The Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Science-Policy Interface

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recently set their attention to tracking the causes and consequences of destructive ecosystem change. The Busan outcome is a blueprint for international governance with an ultimate goal of a IPCC-like agency, the IPBES. However, because the Busan outcome is a blueprint for governance and not for science, the authors offer some thoughts on how the science will unfold in this context.

Four functions identified in the Buscan outcome as key roles of the IPBES

(a) “identify and prioritize key scientific information needed for policymakers at appropriate scales,”

(b) “perform regular and timely assessments of knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystem services and their interlinkages, which should include comprehensive global, regional, and, as necessary, sub-regional assessments and thematic issues at appropriate scales and new topics identified by science,”

(c) “support policy formulation and implementation,” and

(d) “prioritize key capacity-building needs to improve the science-policy interface….”

The authors argue that in light of these four functional operations of IPBES, the science should be directed to reflect real policy options, scenarios, and outcomes. In other words, models of ecosystem service and biodiversity changes should be built around real world policy options and what outcomes will result from competing options. The authors draw support to this conclusion from the Global Biodiversity Assessment (GBA), the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (MA). Similarly, in assessments that are independent of existing policy decisions, the science should generally offer various options and paths to mitigating the potentially destructive outcomes.

Next, the authors deal with issues of scale. Primarily, an important consideration of scale in this scientific work will be that it, “be undertaken at the smallest geographical scale consistent with capturing all relevant effects of the biophysical and social processes involved”. I think that it is inherent in this statement that in most all cases, analyses will need to be performed over numerous geographic and temporal scales in order to capture the effects in any particular area. This is going to require enormous amounts of data. One identified source would be GEO BON, however, GEO BON as of now does not collect socioeconomic observations. I think this fact can be extended to many large data collection and aggregation projects to date, they strangely still fail to correctly weight the anthropocentric importance in global monitoring systems.

A major shortcoming in current work is in assigning value to the components of ecosystem services and biodiversity. The authors point out that while the MA was able to record changes in ecosystem services, they were unsuccessful at assigning a value to those changes. A key role of IPBES will be to bring in data from sources otherwise not directly linked to the primary science being performed to begin deriving and measuring those values.

The authors close by stating that the IPBES will only be as strong as the science that underlies it, but also that the IPBES will be most successful if used to coordinate the scientific effort around key areas, including scale, scope, and questions being answered such that real world decisions can be made from that science.

The paper will provide a good foundation from which the IPBES can clearly define their relationship with the underlying science. However, in my opinion, it still comes just short of stating the importance of common publishing data repositories and data discovery tools. They say, “Although it is important to strengthen assessments, including the tools of synthesis, all assessments are ultimately only as strong as the supporting science.” I would go further, and say that the long-term strength of that science will be directly based on the strength of the tools of syntheses, discovery, and reuse.

Perrings C et al. The Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Science-Policy Interface. Science. 2011. Vol 331 No 6021. Full text