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Valuing nature, doing what with the numbers?

Richard Black | 15:58 UK time, Monday, 14 June 2010

African wild dogLast week's decision to set up a global organisation to provide governments with advice on biodiversity wasn't entirely unexpected, but wasn't a shoo-in either.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IBPES) will be loosely modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - presumably taking into account of whatever recommendations the ongoing review of IPCC practices come up with.

It's been a long time coming - five years, in fact, since publication of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), the pioneering attempt to catalogue the health of the biosphere from the equator to the poles.

MEA flagged up in as much detail as could be mustered that "human activities threaten the Earth's ability to sustain future generations", as my colleague Jonathan Amos summarised things back in 2005.

It also flagged up the fact that with six and a half billion people on the planet, pushing to something around nine billion in just 40 years' time, the state of the biosphere was a moving target that would need to be monitored closely - not least for signs that its declining health was threatening human wellbeing.

The former French President Jacques Chirac helped push things forward shortly afterwards; and the impetus given by him and others has now proven sufficient to overcome the objections of those countries that felt biodiversity loss to be overwhelmingly a national rather than a global issue.

Following last week's deliberations in South Korea, the organisation should be in play by the end of the year.

For advice on how the IPBES should function and what lessons should be learned from the IPCC, last week's meeting would have had to look no further than its vice-chair Bob Watson, the former IPCC chief dethroned in 2002 by the US in favour of the current incumbent, Rajendra Pachauri, whom the administration of George W Bush and its supporters in the US oil industry considered less alarmist and more tractable.

Jacques ChiracDr Watson - currently a senior UK government advisor, among other things - will find himself on the other side of the planet this week, in Montreal.

There he will be one of four "witnesses" testifying on Tuesday to the IPCC review, which as regular readers will know is conducted under the auspices of the InterAcademy Council.

(This is the review's second public session, following the opening in Amsterdam last month.)

Joining Dr Watson on the witness stand will be:

All four have inside knowledge of the IPCC; and it seems reasonable, on the basis of what they've said previously in public, to assume that none will unequivocally endorse everything about the organisation.

Bob Watson and Chris Field, for example, had words to say in the UK's Sunday Times some weeks ago about possible errors in the IPCC's 2007 assessment.

John Christy described on this website several years ago what he saw as the politicisation of the panel's scientific pronouncements, and has more recently espoused the notions of removing the panel from the UN system and transforming its publications into some sort of wiki operation, with the current state of knowledge or ignorance being constantly discussed and updated.

As noted here previously, the review is also seeking submissions from anyone who cares to write in; and although I don't have an exact number for those submissions, I'm told that the flow has been quite impressive.

Climate sculpture(Both Roger Pielkes - senior and junior - have posted some comments.)

Whatever emerges from this review in October should, in principle, strengthen the IPCC and increase the credibility of its reports.

But while governments are addressing this issue, they might like to debate another: conclusions that the IPCC produces, or that the IPBES will produce, are in a practical sense useless unless they result in political decisions commensurate with those conclusions.

After all, one can only assume that governments want to set up such institutions if they intend to be guided by their analyses - otherwise (to put it crudely), they're establishing a mechanism that can tell them how far they are up the creek without ever intending to paddle out.

In that light, it was salutary once again to find the UN climate convention negotiations last week still riven through with ideological and procedural wrangling that threatens to prevent any meaningful progress in the foreseeable future.

Back at the Nairobi summit in 2006, the talk was all of having a new international legal instrument tied up by 2009, so companies and investors could survey the lower-carbon field on which they would be playing after the current Kyoto Protocol targets expire in 2012, and make sensible decisions.

That was back when a genuinely global carbon market, acting on a meaningful carbon price set by tough emission caps, seemed something that might actually happen.

Now, a rather different question is being asked: will anything at all be in place by 2012, other than the nationally determined and in all meaningful senses voluntary targets inscribed on the Copenhagen Accord?

One wonders whether at the IPBES meeting in South Korea last week, a parallel question materialised: once we've told governments how bad the biodiversity situation is, what's the basis for believing they'll do anything about it?


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