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IPBES: a frog in a well?

November 17, 2011

A yellow frog (Hyla punctata) native to the Colombian Amazon, one of the tropical areas where amphibians are at risk from climate change and deforestation: Image:

BioFresh partner Hendrik Segers follows his previous piece for the blog with an update on the progress of the formation of IPBES, a global, intergovernmental agreement designed to support biodiversity conservation.

From 3 to 7 October 2011 government representatives, scientists, policy makers and NGOs convened at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, in a “first session of a plenary meeting to determine modalities and institutional arrangements for an Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)”. This meeting is the most recent in an on-going process that should finally lead towards the establishment of an IPBES, which should become for the biodiversity debate what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) signifies for the climate debate. In a nutshell, the IPBES process emanates from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) that, from 2001 to 2005, successfully prepared an assessment of the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being, involving the work of more than 1,360 experts worldwide.

The process was formally initiated at the “Biodiversity, Science and Governance” conference (Paris, January 2005), by the establishment of an International Mechanism of Scientific Expertise on Biodiversity (IMoSEB). The latter mechanism lead to three subsequent “ad-hoc Intergovernmental and Multi Stakeholder Meeting on an IPBES” (2008 – 2010), at the end of which governments finally adopted the Busan Outcome . This agreement included decisions that a scientifically independent IPBES should be established, in collaboration with existing initiatives on biodiversity and ecosystem services. It was then also agreed to invite the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to consider the conclusions of the meeting and take appropriate action for establishing an IPBES. The present meeting, convened by the United Nations Environmental Programme, is the most recent development in the process.

The October 2011 meeting was then intended to discuss and, if possible, decide on the institutional arrangements and similar issues necessary to establish a structure that would be capable of tackling the biodiversity and ecosystem services-related science needs of governments in an efficient and effective way. On the agenda of the meeting were: legal issues; functions, operating principles and work programme of the platform and of its bodies; rules of procedure, and process and criteria for selecting the host institution or institutions and the physical location of the platform’s secretariat. These issues are political rather than scientific; hence, the most active participants at this meeting were government representatives, read diplomats. Scientists, representatives of NGOs and of United Nations bodies, and even many policy persons who attended the meeting looked upon the negotiations with interest, recognizing that they had little to contribute to the proceedings.

Lehmann's poison frog (Dendrobates lehmanni), a toxic amphibian native to the Colombian Amazon, similarly at risk from the potential impacts of climate change. Image: Wikipedia

Without delving into detail*, I can report that agreements were reached on functions and operating principles of the platform, and on a process and criteria for selecting the host institution(s) and the physical location of the platform’s secretariat.  In conjunction with this, that it is not yet decided whether IPBES will have a single, central secretariat or a number of distributed thematic or regional secretariats. The discussion on the legal status and establishment of the platform, on which bodies the platform should have, and on membership of the plenary will continue during the second session of the plenary. Governments will exchange views on the rules of procedure and on the work programme of the platform during the period between the two sessions of plenary.

In hindsight, the results of this full week of negotiations may not seem all too impressive. There is no consensus on many issues and, especially, a number of issues that had previously been adopted in the Busan outcome were re-opened for discussion. On the other hand, this meeting was absolutely necessary to build the confidence that will be needed to reach solid agreements amongst governments during the second session of plenary. This may be a frustrating “two steps forward, one step back” progress for the scientists and policy persons awaiting an effective and functioning IPBES, but, if IPBES is to be successful as a science – policy interface, then both the scientific as well as the political processes involved will have to receive due attention. And, at this stage, the focus necessarily is on politics.

* The official report of the meeting can be downloaded from, detailed day-to-day reports by the International Institute for Sustainable Development are at

Dr Hendrik Segers
(Deputy Head of Belgian delegation at the 1st session of IPBES plenary)
Belgian Biodiversity Platform
Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences
Vautierstaat 29
B-1000 Brussels

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