannot deny that even though loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services are extremely complex issues encompassing various scientific disciplines, it is not the lack of scientific knowledge that is hindering the success of IPBES. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was very successful as a scientific endeavor, but was less effective in inciting policy action. If IPBES is to succeed, then addressing this shortfall in dialogue between science and policy should be its main goal, whilst also initiating the necessary research and capacity building.
Dr Hendrik Segers, BioFresh partner, Biodiversity Expert for the Belgian government at IPBES2 and IPBES3 intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder meetings; Scientific coordinator, Belgian Biodiversity Platform.
Angélique Berhault, Science officer, Belgian Biodiversity Platform