IPBES: First global biodiversity assessments open for governmental acceptance

Kuala Lumpur, 25 Feb (Hilary Chiew and Chee Yoke Ling) – The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) will release its first biodiversity assessment, on pollinators, pollination and food production, at its fourth meeting that is taking place in Kuala Lumpur on 22-28 February.

A second assessment that will also be negotiated for acceptance by the Platform is on the methodological assessment of scenarios models of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Modelled after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the idea of the IPBES was mooted in 2008 and several years of preparations followed with the first official IPBES Plenary taking place in 2013.  It has 125 members from governments with its secretariat in Bonn, Germany.  The first and current IPBES chair is Dr. Zakri Abdul Hamid of Malaysia. His term finishes at this meeting and Dr. Robert Watson of the United Kingdom will be the next Chair.

The Platform’s goal is to assess the state of biodiversity and of the ecosystem services it provides to society, in response to requests from decision makers. Each assessment of a specific theme will produce a technical report that reviews relevant literature and from this a summary for policy makers will be produced. This summary, as in the IPCC, is negotiated by governments that are members of the IPBES, for acceptance by the Plenary.

The Platform’s objective is to strengthen the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being and sustainable development. It has four functions: knowledge generation, assessments, policy support tools, and capacity building.

One of its operating principles is to “Provide policy-relevant information, but not policy-prescriptive advice, mindful of the respective mandates of the multilateral environmental agreements”.

Analytical work initiated under the work programme of IPBES is guided by the Platform’s conceptual framework: ( Its first work programme is for the period 2014-2018.

According to the IPBES website, “Salient innovative aspects of the conceptual framework are its transparent and participatory construction process and its explicit consideration of diverse scientific disciplines, stakeholders, and knowledge systems, including indigenous and local knowledge.”

[The conception of the IPBES had raised concerns among several countries that are Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Among these were the implications for the role of the Convention’s Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice as well as the legal basis for establishing the IPBES.  The initiative was taken by some governments with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme.

The institutional participation of indigenous peoples, local communities and civil society organisations beyond scientific organisations and scientists was also a key issue during the establishment of the IPBES.

According to an observer who has participated in the IPBES process for several years, while the Platform formally recognises diverse knowledge systems, in particular indigenous and local knowledge, and the planet’s biodiversity is predominantly in developing countries, developed country government delegations and scientists are still more dominant in the IPBES process than those from developing countries. ]

The major task of the 7-day meeting in Kuala Lumpur is the implementation and deliverables of the 2014-2018 work programme of which key among them is the adoption of the Platform’s first two assessments: (i) the Thematic Assessment on pollinators, pollination and food production, and (ii) the Methodological Assessment of scenarios models of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Government members of the Platform have successfully negotiated the 23-page Summary for Policymakers (SPM) Thematic Assessment on pollinators, pollination and food production that went into 2 night sessions, with agreement reached on Thursday afternoon (25 February). The SPM and background technical report will be formally accepted in the Plenary scheduled for Friday morning.

Negotiations of the 20-page SPM for the Methodological Assessment of scenarios models of biodiversity and ecosystem services started this afternoon (25 February) and is expected to be formally accepted on Sunday (28 February).

Other key agenda items on the work programme (agenda item 5) include:

-       work on capacity-building;

-       work on indigenous and local knowledge systems;

-       scoping report for a global assessment on biodiversity and ecosystem services;

-       revised scoping report for a methodological assessment on diverse conceptualisation of multiple values of nature and its benefits;

-       scoping report for a thematic assessment on invasive alien species;

-       scoping report for a thematic assessment on sustainable use of biodiversity; and

-       work on policy support tools and methodologies.

Opening session on 22 February

At the opening session on the morning of Monday, 22 February, the IPBES Chair Dr. Zakri Abdul Hamid (Malaysia) welcomed delegates to Kuala Lumpur where the foundation of the IPBES was laid at a meeting in November 2008.  Noting the challenges and struggles to form the Platform, he described the 4th Plenary meeting as “having come full circle” in this landmark year where members could look forward to the first IPBES assessment reports.

He said as a new bureau will be elected, it is important to note that the impeccable credential of candidates is important to ensure a good bureau and that the IPBES continues to be recognised by both science and policy makers as policy relevant and never policy prescriptive.

IPBES executive secretary Anne Larigauderie in her statement said that Kuala Lumpur can claim to be one of the birth places of IPBES where the first ad hoc meeting was held and that it is meaningful symbolically that IPBES returned to Kuala Lumpur to present its first two assessments. She commended the experts who presented their work with pride and humility in producing reports that are policy relevant and support decision-makings of governments.

Chair Zakri then informed the plenary that there will be no opening statements from governments but open the floor for regional groupings to make general statement.

Mexico representing the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries in the United Nations (GRULAC)recognised the complex work in order to accomplish the objective of the programme of work of 2014-2018 and underscored the importance to nonetheless complete it.

Despite the difficult international situation, it said various GRULAC members made financial contributions and that Mexico will provide for a new technical support unit and invite other members to make contributions to allow for the continuation of the work of IPBES.

South Africa speaking for the African Groupnoted that it is most befitting for Chair Zakri to finish his term on his own soil with his outstanding contribution to the Platform. The Group is confident of the strong and solid work programme of the Platform while noting that there is still a lot of work ahead.

South Africa highlighted that capacity building is a cross-cutting need and various regions are not equally endowed. It underscored that capacity is not a once-off event or achieved by a couple of workshops, noting the emerging issues that were never anticipated such as the bandwidth problems posed by webinar and e-conference. It further said the use of e-conference needs to be complemented by (face-to-face) seminars especially when addressing complex issues such as sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

(A considerable part of the IPBES work is conducted via the internet.)

Representing the European Union, the Netherlands said at the moment the bloc has 20 member states which are members of the Platform.  It said the outcome of the assessments should be a relevant component of the 5th Global Biodiversity Outlook to be released by the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2019 and a basis for strategic discussion for the field of biodiversity for the next decade.

Turkey speaking for Eastern Europestressed that the success of the IPBES is based on its regional balance.

Malaysia representing the Asia Pacific would like to see a task force established for other work programmes such as invasive alien species and welcomed the recognition of young people who are future leaders and experts by the task force on capacity building.

After noting that nothing in the rules of procedures prohibits a member state from speaking and insisting on its rights to provide a national statement, the United States took the floor to stress the importance to adhere closely to the IPBES’ founding principles of scientific independence and credibility. Expressing concern over the ambitious work programme, it stressed that it is the responsibility of member states to ensure that the work programme is achievable and not to sacrifice quality even if this means pushing back the assessment. It recognised the inherent challenge related to the method of e-conferences but it would support the continued use of such technologies.

Future Earth delivered the statement of the Stakeholder Network that reiterated the importance of a wide range of expertise and knowledge in implementing the work programme and called for stronger and new commitments from members to ensure the participation and contribution of experts from all regions, sectors and knowledge systems.

The statement welcomed the implementation of the conflict of interest policy for guaranteeing the credibility, transparency and integrity of IPBES processes.

It urged that all policy options in the technical reports are spelt out in the SPM, noting that in situations of scientific uncertainty and potentially serious or irreversible harm to biodiversity and ecosystem services and recalling the precautionary approach, countries may choose to withdraw or withhold approvals for potentially harmful substances and activities.

The Stakeholder Network also welcomed the larger engagement of indigenous people and local communities and supported their statement.

(A conflict of interest policy was adopted at the 3rd Plenary of the IPBES in 2015 after intense discussion and negotiations. The participation of experts from or related to industry was a key issue.)

The International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IIFBES) considered IPBES-4 as a critical point in guiding the work of IPBES towards becoming highly effective as a knowledge platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

It hoped for the fullest and best possible engagements between IPBES’ members and its diverse stakeholders which include the distinct grouping of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC), particularly on the agenda items related to approaches and mechanisms proposed on indigenous and local knowledge (ILK), the examination of IPBES’ rules and procedures to address the challenges posed for the full consideration and inclusion of ILK in the overall functions and work programme of the Platform, and communications, stakeholder engagement and strategic partnerships.

It further informed that IPLC have established a network of ILK Centres of Distinction composed of organisations that have had a long history of engaging within the UN system to deliver policy recommendations, implement projects and provide assessments, such as for biodiversity indicators and community–based monitoring systems. Each centre has its own distinct activities and strengths which by working together can provide a more comprehensive set of inputs to assessments and support implementation of the decisions of this Platform.

The Forum stressed that this network is a support mechanism for delivering inputs into IPBES by ILK holders themselves and can identify other relevant knowledge holders and experts in their regions and areas of expertise. (One of the issues raised in the current IPBES-4 meeting is the gap in expertise on ILK.)

Initial deliberations which included presentations and comments on the agenda items were spread over 22and 23February, punctuated by an official opening ceremony in the afternoon of 22 February with the attendance of the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mohamed Najib bin Abdul Razak.

Following are the highlights of the plenary deliberations on the various agenda items on the 2014-2018 work programme.

Thematic Assessment on pollinators, pollination and food production

Germany pointed out that besides bees there are other pollinators that are not properly mentioned and urged that the research gap is reflected in the SPM.

Indonesia noted that while most data is coming from European and American regions, it is important to acknowledge the major gaps to lead us to better understanding the threats that pollinators are facing.

Pakistan said the outcome of the assessment is important for understanding pollinators’ role in food production, highlighting that the threat they face will be a great contribution to the biodiversity conservation objective of the Platform and the Convention on Biological Diversity. It requested wide circulation of the report to inform the wider segments of society to play their conservation role.

France said it would like to propose an amendment to the key message on the impacts of pesticides on pollination “so that it is fully aligned with the state of scientific knowledge and work carried out in laboratories and on the ground”. Similarly, it would like to introduce clear amendments to the key message relating to the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the contact group deliberations later.

(Several government delegations and observers were surprised at the overtly positive presentation of genetically modified insect-resistant crops in the SPM document when studies have emerged on the adverse effects of these GMOs in some countries.)

China noted that the report lacks materials from developing countries which are dependent on agriculture production, adding that it would like to promote more Chinese experts to take part in IPBES work and strengthen the training of developing countries researchers to be able to contribute to IPBES.

India welcomed the report which represented a significant step forward in the understanding of pollinators that underpinned food production. It noted that the major challenge will be to reach out with the key messages to enhance uptake and translation into national level policies.

Malaysia welcomed the draft SPM as it can serve as an important reference for a broad range of stakeholders, especially those in the field of agriculture.

It said as a region with diverse biodiversity, the Asia Pacific is dependent on pollinators as they are important to ensure yields that contribute to the overall health, well-being and economics of our people. Because data on pollinators and pollination is lacking for the Asia Pacific region as well as for some other regions as mentioned in the assessment report, there is the urgency to conduct more studies on the threats to pollinators and the overall impact of such threats to food production in these regions.

On the key messages under the subheading ‘Drivers of change and policy management options’ Malaysia urged that elements of the effect of GMOs be also incorporated as these have been highlighted in page 16 of the detailed summary of the technical assessment document. “This is important because the key message section will be used by high level policy makers to guide them in making policy interventions; hence this section should be reflective of the findings,” it stressed.

Malaysia believed that the SPM is a wakeup call to the world to address the decline of pollinators through various strategic actions and the take home message would be to act upon the actions that have been outlined in the report.

South Africa representing the African Groupnoted that the data from Africa is limited, representing only 4% of the study in the assessment. Hence, while the report provides important direction, the need for additional research is required to plug knowledge and data gaps.

Mexico believed the information was too general in nature to be applicable for decision-making at national and regional levels. It noted that the focus has been mainly on bees when 16% of vertebrate pollinators are threatened, adding that a mention of crops pollinated by other animals would make the report better.

Norway lamented that the password restriction placed on the SPM and technical report chapters complicated national and cross-sector consultation at government level. Belgium echoed the frustration.

The United States said it had multiple concerns with the SPM document, noting that the inclusion of speculative statements within the SPM will undermined the credibility of the IPBES and it would proposed alternative wordings. Guatemala and Denmark supported this.

Scenarios and models of biodiversity and ecosystem services: methodological assessment and proposal on the further development of tools and methodologies

Indonesia said it is important that the result is widely understood not only by scientists but also by decision makers to build capacity and strengthen the use of science in policy making and is expecting the guidance to strengthen Indonesia efforts.

Norway noted that strengthening of capacity in this field needs to be addressed as lack of data could limit the use of this effort.

The United States said it is a critical concept and we need to understand the proposed task and overall workload and its impacts on the budget.

The United Kingdom found the language in the SPM rather prescriptive and that it would make proposals for amendments later in the contact group.

New Zealand recognised the overly complexity of the subject and difficulties of largely non-expert audience to connect to these technical tools. It would like to see a summary table at the front of the SPM document providing a simple overview.

After the initial round of exchange of views, members continued their deliberations in 2 contact groups that were open to observers. 

Contact Group 1 started its work on the SPM on the Thematic Assessment on pollinations, pollinators and food production in the afternoon of 23 February at 4.00 pm and this continued into the night, and on to 24 February day and night, concluding just after noon on 25 February. Contact Group 1 is co-chaired by Robert Watson (United Kingdom) and Alfred Oteng Yeboah (Ghana).

From the outset, co-chair Watson outlined the rules of engagement, stressing interventions by governments to be based on evidence presented in the background report. A line-by-line negotiation them followed.

Co-chaired by Ivar Baste (Norway) and Asghar Fazel (Iran), Contact Group 2 began the deliberations of the SPM on Methodological Assessment on scenarios and models of biodiversity and ecosystem service at 3 pm on 25 February.

The official meeting was preceded by a two-day stakeholders meeting on 20-21 February.+