We need an international approach to biodiversity (but local action), by Max Finlayson

It is looking increasingly likely that this will be the year the United Nations introduces an Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) – a group similar to the IPCC, but designed to deal with biodiversity rather than climate change.

Its promoters want IPBES to provide an interface between the scientific community and policy makers. The hope is that it will strengthen the use of science in policy making on biodiversity and ecosystems. In a general sense it is proposed that IPBES will provide relevant information on how biodiversity and ecosystem services can be conserved and used.

Why should people care about biodiversity?

Recent international assessments of biodiversity have shown that there is a general decline in ecosystems and species population. Despite increased effort to stem the decline, it is continuing. Much more is needed, and will be needed as the world’s population increases and the demand for food and water and other natural resources increases.

In 2005, the UN completed its Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. This report – contributed to by 1360 experts – assessed how changes to ecosystems would affect human well-being. The assessment provided an appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems. It looks at clean water, food, forest products, flood control, and natural resources, and the options to restore, conserve or enhance the sustainable use of ecosystems.

The assessment did not look at biodiversity or nature in isolation from people. It recognised that in many ways people and nature are connected and a “healthy environment” helps support “healthy people”.

Many people, including many of those who live in poverty, derive a lot of benefits from ecosystems, such as food and fresh water, but also from the mediation of storms and floods, the distribution of nutrients and sedments across floodplains, and control of erosion. The benefits that people get from ecosystems are collectively referred to as ecosystem services. Many of these are uncosted yet extremely valuable.

Looking at the big picture

The assessment brought together environmental scientists, social scientists and economists to not only document the state of the world’s biodiversity, but to also look at the interactions between biodiversity and human well-being. While it looked at the policy implications, it did not prescribe policy, as that is the realm of governments and bureaucrats.

Since the assessment was released there has been interest in developing an “international mechanism for biodiversity and ecosystem services” along the lines of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change.

This would enable governments and individual organisations to share information and address common problems, expecially where these cross borders or involve expensive analyses and capacity building.

In an increasingly globalised world it is recognised that we cannot work alone or in isolation to overcome problems that affect us all – for example, the pollution of the atmosphere, or oceans, or shared watercourses – or gather sufficient information to address complex interactions between multiple stakeholders and the benefits obtained from ecosystems.

As international trade expands and people move across borders, whether through mass tourism or in response to wars or natural disasters, we are facing more and more pressure to work together and share the responsibility for sustaining livelihoods and the environments in which we live.

What will this organisation do?

In June 2010, in Busan, Republic of Korea, governments decided to establish an Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. They identified the focus of its work, and agreed on many of the principles of its operation.

They determined it should:

  • respond to requests from governments, multilateral environmental agreements and United Nations bodies and other stakeholders, including the private sector
  • identify and prioritise key scientific information needed for policy-makers
  • catalyse efforts to generate new knowledge through dialogue (but not undertake new research)
  • undertake regular scientifically credible, independent and peer-reviewed assessments of biodiversity and ecosystem services
  • identify and make available policy-relevant tools and methods that will be useful for making and implementing biodiversity policy
  • prioritise capacity-building needs to improve the science-policy interface and then provide/seek financial and other support for the highest-priority needs
  • be independent; administered by one or more existing United Nations organizations, agencies, funds or programmes; and open to all States Members of the United Nations
  • make decisions by consensus.

In carrying out its work it should collaborate with existing initiatives on biodiversity and ecosystem services to fill gaps and avoid duplication.

What happens from here?

There is a lot of work to be done to implement and sustain the scope and purpose and the bureaucratic mechanism that will emerge. There will be some hard negotiation, especially when it comes to the financial mechanisms, and there may be controversy over how it interacts with and supports the technical bodies established by existing international environmental agreements.

But the impetus seems to be in place. Various countries are already lobbying to host the platform.

My personal interest in the future concerns how it will make the best of existing mechanisms. How will it avoid not only duplication, but competition between vested interest groups? And how will it provide information at an appropriate level for national and local implementation?

We already have problems with the latter in many of our national and existing international mechanisms. Can an international mechanism bridge this gap, or will it rely on national mechanisms, many of which are already stretched or under resourced or enmeshed in the politics of the environment? The ongoing debate about the future of water allocation in the Murray-Darling Basin is a good example of the latter.

The next stages in the international negotiations will require diplomacy and wisdom and wil be intriguing. But I see the development of effective national mechanisms to respond to the IPBES as more critical. “Business as usual” at a national level is hardly likely to help, as shown by the existing loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

In many parts of the world we are currently failing to stem the loss of biodiversity – we need more attention to implementing effective responses. An international mechanism can provide better information and provide guidance, but the action needs to be done nationally and locally.

Max Finlayson is director of the Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University.

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