The state of biodiversity in the regions: What to expect from the IPBES in 2018

In this second part of our series explaining these mega-processes, we look at the newcomer to the big global environmental assessments: the International Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Created in 2012, with 127 member states, it is the leading international body for assessing biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Victoria Yates and Denise Young

Following a strong 2016 that saw the launch of the IPBES global pollination assessment, there was controversy in Bonn, Germany, this past April when the IPBES met for their annual meeting. As the $8.2 million Norwegian grant that helped get them on their feet runs out, and with future donations uncertain, the IPBES approved deep and controversial funding cuts that included downsizing the budget by almost a third in 2018.

In the crunch, the IPBES was further forced to delay three major reports – on controlling invasive species, on the sustainable use of wild species, and examining how different cultures perceive and measure nature’s benefits.

As money and political will seem to dry up on global environmental assessments, have they reached a turning point? How to create a fit-for purpose and appropriately funded knowledge synthesis system in today’s digital world is the big question facing not just the IPBES, but also the IPCC and other major assessment processes.

For this article, we spoke to:

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.

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.

2018 will see the launch of 5 new assessments. Can you talk about these and explain who they are intended for, and how people will use them?

Bob Watson: We have four regional assessments: for the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe, and one assessment on land degradation and restoration.

They ask the following questions:

  • How important is biodiversity to human well being?
  • What are the trends in Nature’s contributions to people?
  • What are the underlying drivers for those changes?
  • How are they affecting biodiversity and Nature’s contributions to people
  • What are the plausible futures?
  • What’s the importance of biodiversity to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
  • What policies and activities are proving to be positive?
  • To what degree does payment for ecosystems services work?

We will be telling governments what the state of biodiversity and nature is in their sub-region. Is it changing for better or worse? What will plausibly happen in the future? What are the policies and actions we can get to have positive outcomes?

On land degradation, we’ll have an assessment that speaks to governments all over the world, and we’ll make sure that they are discussed in the relevant environmental conventions: the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, CITES, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and we will work with our U.N. collaborative partners: the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

There’s a key difference on these scales for climate change and biodiversity.

If you want to mitigate climate change, you need a global agreement to limit emissions, so you need a global assessment. So I’d argue for Working Group 1 of the IPCC, it’s good to do a global assessment.

When it comes to impacts, it gets more like biodiversity, and becomes more regional. How will climate change affect the regions? You need the regional projection. IPCC needs a mixture of a global and regional projection. For biodiversity, it’s all local, national and regional.

There are of course some trans-boundary issues, like the Amazonian forest, or a watershed like Lake Victoria, or the Mekong delta. For biodiversity, all actions are local to national to regional, therefore its much more logical to start at the regional level.

Bob Scholes: The four regional assessments are meant to be precursors to the global IPBES assessment which is due in about two years from now. This is an innovation compared with the IPCC; although they acknowledge that climate change impacts are regionally specific, they have always done a global process and tried to downscale it. This is taking it from the other end -building upwards from the regions to global- and it’s an experiment.

The land degradation assessment, which I co-chaired, is aimed at the countries of the world, the members of IPBES, which also includes major organizations. Our key audiences are not only the member countries themselves, but the major assessment bodies which have in turn their own member countries.

For example, land degradation has major implications for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, and part of our summary for policymakers is specifically directed at them. Most of these conventions have an internal process to take in evidence. In the UNFCCC and the CBD it’s called SBSTA.

IPBES will hold their 5th Plenary in Medellin, Colombia in 2018
Flickr/ David Alejandro Cabrera
Flickr/ David Alejandro Cabrera

We’ve seen from the examples of the IPCC and IPBES that the political will to fund these assessments is shrinking in today’s world. There is no obvious way to make up that shortfall. Should we continue to be hopeful, or focus on reform and re-design of these these processes in a more agile, fit-for-purpose way?

Bob Watson: There’s no real answer to that. The governments will not agree to a formal set of obligations in the way they fund the UN. They are both voluntary. We can’t have allocated contributions. What we need to do in IPBES is to diversify our funding. How can we involve foundations, pension funds and the private sector?

I don’t think it’s going to be easy to formalize the funding for these assessments. Which does make it much more difficult to plan, so we have to be pragmatic and realistic.

Bob Scholes: I would not make ‘agile’ the watch word. They should not be ponderous, but there is a necessary slowness here. You cut the multiple review loops short at your peril because it weakens the assessment. Not having full buy-in from all participants at the start also weakens your assessment.

It has to be a pull from the user community, not a push from the science community. Is there an existing acceptance framework? Is there a political framework asking for this? For example, the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) wasn’t able to get funding from governments so they had to shop around until they found a foundation to stump up the money.

How can we safeguard against conflicts of interest if the private sector will be increasing its engagement with these processes in the future?

Bob Watson: We have to reach out to the private sector to show that our work has relevance to them. We can accept money from the private sector, it goes into a blind trust fund. So they can’t control the process. Their money is subject to the same rules of procedure as government money. We have to show that we have real relevance to the private sector, to see if we can convince them to co-fund some of the activities.

Bob Scholes: Member states have a legitimate need to oversee the authenticity of the process. That’s why you have a clearly defined governance structure. Did you answer the questions we posed you? Did you do it according to budget? Did you spend the money in an auditable fashion? Did you appoint the right experts? Do you follow the right processes so that the funders are at arm’s length from the content?

But there’s a bigger constraint in my view. When the IPCC was proposed nearly three decades ago no-one in the political sphere took it seriously. Over the years it became powerful and led to far-reaching outcomes, such as the Paris Agreement. Politicians suddenly sat up. They saw that it demonstrated independence, that it was setting the agenda. They were very reluctant to agree to IPBES. They didn’t want more of these bodies which are outside their sphere of control.

From the science perspective, there’s a capacity issue. We are distracted by multiple priorities, we are quite fatigued. Most scientists recognize the importance of these science policy interfaces, they’re willing to put 20% of their time into these things. But if they are asked to give more time, people start saying “no”. We have to streamline these processes to ensure we can still convene the best scientists in the world – the paid model used by some UN reports relies on a small number of contracted individuals, and it leads to lower quality. So, reduce the load on the scientists, and broaden the spectrum of people doing assessments.

Every scientist in the world should be contributing 5-10% of their time into this kind of activity. People need to be engaged with this work when they are doing doctoral or post doc studies. That broadens your base.

What role has the IPBES played in public awareness of the urgency of biodiversity loss and mass extinction? Is this any different from the IPCC?

Bob Watson: There’s still a lot of work to be done to make sure that the public fully appreciates how important biodiversity is to human well being, and what the current state is – how we are losing our forests, coral reefs, and individual species – to get the public to understand the seriousness of the biodiversity issue. They don’t understand it as much as the climate change issue. This is why outreach and communications is so important. Another challenge is to show them that biodiversity and climate change are interrelated – they are fully related to each other and to the SDGs. The public tends to care about the following issues: food, water, human health, energy and livelihoods/jobs.

Bob Scholes: It’s the same role, but in an earlier stage of development. IPBES hasn’t had its first full, global assessment come out -the assessments to date have been on specific topics. It’s building on the MEA – which successfully introduced new concepts to the public, notably “ecosystem services”. This led to the IPBES, which hasn’t been around long enough to have the same impact in the public eye as the IPCC has had.

Bob (Watson), you’re planning to launch a pilot project of three web-based assessments at the 2018 IPBES Plenary in Medellin. Could you talk about those?

Bob Watson: We’d like to find out whether web-based assessments can help to complement and make the job of IPCC and IPBES easier. One of the problems with the way we work in these processes is that they are very time intensive. Experts attend 3 meetings at least, a week each, and they do a lot of inter-sessional work- it’s a huge time and cost commitment. Are there more efficient ways to do this?

So there are three pilots, the first, which I will coordinate, is on pollination.

What we’ll start with is this: imagine 23 open windows in the web-based system. Those 23 windows reflect the key findings for pollination that came from our report last year, for example, that pollinators are in decline. Then we ask the scientific community to, every time a new paper comes up that is relevant to that key finding, enter it into that finding window and answer the question ‘does the paper modify or challenge or change the confidence limit?’ On average there are 10 new papers per day that are relevant to the pollination assessment. Since that assessment there have been 6,000 new papers that are relevant in just 18 months.

We’ll have an overall editorial board of around 20 people made up of the co-chairs and coordinating lead authors of the pollination assessment, with geographical and disciplinary balance. That board will use this collected information to do an update every 12-18 months on what the state of knowledge is, which will then be sent out for peer review.

The second pilot will be on the carbon cycle, and a third one will be on energy.


Photo by IISD/ENB | Sean Wu
Photo by IISD/ENB | Sean Wu



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.

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: