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France's president Jacques Chirac has endorsed the creation of an international expert panel of biodiversity scientists, which would operate on the same lines as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Chirac said the IPCC had helped bring about a scientific consensus on human-induced global warming. "We need a similar type of mechanism for biodiversity," he told an international biodiversity conference at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in Paris this week (24 January).

But the proposal, which is expected to be officially released later this week, has already stirred up controversy in the world of conservation science. Many researchers claim that the issues underlying climate change and biodiversity have important differences, and that the strategy used to tackle the former is not necessarily appropriate for the latter.

France has already promised to set up a task force to prepare a feasibility study for the new panel by the end of the year. According to Chirac, it will also introduce its plan to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity at the next available opportunity.

"Species are disappearing up to 1,000-times faster [than the background extinction rate]," Chirac said in his address to the UNESCO meeting. "We know enough about the decline in biodiversity to start taking steps to reverse it. But we are still not aware of all its potential consequences and repercussions for the human species."

The reaction to Chirac's speech from conference delegates, however, was mostly critical. "I'm sorry, but I think this idea is a mistake," said Robert Watson, chief scientist at the World Bank and former chair of the IPCC. Similar scepticism was voiced by a senior UN biodiversity convention official.

Several scientific initiatives in biodiversity are already underway, and another scientific assessment could cause "assessment fatigue", says Thomas Rosswall, executive director of the International Council for Science (ICSU).

The idea for an IPCC-style panel for biodiversity is not new. So far, however, it has failed to attract significant support from scientists and government officials in both developed and developing countries.

Developed countries on the whole think such a panel will be costly, and do not want to have to pay for it. Many member states of the UN biodiversity convention point out that the convention already has its own in-house scientific advisory body.

Developing countries are also concerned that setting up a scientific panel will detract from what they consider to be more urgent priorities, such as help with training scientists from developing countries in taxonomy and bioinformatics, and developing legally-binding global rules on sharing benefits from biodiversity (see Developing nations want treaty on use of biodiversity).

But the proposal does have the support of Klaus Toepfer, head of the UN Environment Programme (see UNEP gets mixed reaction to environment panel idea). Britain has also been asked to support the plan when the chair of the group of eight most industrialised countries (G8) passes from France to Britain later this year.

Malaysia's prime minister Abdullah Badawi told the Paris conference science should be the guide for both actions and responses in protecting biodiversity. "However, as we have seen in the climate change negotiations, scientific facts cannot prevail when the political will is absent," he said.  

Harison Edmond Randriarimanana, agriculture minister of Madagascar, said that it was important for foreign scientists to share the results of their research with local people "if they want to get these people to think differently about conservation".

Scientific initiatives in biodiversity already underway include the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment (due to publish its final report on 30 March), the Red List of Threatened Species, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and the Biodiversity Hotspots database compiled by Conservation International.

Michel Loreau, a scientific advisor on biodiversity to the French government, said the government was aware of the concerns being expressed about a new initiative, and would try and incorporate many of them in its planning.

But he added that France would not drop the idea, and planned to make a formal announcement to this effect at the end of the week.

Rejecting the charge of 'assessment fatigue' Loreau said there remained many basic questions in biodiversity which none of the existing scientific assessments was trying to answer. For instance, there is no accurate count of species numbers – currently estimated at somewhere between five and 30 million.

Watson told SciDev.Net that if France was keen to launch an initiative, it might be more sensible to model the panel on the lines of the intergovernmental assessment of genetic modification in agriculture, which he currently chairs.

Although this has been set up by governments, it includes representatives of non-governmental organizations and industry on its main steering group, rather than claiming to be a primarily scientific body. "The IPCC was set up in 1988. The world has moved on since then," he said.

Read more about biodiversity in SciDev.Net's Biodiversity dossier.