Biodiversity requires global monitoring mechanism

The gap between research and policy should be filled Copyright: Flickr/Keepp

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With global diversity increasingly at risk, a mechanism like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is required, argues Michel Loreau.


Biodiversity has received increasing attention from scientists, governments and the public since the ‘Earth Summit’ at Rio de Janeiro and the establishment of the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992. There are local conservation successes to celebrate as a result, but global threats to biodiversity are still on the rise.

The CBD has failed to reverse this trend for several reasons, but here I focus on one that I believe could be relatively easily addressed.

Call for effective communication

The CBD and the other international agreements concerned with biodiversity lack a mechanism akin to the one used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide clear scientific assessment and advice to governments and the public.

To help rectify this, wide-ranging consultations are being held with a view to establishing an International Mechanism of Scientific Expertise on Biodiversity (IMoSEB). As co-chair of the international steering committee, I believe these consultations provide an opportunity to fill the gap between biodiversity science and policy, as well as creating a more effective institutional environment for tackling the biodiversity crisis.

Biodiversity is an irreplaceable natural heritage and the foundation of a variety of benefits that are crucial to human well-being and to sustainable development. But it is given insufficient weight in both private and public decisions. Raising awareness of biodiversity’s role in enabling the delivery of ecosystem goods and services and of its worth to human societies is key to developing economic and policy instruments for its conservation and sustainable use. Like the IPCC for climate change, an IMoSEB would be a powerful lever for achieving this objective.

Biodiversity is often perceived as a complex, somewhat elusive, concept that is difficult to measure, and which lends itself poorly to the definition of clear targets and measures. I believe targets and measures are feasible but that scientific knowledge and expertise have not been adequately mobilised to define them. Again, an IMoSEB would be a powerful lever for attaining this goal.

Some might argue that there is already a body in charge of mobilising scientific expertise on biodiversity within the CBD — the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA), which reports to the Conference of the Parties. But SBSTTA fails to fulfil the task convincingly, as even some within the organisation admit.

It is no coincidence that my co-chair, Alfred Oteng-Yeboah, is a former chair of SBSTTA, and that all but one of the past and present SBSTTA chairs support the IMoSEB initiative.

One reason that it is unable to fulfil its mission is simply that it has too many tasks. You cannot at the same time prepare the political decisions of the Conference of the Parties and provide an independent, objective assessment of existing scientific knowledge. An independent IMoSEB (within or outside the CBD) is necessary to implement the latter task.

Opening up the coldspots

Most biodiversity ‘hotspots’ are ‘coldspots’ for biodiversity scientists: the bulk of biodiversity is concentrated in tropical regions, whereas most biodiversity scientists (with some notable exceptions) are concentrated in developed countries. Solving the global biodiversity crisis will involve transfer of knowledge, which would be greatly assisted by an IMoSEB, as well as of technical know-how and money, among different regions of the world.

I do not view these transfers as being one-way. Many exciting scientific results have accumulated in Northern countries in recent years that could help developing countries implement a more sustainable form of development based on rational use of and respect for biological resources.

But the long-term conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity eventually hinge on the development of a new relationship between humankind and nature, for which no single country or scientific discipline holds the key.

In fact, developed countries could learn much from the experience of less developed countries in this respect.

Modern scientific ecology is rediscovering some of the traditional wisdom about the value of biodiversity for the productivity and stability of ecosystems. This wisdom is still evident in some agricultural practices in tropical regions and could inspire modern agriculture in developed countries.

Increasingly acute conflicts

Conflicts arising from the exploitation of the biological resources of land and sea will become increasingly acute in developing regions and take a different form from those in developed regions. The science of conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity will have to be developed in new ways to take into account the reality of the relationship between humans and their natural environment in developing regions.

Establishing an IMoSEB is a necessary if insufficient condition to resolve the biodiversity crisis. The regional consultations that are taking place to assess the needs, scope and possible modalities of an IMoSEB are key to its success. The International Steering Committee will meet in France at the end of this year to assess the consultations and make recommendations.

The international scientific community has broadly supported the IMoSEB initiative, and several countries have expressed a strong interest. I hope governments from all countries will see the benefits of such a mechanism and will call it into existence in whatever form is deemed to be most appropriate.

Read the article ‘Diversity without representation’ published by Loreau and colleagues on this topic in Nature 442, 245 (2006). For additional information, email [email protected] or consult http://www.imoseb.net.

Professor Michel Loreau holds the Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Ecology at McGill University and is co-chair of the international steering committee of IMoSEB.