Why 2018 is a big year for global environmental assessments

From oceans to pollination to our continued struggle against our carbon addicted societies, have you ever wondered what drives the appearance of these headlines in our news feeds? As the International Panel on Climate Change prepares to mark its 30th anniversary a central achievement has been to put climate change high on the public agenda. But how many know what the IPCC is and what it does? The IPCC is just one of the so-called global environmental assessments that bring together the best scientific knowledge for a policy audience via the collective efforts of thousands of volunteer scientists and the world’s governments. As 2018 rolls around we look at why it will be a big year for these global environmental assessments.

Photo by IISD/ENB Leila Mead
Victoria Yates and Denise Young

Each victory won on the political stage for the environment comes on the back of the scientists, researchers, and acronym-heavy organisations that produce multi-year, multi-national reports feeding back on the health of our planet.

Next year, perhaps the most famous iteration, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will issue its much anticipated Special Report on 1.5C. If at any point last year you felt yourself unexpectedly concerned for the fate of bees, you can thank the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) whose headline churning report on pollinators will be followed in 2018 by a set of major new regional assessments. But in a climate of funding shortfalls, stakeholder engagement, and a troubled geo-political context have these mammoth global environmental assessments reached a turning point?

This is the first of a series that looks at where these processes are at today, and where they are headed, with a focus on the major launches planned in 2018.

For this first article we spoke with Bob Watson, Bob Scholes, and Martin Kowarsch.

Bob Watson is currently the Chair of IPBES, and throughout his career he has worked at the intersection of policy and environmental science.

Bob Scholes was an author of the IPCC  3rd, 4th and 5th assessments and is currently co-Chair of the IPBES assessment of Land Degradation.

Martin Kowarsch is head of the working group Scientific Assessments, Ethics, and Public Policy (SEP) at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) in Berlin.

Can you say a few words about global environmental assessments and what we have learned in the last 10 years?

Bob Watson: They are absolutely essential to influence the science policy interface at national, regional and global levels. They are particularly crucial at regional and global levels.

It’s crucial that they have a credible, transparent set of information that is up to date, that says what we know, what we don’t know, what is the level of our confidence in our findings. So when policy is made at the regional level, everyone is using the same knowledge base. Without these, different governments would use different sets of literature. It would be impossible to see what is the knowledge base that underpins the decisions. They should talk to governments, but also to other stakeholders.

The success of the ozone assessments led to the policy decision under the Montreal protocol. I’d argue we haven’t had the same success in climate change, because of one particular government at the moment, but nonetheless, without the IPCC, we would not be even close to a set of decisions on climate change.

Bob Scholes: Assessments are advisable for problems that have a particular set of characteristics: high technical complexity, societally important and contentious. If you try to use a simpler process for problems with those characteristics, it is likely to blow up in your face. The success factors for the assessment are saliency, legitimacy and credibility. Saliency means that you answer the right questions, and that the questions are posed in the way that the receiving audience would pose it – not as scientists would. It’s up to the scientists to understand what people want from these assessments.

On legitimacy: do you have a receiving environment? Make sure that you are not just doing an assessment and chucking it over the wall – that doesn’t work. It requires a negotiating process.

Credibility refers to who makes the assessments – do they have qualifications and track record on the specific topic, do you have a spread of perspectives within disciplines, are the authors well-distributed in terms of geography, gender distribution and other aspects of diversity.

The key thing here is not that you’re trying to find the single “right” answer, but the distribution of well-founded answers, in order to provide the decision maker with the full set of arguments.

Martin Kowarsch: A lot has happened in 10 years. At the start of IPBES, the IPCC was seen as a model, but the IPBES took another route. They focused much more on inclusivity, stakeholder engagement, well designed processes, public participation and so forth. The inclusion of local and indigenous knowledge is very valuable.

The IPBES has also inspired other processes, including the IPCC, to consider such ideas – so we have seen mutual learning processes between the global assessments.

Coming from the demand side, we have observed for IPCC and GEO assessments, there is a greater demand for solutions options, particularly for policy solutions. With the focus on policy options, tensions become more obvious across the different and divergent stakeholder perspectives, and this makes it more important to explicitly treat divergent viewpoints and values. Increasingly, we need more from the social sciences to understand the drivers behind problems, but also to understand the social and political ramifications of policies.

Despite this more explicit focus on solutions, the social science community is not well organized to deliver. Take the IPCC: it’s very strong in Working Group 1 to synthesize knowledge on climate change, but in terms of socio-economic impacts of climate change and solution options, knowledge aggregation is still quite weak. Apart from the Integrated Assessment Modelling community – they are well organized to integrate different disciplines and to explain variation of results through meta-analyses.

I’ll give you an example – the European Emission Trading Scheme – it’s one of the most interesting climate policy experiments in the world, yet the IPCC has little to say on its evaluation.

General Assembly Seventy-first session High-level SDG Action Event on Innovation and Connectivity
General Assembly Seventy-first session High-level SDG Action Event on Innovation and Connectivity

How do these assessments inform the major international policy processes & frameworks – such as the Paris Agreement, the SDGs, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, the New Urban Agenda and so on?

Bob Watson: Both IPCC and IPBES work relatively well. In IPCC, they were extremely closely linked with the SBSTA and COP processes.

With the pollination assessment, after plenary approval, it was immediately turned it into a decision document for the SBSTA at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), then went to the COP at Cancun where a key work programme was developed based on the assessment.

All the individual governments approve the IPBES documents, so governments know what the results are. They are part of the peer review and approval process. Then, through the CBD process for IPBES, we hope it will be the same for the regional assessments and land degradation assessments. The land degradation assessment, for example, will feed into the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

The weakness here is that we want to influence a whole range of departments and ministries – the environment, water, finance, agriculture and so on. But we tend to be confined to the Foreign Office and the environmental departments. To what degree to agricultural, finance and water ministries see our reports? We need to think through this part even more. One of our co-sponsors is the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – so we need to work with them to make sure that it gets out to Agriculture ministries.

Martin Kowarsch: Since 1977, there have been roughly 140 global environmental assessments, most of them initiated in the last 10 years. This reflects increasing demand. Policy makers are particularly interested in solution-oriented assessments.

Despite this demand, they don’t have high expectations. It’s up to the scientific community to show that they have something to say on solutions, not just the problems. We think it’s possible, but many reforms are needed, notably in the social sciences.

Assessments are used by different countries in different ways. In less developed countries, they are used for agenda setting; in OECD countries they are important for the expert community, for international processes such as the UNFCCC. They have a big impact on contributing to public discourse, learning processes, and also more broadly on the SDG debate.




UN Photo/Amanda Voisard
UN Photo/Amanda Voisard

What about the SDGs?

Bob Watson: On all our regional assessments we’re asking the question ‘how important is biodiversity and ecosystems and their services to the 17 SDGs?’ For food and water, very important. For education, less important.

We are doing good analysis. What we’re suggesting for the second work programme is that there are 3 large scale policy frameworks – SDGs, Aichi Targets, and the Paris Agreement.

Bob Scholes: The SDGs are retrofitting an assessment-like process post facto. To date it has been a UN approach, almost a post truth approach – everyone provides their 2 cents worth and there is no filtering.

The way they have set it up makes it difficult to create an evaluative process. There are 250 indicators which never went through a sifting process, and many of them are nakedly self-interested.

The SDGs cover almost everything – so having an assessment process around that is really quite cumbersome. You might have to do assessments around each of the goals. The assessment process takes a minimum of 3 years because of the repeated review loops, which legally take a certain minimum time. In practice most big assessments take 5 years, from planning to completion. If they wanted to have an assessment with SDGs they would have to press the go button in 2025.

Martin Kowarsch: The SDGs are not a policy plan, but rather a broad set of ambitions, and there’s not much detail on how to get there. In Europe, I have observed that in both the scientific and political debate the SDGs have become an increasingly important framework – more and more actors are referring to it, and it will influence the debate on sustainable development a lot. This doesn’t mean that they are effectively implemented.

How could assessments be organized to provide the knowledge needed to implement the SDGs? I’m not sure whether a super assessment is possible, or even desirable. It’s so complex that it might be better to rely on existing assessment processes, and try to foster better links among these processes. In the long-run, if these assessments want to survive, they need to be more open to the sustainable development discourse, to incorporating trade-offs and co-benefits into their perspective.

In 2019 the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) will organise an expert workshop on integrating ethics into large-scale assessments. What value do you see ethical considerations adding to the global assessment process? And can you talk us through the practical application of philosophical ethics into the climate policy process?

Martin Kowarsch: Starting with our assumptions, firstly, many policy disputes have a value dimension. Secondly, it’s impossible for the scientific assessments to completely stay away from disputed value issues because of the fact-value entanglement. You can’t just present the facts and let politics make decisions about value-laden issues.

So what to do, if you don’t want to become an issue advocate? One option is to identify a value consensus, and then present scientific assessments based on these widely agreed values. It’s a nice idea, but almost impossible because you always have some disputed value judgements.

There are a couple of different mechanisms within assessment processes for how to deal with divergent value viewpoints. You could bring together a few decision makers and lead authors and discuss the things and try to come up with a more balanced assessment.

This could work for smaller or medium-scale conflicts, but if it’s about more fundamental and more far-reaching divergent viewpoints then you might have to scientifically map- in close collaboration with the diverse stakeholders – alternative policy pathways and their various practical implications. This means direct effects, co-benefits and unwanted side effects, from various perspectives including different value perspectives. All groups should be given the chance to make explicit the implications of policy options from their point of view. That way, you end up with a big map of alternative pathways. The main idea is that transforming ideological conflicts into a discussion about possible future worlds and their practical ramifications is more constructive than endless debate about abstract values and principles.

At the very least, this would help clarify what the conflicts are actually about and facilitate compromise, because it’s easier to compromise on a particular policy pathway than on underlying values. This takes a lot of time, but in our view it’s the only way to deal with populism and heated policy conflicts such as those we see in the US.

For our conference in 2019, we will bring together philosophers, assessment practitioners, policy makers, people from the Integrated Assessment Modelling (IAM) community, and ask them to provide inputs to ongoing assessment processes, in particular the IPBES because they have an explicit interest in the treatment of ethical issues and value conflicts at the science-policy-society interface.


Street art by Shepard Fairey in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. Photo: redhope/CC BY-NC 2.0
Street art by Shepard Fairey in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. Photo: redhope/CC BY-NC 2.0

What’s next for these big assessments? Will we soon be able to rely on artificial intelligence to shorten the time lags between production of knowledge and synthesis?

Martin Kowarsch:  In terms of AI in the broader sense, I do see a lot of potential for  big literature methods for assessment-making. But I’m not sure whether the most important thing is to come up with shorter time lines. It’s obvious that more timely assessments would be nice. However, one should remember that the strength of existing large-scale assessments is precisely the time invested there to allow for learning processes. Learning happens between scientists and decision makers, but also among scientists.

We interviewed roughly 100 leading assessment authors and decision makers – one of the major outcomes is that they learned so much. Understanding each other over time is important because these things are complex, and it’s value-laden, so that time is needed.

There is a role for much quicker reports, but I wouldn’t necessarily try to get rid of these longer term processes. What can be done, however, is to narrow down the scope and focus on specific things. Why not, for example, a special IPCC report on emissions trading schemes.

On the role of artificial intelligence to deal with big literature, there are two points. First is that by the end of the IPCC’s AR6, there will be more than 300,000 new scientific publications on climate change. There is no single human being who can read at least a significant part of this literature. Big literature methods are needed, like systematic reviews and bibliometric tools, to facilitate the comprehensive assessment of the literature that the IPCC is promising decision makers.

The second thing is that, independently of the absolute number of publications, you have a huge variety of results. On the European Emissions Trading Scheme, for example, the existing studies come to very different conclusions. To be policy relevant we need to explain to decision makers why these studies differ, and what the underlying assumptions are hat played a key role. So here you would need meta-analysis to explain the variation.

I am broadly optimistic about the future of global environmental assessments, but I do see quite a lot of need for reform. One big problem is that many social scientists are unwilling to focus on policy issues. They’re interested in politics or in broader social theories, and hardly anyone except for economists are delivering the kind of research we need on the critical analysis of policy options.


Following the publication of this Q & A, Ruben Zondervan, Executive Director of the Earth System Governance Project based at Lund University, wrote an article entitled “In defense of the Social Sciences in Global Environmental Assessments” which we would like to highlight as part of an important debate on the global environmental assessments. Below are the comments which the interviewees have provided as a direct response to this article.

Martin Kowarsch: Zondervan’s interesting, but partly misleading comment requires the clarification of a few misunderstandings of the interview statements. My main criticism of the organization of the social sciences concerning climate change and sustainability policies is the lack of qualitative and quantitative meta-studies (i.e., meta-analysis, systematic reviews, etc.). Meta-studies would help us to get a more objective, balanced view of the existing, partly exploding social science literatures, and especially to better understand variation of social science findings regarding particular policy options. In this sense, I fully agree with Zondervan that we have to “better connect the scientific findings on solutions to the policy processes.” The underlying papers – building on a collaborative, multi-year research project – help clarify my points. I recommend reading the Special Issue of Environmental Science & Policy (Vol. 77, 2017) on solution-oriented GEAs (2017), in particular the Minx et al. paper on “Learning about climate change solutions in the IPCC and beyond”.

More precisely, the diversity of social science disciplines and approaches ideally would contribute to the better understanding of the various ramifications of policy alternatives. This helps broaden the economic frameworks underlying Integrated Assessment Modelling (IAM) results. While many studies of this particular kind do exist, many gaps in knowledge remain, also in terms of knowledge synthesis. These (meta-)studies, including the underlying problem framing, must be carefully accompanied by the – undoubtedly necessary, and in the IPCC still largely invisible – critical social-science research, revealing potential one-sidedness and “politics of knowledge”. The proposed approach here is thus the opposite of the insinuated aim “to depoliticize the social sciences and reduce the diversity in terms of paradigms, ontological and epistemological approaches, and world perspectives into the simple language of integrated assessment models”. No “coherence of ideas” or reduction of diversity is envisaged by this synthesis effort, but rather an open, social science-informed learning process about alternative policy pathways from different perspectives. The recent IPCC WG III assessment, for instance, explicitly sought to explore the various implications of policy alternatives, which allows for – value-laden – evaluation of policy effects and side effects without prescribing a particular policy (see WG III Preface and PEM article). This example shows that the IPCC’s neutrality claim does not hinder the social sciences from meaningfully contributing, although indeed several governments still do not want the IPCC to seriously assess policies.

While agreeing that the – extremely complex and heterogeneous – IPCC and its assessment framings, structure, processes, and overly quantitative culture require reform as well, the black & white criticism of the IPCC including the “structural disadvantages” for social sciences is all too easy. Rather, a better supply of synthetic social-science research on policy options is necessary to overcome the predominance of aggregated, numerical IAM results and natural sciences in the IPCC assessments. Maybe, however, there is also disagreement on a much deeper, unfortunately often implicit level. Quite a few social scientists are deeply convinced that the social sciences should not (for different, not convincing reasons) engage in a constructive, joint policy assessment along the lines above, but rather remain exclusively “critical”. Given the policy challenges, this is a tragedy.

Bob Watson: Contrary to the opinion of Ruben Zondervan, 2018 is a big year for global environmental assessments.  The IPCC and IPBES reports are not minor assessments, but will provide credible scientific evidence to shape the science-policy debate in the UNFCCC, CBD (and other biodiversity-related conventions) and UNCCD. These assessments are co-designed by the scientific community and other users, in particular governments, to ensure they are policy-relevant and address the needs of the user communities.

The IPCC 1.5 degree assessment will play a major role in the negotiations of the evolution of the pledges under the Paris climate agreement as it will address the different mitigation pathways that are required to limit human-induced climate change to no more than 2 degrees and 1.5 degrees Celsius, relative to the pre-industrial climate. It will assess the technological, sociological and economic implications of different pathways, and will also quantify the different levels of socio-economic, human health and ecological impacts.

The IPBES four regional assessments will assess the current and projected state of biodiversity and ecosystems, the implications for human well- being, and policies to promote the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.  They will also address key policy issues such as the degree to which regions and sub-regions are on course to achieve the twenty Aichi targets and the degree to which changes in biodiversity and ecosystem services affect the ability of regions and sub-regions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The land degradation and restoration assessment will provide invaluable information to the UNCCD on the degree of land degradation in various parts of the world, the underlying causes, and the policy options to halt degradation and restoration.  These assessments, along with the IPBES pollinators, pollination and food production assessment, provide a critical input to the global assessment to be reviewed and approved by the Plenary in May 2019. Together, these IPBES assessments will provide much of the scientific basis for the next CBD Global Biodiversity Outlook Report.



The IPCC was established in 1988, and is a massive undertaking which collects and summarises advice from thousands of volunteer scientists.

Most recently, the IPCC published the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) in 2014. More than 830 lead authors and over 1000 contributors were involved in the creation of the report which assessed the socioeconomic impacts of climate change and challenges for sustainable development.

In 2018, the IPCC will deliver a special report on the impacts of global warming at or beyond 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

The IPBES is an independent, intergovernmental body that was established in 2012 by member states to strengthen the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services. Initially setup to mirror the success of the IPCC, the IPBES has a broader remit beyond documenting biodiversity trends. In addition to that work, the IPBES identifies practical policy tools and helps build stakeholder capacity to use these solutions.

IPBES has recruited more than 1300 experts to assist in its work, including two assessments released in 2016 – Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production, and the Methodological Assessment Report on Scenario and Models of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

In 2018, the IPBES will deliver five new assessments- the four regional assessments (Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe) on biodiversity and ecosystem services and one assessment on land degradation and restoration. Read more about the upcoming assessments with the IPBES primers.


Bob Watson is currently the Chair of IPBES, a position he has held since 2016. Throughout his career he has worked at the intersection of policy and environmental science, including serving as the Chair of the IPCC from 1997 to 2002 and as Board co-chair for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) from 2000 to 2005.

Bob Scholes is currently a Professor of Systems Energy at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He was an author of the IPCC  3rd, 4th and 5th assessments and was co-chair of the Conditions Working Group of the MEA. He is currently co-Chair of the IPBES assessment of Land Degradation. Scholes has been a member of the steering committee for several ICSU research programmes.

Martin Kowarsch is head of the working group Scientific Assessments, Ethics, and Public Policy (SEP) at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) in Berlin. From 2013-16 he coordinated a joint research project with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) entitled ‘The Future of Global Environmental Assessment Making.” Kowarsch has provided reviews and advice to the UNEP GEO-6 assessment and the EU science-advice mechanism.

A Roadmap for Global Environmental Assessments - Nature, May 2017:
Scientific Assessments: Matching the process to the problem - ABC Journal, March 2017:
Sounding the Alarm on Biodiversity Loss - Project Syndicate, November 2017: