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How a UN platform to stop biodiversity loss could up its game

How a UN platform to stop biodiversity loss could up its game

Joel Herzog

Biodiversity, the variety of plant, animal and microbial life on Earth, is still declining. For many years there have been calls for some sort of scientific body or initiative to be set up to encourage the international community to shoulder its responsibilities over biodiversity. In the scientific literature in particular, several authors argued that a more efficient and permanent organisation to convey scientific works to governments could help meet international commitments to stop biodiversity loss.

In 2005 a process was started that led to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, IPBES. The IPBES was finally established in 2012 as a United Nations body. It recently published its first reports and has several others under way.

Biodiversity keeps declining despite lots of accumulated knowledge and numerous international and national commitments to act. How could IPBES help change this?

Not the first of its kind

IPBES is far from being the first attempt at synthesising knowledge on the causes and consequences of biodiversity loss. It’s rooted in a long line of global environmental assessments. A prominent example is the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Since the early 1980s, it’s produced a number of reports documenting the impact of man-made climate change. It received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. The general assumption is that such initiatives can help address environmental issues by providing usable knowledge to policy and decision makers.

When it comes to biodiversity, a wide-ranging number of ecological studies have been published over the last century. They document habitat and species loss stemming from human action. Several assessments have also been carried out. The most notable were the Global Biodiversity Assessment, released in 1995 and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment released in 2005.

It’s also well admitted that current species extinction rates are much higher than at previous times in the history of the Earth. In fact, they are estimated to be a thousand times higher than they would be without human influence. As a result, several authors coin the current period as Earth’s sixth mass extinction.

But actually quite unique

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature identifies five main sources of threats on biodiversity. They include: habitat loss and degradation, invasive alien species, over-exploitation of natural resources, pollution and diseases, and human-induced climate change. These threats can be considered the direct drivers behind biodiversity loss.

Conservation policies which try and address these threats have a long history. For instance, there are no less than six international conventions that address biodiversity conservation in some way. The Convention on Biological Diversity, signed during the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, is one example. It aims to achieve a list of targets to stop biodiversity loss worldwide by 2020. It’s unlikely that this objective will be met, given the current trends. Despite an accumulation of knowledge and multiple policy initiatives, biodiversity is still eroding.

In a crowded landscape, IPBES could make an important contribution to conservation. Aleksandar Rankovic

In this crowded landscape, IPBES could make an important contribution to conservation. It could help understand why biodiversity keeps declining despite international and national commitments to act. The fact that it operates differently from previous assessments could be key. IPBES is more ambitious in its principles and functions. In particular, it aspires to be more inclusive of knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities, and of non-academic knowledge.

How IPBES can make a difference

When IPBES adopted its conceptual framework different ways of making sense of human-nature relations were debated. An important feature of this framework is the fact that, so-called, indirect drivers are given particular attention. In IPBES terms, these drivers include:

institutions and governance systems and other indirect drivers.

They include how decisions are taken and implemented, how power is exercised, and how responsibilities are distributed. Assessing the available knowledge and these indirect drivers is key to identify the root causes of biodiversity loss. In other words, it’s there where we can identify what, in our societies, is pushing the direct drivers described above. This is also how we can understand why some conservation policies have worked and some have not.

Getting there might be challenging. IPBES released its first thematic report on pollination, pollinators and food production in February 2016. It was very detailed regarding the direct drivers, like changes in land use or heavy pesticide use, affecting pollinators.

But the assessment covered the indirect drivers, like harmful subsidies and policies that hamper the sustainability of food systems, poorly. This means that important governance aspects, which are likely behind the trends in direct drivers, were left out.

The platform aspires to recognise multiple knowledge-systems and is a remarkable attempt to go beyond traditional natural sciences as the sole basis for decision-making. In practice, the inclusion of other forms of knowledge and expertise is proving a challenge. In particular, social scientists, and the variety of disciplines useful for policy analysis and evaluation, are still largely under-represented among its experts. And so is the case for indigenous knowledge-holders.

A way forward: assessing governance settings

One of the most innovative aspects of IPBES is the recognition that knowledge on governance settings, like how societies are organised, how economies work, how power is distributed for example, should be assessed as well. This requires the participation of social and political scientists.

Even though biodiversity loss is a global phenomenon, in the sense that it’s observed everywhere, biodiversity issues like deforestation, aquatic pollution, and poaching take a variety of forms in different regions that need to be understood in their complexity and actual messiness.

For IPBES to be different from previous assessments, and perhaps more effective in supporting biodiversity conservation, the main challenge will be to encourage governments to provide more support to it and actually nominate diverse experts. It’s also crucial to ask it to include knowledge on indirect drivers of biodiversity loss in its works.