In the last week of February, the UN’s Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the intergovernmental body which assesses the state of biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides to society, is holding its fourth plenary.
There are some important decisions to be made.
Just like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPBES aims to develop scenarios, or coherent stories about the future, as a mechanism to coordinate diverse scientific activities and link science better to policy.
However, IPBES currently lacks a long-term scenario strategy for doing this.
Engage closer with indigenous communities
In an open access paper recently published in Sustainability Science, centre researcher Garry Peterson with colleagues urge IPBES to develop a long term approach to thinking about scenarios that builds upon previous scenario exercises while capturing what is unique and biodiversity and ecosystem services.
The authors use their experience with other global and local scenario processes to present and compare three alternative scenario development strategies that IPBES could use.
They also propose concrete steps to ensure the scenario development process is policy relevant and scientifically sound.
"The impacts of ecological change are strongly shaped by local culture, institutions and wealth. A top-down approach cannot capture this local diversity"
Garry Peterson, co-author
Three scenario options
In the paper, the authors explain how IPBES scenarios need to build on previous climate scenarios, while recognizing that biodiversity and ecosystem services are different from climate.
Biodiversity and ecosystem services are strongly shaped by local geography, history, and society, a situation that is very different from climate change which is fundamentally shaped by globally mixed greenhouse gases.
While it makes no difference for the climate if greenhouse gases are emitted in Sweden or Brazil, the impacts of forest clearing are very different.
The authors identify three scenario approaches each of which have particular strengths and weaknesses.
The first option is for IPBES to use the most recent set of global scenarios for climate research and extend them for biodiversity and ecosystem services.
However, this is a substantial undertaking that is likely to oversimplify local dynamics.
The second option is to develop entirely new global scenarios. This way IPBES can better focus on how humans both benefit from and reshape biodiversity and Earth’s ecosystem services. Although this would address the needs of IPBES, it would also be costly and extremely time consuming as new, multi-scale models and datasets would have to be developed.
The third option is for IPBES to develop a diverse set of locally based scenarios that are linked to existing global scenarios. This would be the best option, according to Garry Peterson.
"It is easier to move from local to global rather than vice versa. This was one of the findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s scenarios. Furthermore, the impacts of ecological change are strongly shaped by local culture, institutions and wealth. A top-down approach cannot capture this local diversity," Peterson explains.
Furthermore, he believes a more bottom-up approach can build on many local scenarios, stakeholder networks and research capacities that are already in place.
Steps to overcoming difficulties
For option three to work, Peterson and his colleagues propose specific steps forward. The most important is that IPBES must involve stakeholders, including indigenous communities and local peoples in the scenario definition and creation.
The IPBES Stakeholder Engagement Forum, the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and similar networks provide mechanisms ready to support such engagement.
The authors argue that working with diverse local stakeholders will be easier if the process is not operated within the UN system. Peterson argues that IPBES should support and endorse the process but let it run relatively independently.
"This makes it easier to enable effective engagement with issues that are politically contested," he argues.
Peterson and his colleagues believe that there is a window of opportunity for IPBES to develop a well-functioning, long-term strategy for its scenario work.
"We strongly urge IPBES to adopt a participatory, multi-scale scenario approach that captures the diversity of local social-ecological dynamics and builds understanding of interactions between global and local processes," the authors conclude.
Marcel T. J. Kok, M.T.J., Kok, K., Peterson, G., Hill, R., Agard, J., Carpenter, S. 2016.Biodiversity and ecosystem services require IPBES to take novel approach to scenarios. Sustainability Science, DOI 10.1007/s11625-016-0354-8.
Garry Peterson is Professor in Environmental Sciences with key focus on resilience in social-ecological systems. Peterson's research addresses this problem by working to improve people's ability to ensure a reliable supply of the ecosystem services that support human well-being. He uses complex systems theory, spatial analysis, and the synthesis of social and ecological data, to develop theory and practical understanding that people can use to better manage the ecosystems they live within.