8 May 2012
Establishment of IPBES: Implications for Global, Regional and National Policy
story highlights

While scientific understanding of the complex biophysical interrelations and the causes of biodiversity loss has increased, research at the interface between science and policy, and individual behaviour and environmental degradation has advanced the least.

After several years of international negotiations, 21 April 2012 saw the establishment of the Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The creation of IPBES is a great victory for biodiversity. It opens a window of opportunity to strengthen decision making related to biodiversity across a broad range of areas, providing greater scientific input into decisions that affect biodiversity across the globe.

The lack, to date, of mainstreaming biodiversity into important sectoral policies on agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and energy is thought to be one of the main reasons for the continued loss of biodiversity. While scientific understanding of the complex biophysical interrelations and the causes of biodiversity loss has increased, research at the interface between science and policy, and individual behaviour and environmental degradation has advanced the least. IPBES will aim to tackle the accelerating worldwide loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystem services by bridging the gap between the scientific community and policy makers. This will lead to an improved understanding of the importance of biodiversity loss and its implications for human wellbeing.

The continued unsustainable and inequitable use of biodiversity and ecosystem resources highlights the need for effective governance and better science-policy cooperation. The creation of IPBES is timely and will hopefully be instrumental in providing a platform for intense dialogue and collective action needed to achieve an urgent and significant shift in addressing biodiversity loss. It will also enhance the capacity of developing countries to contribute to global efforts. The best science can be brought to bear on informing policy-making at the global, regional and national levels about the impact that different options have on biodiversity and ecosystem services. IPBES should also contribute to clarify responsibilities and commitments for different sectors and actors. Efficient ecosystem management should build on collaboration of multiple stakeholders operating in different hierarchical levels through social networks. IPBES has a key part to play in helping to develop sustainable economies, by establishing the role of biodiversity in underpinning the delivery of ecosystem services. Such a role is essential in contributing to a transformational change from the current socially inequitable, environmentally damaging society to one that is more equitable and wellbeing-based.

What can IPBES do? Global and local implications for policy

Biodiversity underpins ecosystem function and provision of ecosystem services for human wellbeing and should be managed within a socio-ecological context. In maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services, there is need for a balance between the many components, existing on multiple spatial and temporal scales that make up a socio-ecological system. Sustainable use of biodiversity requires a fine-tuned balance between demand and supply. Population increase and ever-increasing lifestyle expectations coupled with ecosystem degradation are likely to further upset what is already an imbalance1. If ‘demand’ were replaced by ‘requirement’ (based on equity of resource use), and if biodiversity, ecosystem productivity, regenerative capacity and resilience (‘safe limit supply’) were embedded in the ‘supply’ concept, then society would have better guidelines under which to influence how sustainable biodiversity systems should function. The probability of achieving a balance will be greatly improved by protecting and appropriately managing biodiversity and ecosystem services, coupled with a fundamental shift in societal expectations and behaviours that drive ‘demand.’

There is a need to balance many opposing demands. The human population is expanding, and an increasing number of people expect living standard improvement and material gain, placing additional demands on resource use. Current consumption rates of natural resources are a trade-off between human demands and maintaining the long-term capacity of ecosystems to supply goods and services. A sustainable use of biodiversity requires a shift in human expectations and aspirations, behaviour and immediate resource use. At the same time it must be recognized that poverty alleviation is a primary objective. The aspirations of the poor need to be respected and supported, especially in cases where impoverished people cause biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation in their struggle for survival using scarce resources. This is often due to a lack of solid, up-to-date science to inform policy processes that would enable countries and regions to reverse the decline through ecosystem restoration. On the other hand, excessive resource consumption needs to be reduced in order to achieve suitable levels of equity. Taking Norton’s fifth axiom of ecosystem management2, of ‘differential fragility’, and that ecosystems provide the essential basics for livelihood provision, particularly for the poor, excessive resource demands from some countries (which may have relatively healthy ecosystems due to investment and protection) cause degradation in fragile ecosystems beyond their own borders. The impacts of climate change, high levels of water usage for goods production (virtual water), conversion of forest to palm oil, and cattle grazing are examples. Hence, fragile ecosystems are degraded as a result of economic behaviour in other parts of the world. This implies that the approach towards biodiversity and ecosystem protection must be holistic and mainstreamed within economic thinking, balancing trade-offs across multiple spatial and economic scales. Central to many of the solutions in terms of practical application, is the need to achieve behavioural change through supportive and enabling policies that redress the current imbalance in trade-offs. IPBES can help inform this and lead to input to policy development that leads realisation of these possibilities.

This could be done through:

  • Strengthening ecosystems and biodiversity governance and institutions at local and national levels, as a basis for supporting effective policy development.
  • Recognizing that one of the main drivers for biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation is economic, and that the past lack of biodiversity and ecosystem valuation has been a market failure. For example, forests are destroyed because it is more profitable in the short term to use land for other purposes, and the environmental cost of water use in goods production is not included in the purchase cost to the consumer. Therefore, effective scientific assessment with potential to inform policy has to reward the long-term value of the services provided by biodiversity and ecosystems above that of the short-term gain.
  • Designing and implementing change based on high-quality information. Existing biodiversity and ecosystem monitoring and assessment programmes are either incomplete or only partially integrated. The money spent on biodiversity and ecosystems research and monitoring does not reflect the true value of the services they provide to the global economy. More support is required for science to provide the basis for a comprehensive, science-based management approach to guide policy decisions and monitor implementation. Thus, there is need for the formulation and evaluation of economic and policy mechanisms, based on four criteria: long-term environmental effectiveness; equity; cost effectiveness; and institutional compatibility of the policy combinations.

A number of UNEP papers elaborate on these themes:

Putting Ecosystem Management in the Vision of Africa’s Development: Towards a Sustainable Green Economy,” demonstrates the foundational significance of biodiversity and ecosystems for human wellbeing in the African region. It highlights key policy challenges and opportunities in ecosystem management, and makes recommendations for enhancing capacity of policy makers in the region.

The Role of Ecosystems in Developing a Sustainable Green Economy,” discusses how investing in biodiversity and ecosystems can bring about benefits at the local as well as global levels, e.g. in helping communities adapt to climate change (ecosystem-based adaptation), while at the same time enhancing people’s livelihoods. Biodiversity, ecosystems and the benefits they provide (e.g. climate regulation, food security, freshwater supply, disaster risk reduction) are fundamental to supporting people’s livelihoods and other life on Earth. Biodiversity and ecosystems play an unequivocal and increasingly important role in both ecosystem-based mitigation (carbon sequestration and storage), and ecosystem-based adaptation (i.e. nature-based societal adaptation to climate change impacts).

Restoring the Natural Foundation to Sustain a Green Economy,” focuses on what to do in the transition period of the 20 years after Rio+20. A range of solutions using the Ecosystem Management approach to tackle the many pressures we are facing is highlighted. Considering the fundamental basis for life on Earth, it is inconceivable that we could progress without maintaining the health of Earth’s diverse ecosystems and the biodiversity that underpin them. It thus falls to all people, as individuals, communities, the private sector and representatives of nations, to face up to the challenges ahead and use the best available solutions with commitment and understanding, to ensure a stable transition to a green economy.

Ecosystem Management: Tomorrow’s Approach to Enhancing Food Security under a Changing Climate,” argues that global food security under a changing climate is possible if the vital role of healthy ecosystems is recognized. The researchers suggest that an ecosystem-based approach must be integrated with other measures to tackle food security under climate change, and to protect biodiversity and ecosystems and the supply of the essential ecosystem services on which humanity depends.

The Way Forward

Sustainably managing biodiversity and ecosystem services offers a cost-effective mechanism for coping with future environmental change. An opportunity for the newly created IPBES is to find innovative ways to combine existing knowledge systems, including scientific and indigenous knowledge, to inform policy makers. IPBES would be a key mechanism making this knowledge rapidly deployable, giving immediate positive effects. An essential component should be the need for training, education and information sharing, where “learning by doing” could provide an important process of building capacity, while at the same time conducting assessments and generating knowledge. The establishment of a transparent process that secures the participation of relevant knowledge holders in the assessment process would be of key importance, since it is a prerequisite to generate credible and legitimate outcomes. It will also be essential to establish open access to all results as well as to all scientific documents, data used, and methods applied.

Decisions for better managing and protecting biodiversity and ecosystem services should be based on good independent science and an understanding of the full biodiversity-economic trade-offs. At a global scale, decisions need to be made within the context of an underpinning rationale where biodiversity protection takes precedence. This requires a fundamental shift in the structure of the world’s current economic models, where resource consumption is the primary driver. Instead, there is a need to develop economic models, informed by IPBES and related processes, that reverse the market failures of the existing models by fully valuing biodiversity and ecosystem services. IPBES could incorporate methodological know-how from the TEEB process which achieved partial mainstreaming of biodiversity by increasing accounting of the economic benefits of biodiversity in national planning. New models must be able to balance the capacity of the worlds’ ecosystems to provide essential services with the basic needs of all sections of human society in an equitable way. Such models need to foster greater individual and global collective responsibility and facilitate a shared equity of resource use.

The synergies between objectives need to be better recognized by governments, who must facilitate change by supporting both top-down and bottom-up initiatives. Similarly, businesses and communities need to take advantage of the economic benefits that biodiversity and ecosystems service will bring. Integrating biodiversity in daily decision-making at all levels would benefit from the support and participation of civil society, including media, NGOs and the general public. Only by collectively addressing the multiple issues of biodiversity loss in an integrative way will synergistic solutions be developed.


1 Foresight. The Future of Food and Farming. 2011. Final Project Report. The Government Office for Science, London
2 Norton, B.G. Toward Unity Among Environmentalists; Oxford University Press: New York, NY, USA, 1991

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