Science & Environment

UN gives final approval to biodiversity science panel

Chained orangutan
Image caption The costs of forest destruction are being borne by orangutans among other species

The UN has given final approval for the establishment of an expert panel to advise governments on science and policy issues relating to biodiversity.

Endorsement came at the UN General Assembly in New York.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) will assess evidence on the causes and effects of nature degradation, and policy options.

Details will be worked out during the first few months of next year.

The new organisation is roughly modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and will be similarly charged with providing "gold standard" reports to governments.

Discussions on establishing it have been going on for more than two years, and a decision in principle was taken earlier this year; but final approval was needed from the General Assembly, as the UN's governing entity.

"IPBES represents a major breakthrough in terms of organising a global response to the loss of living organisms and forests, freshwater, coral reefs and other ecosystems that underpin all life - including economic life - on Earth," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (Unep).

Unep will host the fledgling panel until a decision is taken on where it will be sited.

It is not yet clear whether the new panel will be structured along identical lines to the IPCC, with separate working groups covering science, impacts and policy.

The IPCC is in the middle of a reform process following criticisms of its performance in past years, and IPBES' proponents have indicated they want to learn from the IPCC's experiences and construct their panel along modernised lines.

The case for establishing the body hangs on the fact that across the world, biodiversity - the variety of life on Earth - is in decline.

This has been highlighted in recent years through periodic projects such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Global Biodiversity Outlook.

But governments now believe a more consistent effort is needed.

Meanwhile, the economic case for conserving biodiversity - at least in some situations - has been strengthened by evidence from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) project, a UN-backed analysis of the costs and benefits of sustaining nature as opposed to allowing it to degrade.

Approximately 10 nations are to conduct their own national-level Teeb analyses, which will probably result in a wider adoption of economic levers that reward conservation and penalise destruction.

"2010, the International Year of Biodiversity, began on a mute note after it emerged that no single country had achieved the target of substantially reversing the rate of loss of biodiversity," said Mr Steiner.

"But it has ended on a far more positive one that underlines a new determination to act on the challenges and deliver the opportunities possible from a far more intelligent management of the planet's nature-based assets."

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