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  • UNEP gets mixed reaction to environment panel idea

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Plans for an international scientific panel to assess changes in the global environment have failed to win consensus within the United Nations system.

A split has emerged between the European Union and a number of developing countries over a United Nations proposal to create a new intergovernmental panel of scientists to assess the extent of global environmental change, operating in a manner similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The idea for such a panel had been put to governments by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in a major consultation exercise. In this, countries were asked for their ideas on how UNEP could improve its monitoring and assessment of environmental change.

But in his report to a meeting of the world's environment ministers that ended in Jeju, South Korea, on Wednesday (31 March), UNEP executive director Klaus Toepfer revealed that there had been sharp differences of opinion on the idea for a new intergovernmental panel.

Out of 59 governments that had responded to the consultation, 26 were in favour, six said that a new panel could be "useful", and 19 were opposed. 

The panel's strongest supporters include the European Union. Its critics include the United States, Japan, Russia and many developing countries, including Argentina, Brazil, China and India.

Most countries said they favoured strengthening UNEP's existing science initiatives. These include the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, United Kingdom, as well as the agency's periodic survey of the environment, known as the Global Environment Outlook.

They also suggested that UNEP should strengthen its links with other scientific institutions in different countries, as well as with the many other UN agencies involved in environmental protection.

But there was less unanimity about the idea of a new panel. UNEP suggests that it should include natural and social scientists from different environment-related disciplines, and would have strong representation from developing countries. Like the IPCC, its members would be nominated by governments, who would put their name to its research reports.

Supporters of the proposal argue that scientists are increasingly discovering that environmental issues — such as climate change and biodiversity — are closely linked. A better understanding of global environmental change therefore needs researchers from different disciplines to formally review each other's work, and eventually set joint priorities and carry out research together.

They also believe that an intergovernmental panel would carry more weight with governments, encouraging them to take stronger political action to protect the environment.

Many of the critics, however, say that although the idea of a new panel is not in itself misguided, it faces many practical obstacles, including deciding which scientific disciplines should be represented.

The critics also foresee potential conflicts with existing intergovernmental panels such as the IPCC and the science panel attached to the Global Environment Facility. Most countries also agreed that the operation of the new panel would be very difficult to fund.

The developing countries that opposed the panel said that UNEP should focus its attention more on helping them to improve their indigenous scientific capacity, and to secure unrestricted access to environmental data.

"We completely understand the need for more precise scientific information," says one official from the Indian government. "But countries do not want yet another new body."

He argues that, by helping to establish separate UN conventions on climate change and biodiversity, UNEP is responsible for environmental issues being addressed in a piecemeal fashion. "This is not how it should be," he says. "So either we completely change UNEP, or we learn to live with what we have."

The United States was more blunt in its response. It completely rejected the need for any new panel, arguing that its findings would be "meaningless", and that the panel would lead to "the politicisation of science".

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