Excitement is building around the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The platform’s 123 member governments met in Bonn last month to hammer out a work programme for 2015-2019 and get to grips with some key issues. Also present at this third IPBES plenary meeting (IPBES 3) were experts from numerous non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations and individuals, there to support the process.

IPBES was established in April 2012, as an independent intergovernmental body open to all UN member states. With the stated aim of “strengthening the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long term human wellbeing and sustainable development”, IPBES has been compared to the IPCC, as both have preparing global assessments of a key environmental issue as a central function.

SEI Research Fellow Toby Gardner, who was in Bonn as part of the Swedish delegation, offers his perspective on the meeting.

Q: What exactly was your role in the meeting?

TG: As a member of the Swedish delegation I was there to help the team to track and engage with negotiations, specifically regarding the programme of work. This involved highlighting issues we deemed particularly important for securing the credibility, relevance and legitimacy of the work of IPBES, and where appropriate proposing ideas and text to help with this. I was also involved in countless informal discussions – early morning, over lunch and late at night – with delegations from other member states, as well as stakeholder groups, on how to strengthen the work of IPBES and find consensus on the way forward. As it was my first time on the national delegation I was on a very steep learning curve, but with the support of my experienced and patient colleagues it was an enormously rewarding experience.

Q: A key aim of the meeting was to agree on IPBES’s 2015-2019 Programme of Work. What can we expect from IPBES in the next few years?

TG: Several deliverables were agreed at IPBES 3 or are already underway. They include:

  • a number of assessments of key methodologies, including scenario analysis and modelling of biodiversity, protocols for incorporating both science and local and indigenous knowledge, approaches to conceptualizing multiple values of biodiversity, policy tools and methodologies and data management;
  • thematic assessments on pollinators (due in 2016) and land degradation (due in 2018); regional assessments for Africa, the Americas, Asia-Pacific, and Europe and Central Asia (due in 2018); and
  • the global assessment (due in 2019).

In addition, the next plenary meeting, IPBES 4, due to take place in early 2016, will consider approving further work on thematic assessments on invasive and alien species and sustainable use of biodiversity, and the potential for an assessment on the open ocean.

Alongside these activities will be work by the task forces on capacity building and on indigenous and local knowledge.

Q: The creation of IPBES was inspired by the IPCC, but is it more than an IPCC for biodiversity?

TG: Yes, it’s definitely more than that. Like the IPCC, IPBES aims to deliver state-of-the-art assessments on key issues: global, regional, thematic and methodological. But while the IPCC stops at assessments, IPBES goes further to include, on the one hand, activities for capacity building and the development of policy tools and approaches necessary to bridge science and policy, and on the other activities targeted at catalysing the generation of new knowledge to address areas of major scientific uncertainty.

Another area where IPBES goes beyond the IPCC’s approach is its broader engagement. In defining the most important questions, conducting assessments and identifying solutions, IPBES seeks to engage with a great diversity of stakeholders, including policy-makers, practitioners, CSOs, intergovernmental agencies and the private sector.

Thirdly, while the IPCC limits itself to the natural, social and engineering sciences, IPBES assessments also take into account indigenous and local knowledge (ILK). This is not just a nod to equity, but it’s born of a recognition that this is valuable and legitimate knowledge that we can no longer afford to ignore.

Some of these differences reflect the fact that while climate change mitigation is a global challenge, biodiversity and ecosystems present inherently multi-scale challenges, where system dynamics, problems and solutions are all highly dependent on local and regional differences in biophysical properties and patterns of human use. This can be seen for example in the planned regional assessments, and in the importance being given to ILK.

Taken together, IPBES has a very innovative way of working to bridge science and policy within an intergovernmental forum, while simultaneously building the capabilities to address the many urgent problems facing the conservation and sustainable stewardship of biodiversity and ecosystem services worldwide.

One particularly exciting prospect is the role IPBES could play in galvanizing progress towards the Convention on Biological Diversity´s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, including the Aichi Targets. Achieving these ambitious targets is vital, but urgently requires the kind of synthesis, capacity building and mainstreaming that IPBES can help to help deliver.

Q: What major challenges face IPBES in delivering its 2015-2019 programme of work?

TG: One issue is resources; the IPBES Secretariat is composed of a highly skilled and dedicated group of individuals, but many observers would argue that they are under-resourced for the work ahead. As for the Programme of Work, while a substantial proportion of the planned budget (c. US$25 million) has already been pledged, many of the delegates at IPBES 3 were concerned that this is a long way short of what is needed to achieve all the stated deliverables.

A number of other substantive concerns were voiced by delegates and observers. Many of these are linked to the challenges of ensuring the integrity of the platform, and how to achieve credibility, relevance and legitimacy of the deliverables. In particular:

  • How to organize and maintain the desired high level of stakeholder engagement, support and ownership. After much debate IPBES 3 agreed a stakeholder engagement strategy that was broadly supported, but this strategy will need to be given sufficient recognition by the member states in order for it to be effective and gain credibility in the wider community.
  • IPBES has already received public criticism because experts selected for the pollinators assessment were funded by the private sector. In response, a conflict-of-interest policy was adopted at IPBES 3, but this policy will need strong enforcement and transparency if it is to work.
  • Another prominent challenge is shielding the independence and credibility of IPBES as a science-policy platform from member states’ unrelated political agendas. For example, concerns around the inclusion of information from overseas and disputed territories, as well as around the influence given to non-government stakeholders, threatened to undermine negotiations at various moments during the Bonn plenary.
  • How member states are represented in IPBES.Countries sent representatives from a variety of ministries and agencies, at very different levels of seniority, reflecting substantial variation in how much priority they have given to IPBES.
  • Expertise in the IPBES assessments. Concerns were raised that the small IPBES budget is insufficient to ensure the involvement of leading experts, including from developed countries, where experts need to receive funding from their governments or institutions. Another concern was about the rule that 80% of nominations for experts are to be made by governments and only 20% by non-governmental stakeholders – which may limit the involvement of the many biodiversity experts employed by NGOs.

Given the high degree of innovation and ambition in the work IPBES has set itself, it is hardly surprising that the platform faces some quite substantial challenges at this early stage. They should not distract from the importance and urgency that underpins the work of IPBES, and the unique role that it can play in helping the international community deliver on its promises to safeguard the future of biodiversity across the planet.