IHDP Executive Director Ananatha Duraiappah is circumspect as he prepares to travel to Nairobi to take part in the UNEP’s Governing Council meeting next week, at which a mandate is expected enabling the formal establishment of the new Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). IPBES, a global mechanism designed to provide direly needed assessment and policy guidance to help reverse the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems, was created in the mould of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an institution that, while broadly successful – its efforts earned it a Nobel Peace Prize, after all – could nonetheless be improved upon.
“We’ve got to go further than the IPCC in a few ways if we’re to carry out the job given to us"
“We’ve got to go further than the IPCC in a few ways if we’re to carry out the job given to us,” says Duraiappah, citing the IPBES’s orders as set out in the so-called Busan Outcome, named for the South Korean city in which UNEP member states gathered to provide a blueprint for the platform. The IPBES should be more inclusive – academically and geographically – he says. In addition to a greater input from the social sciences, he hopes to see more scientists from non-Northern areas taking part in the IPBES.
Concentrating on the consequences of specific policies
Duraiappah is one of four leading scholars to articulate the chances and risks facing the IPBES in an article in this week’s 'Science'. The article, by Charles Perrings of Arizona State University, Duraippah, Anne Larigauderie of Paris-based DIVERSITAS and Harold Mooney of Stanford University, concentrates on a number of areas, particularly that of policy. “The Busan Outcome imposes a greater obligation on the IPBES to support specific policies, with implications both for the way the governing body gives charges to scientists, and the way scientists carry out their work,” the authors write. This means concentrating less on assessing notional scenarios developed in academic seclusion, and more on investigating the “consequences of specific policies implemented by governing bodies,” and using scientific knowledge to inform and shape actual policy debates and decision-making at multiple levels. “Hypothetical scenarios bear no relationship to the real options confronting policymakers now,” says Perrings, a professor of environmental economics. “Discussions between decision-makers and scientists should start with the question ‘what do governments want and what options do they have?’ Knowing the likely consequences of alternative policy options is critical to choosing the best strategy.”
Estimating the monetary values of natural resources is not enough
The call for a greater role for the social sciences is also, unsurprisingly, front and centre in the authors’ recommendations. Socioeconomic factors are enormously important in global environmental change, particularly changes to biodiversity and ecosystem services. Yet very little interaction takes place at the international level between social scientists, natural scientists studying environmental changes, and policymakers. The IBPES will be required to provide “quantitative projections of impacts of global change on biodiversity”, note the authors. Yet the models needed for such projects “require a step-change in our capacity to model interactions between the socio-economic system and the biophysical environment.” One way scientists have attempted to quantify biodiversity and ecosystem services is by internalizing their values into the macro economy – that is, calculating and assigning monetary values to otherwise abstract ecological units. For example, economists recently estimated that an average hectare of coral reef provides services to humans valued at US $130,000, and in some places as much as $1.2 million, per year. Such efforts can certainly go along way in informing policy discussions, says Duraiappah. But it is not enough. “There are myriad factors that go into the policy and other processes that affect biodiversity and ecosystem services, especially in developing countries,” he says. “Neither societies nor decision-makers act consistently or predictably as purely economically rational actors. Cultural factors play an enormous role in how societies perceive – and thus value – their environments.” It is time to bring this wing of academia into the solution.
The creation of the IPBES is wrought with risks, but is a unique opportunity to improve the way governments and societies the world over deal with environmental change.
“For the IPBES to provide the policy support envisaged in the Busan outcome it needs to answer questions that are meaningful to the nations that have brought it into being,” write the authors in a concluding statement. This requires “a new approach” and an increased commitment from both science and society – one that Duraiappah believes amounts to nothing less than a “new social contract”. The creation of the IPBES is wrought with risks, but is a unique opportunity to improve the way governments and societies the world over deal with environmental change. “It should not be wasted.”
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Charles Perrings, Anantha Duraiappah, Anne Larigauderie and Harold Mooney. The Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Science-Policy Interface. Science, 17 February 2011 DOI: 10.1126/science.1202400