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date: 17 December 2017

History of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.

The recent implementation of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is a major cornerstone of the transformation of international environmental governance in the early 21st century. Often presented as “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for biodiversity,” the IPBES aims to produce regular expert assessments of the state and evolution of biodiversity and ecosystems at the local, regional, and global levels. Its creation was promoted in the 1990s by biodiversity scientists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), that increasingly came to view the failure of achieving effective conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems as the consequence of the gap between science and policy rather than lack of knowledge. Articulating and building new proximities between nature conservation and social development was thus viewed from the beginning as critical to creating the new platform. The IPBES creation process was also rooted in the idea that biodiversity conservation required the implementation of a science-policy interface in which governments would be truly involved, in a similar way as in the IPCC. From 2008 onward, the project was called IPBES, a name that referred to the notion of ecosystem services, defined and popularized by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment as the services that ecosystems render to people. Its creation was entrusted to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The relevance, organization, and missions of the new institution were strongly discussed and debated in a series of multistakeholder meetings convened by the UNEP from 2008 up to the official creation of the IPBES in 2012. Social science scholarship highlighted two main tensions in the genesis and further implementation of the IPBES. The first opposed various views of what counts as legitimate knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystems: while promoters of a “purified science” standard aimed to achieve a science-based institution drawing on peer-reviewed expert opinions (following the model of academic science), promoters of a more open and inclusive definition of biodiversity knowledge promoted a broader recognition of the relevance of types of knowledge beyond academia, such as that of “traditional ecological knowledge.” The second tension concerned two contrasted conceptions of nature and human/nature relations, opposing the ecosystem services framework promoted by Western countries and inspired by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Mother Earth notion promoted by a number of South-American countries. While some of the research scrutinizing how the IPBES addressed these tensions insisted on the supremacy of Western utilitarian approaches to nature embodied in the notion of ecosystem services, other social scientists emphasized that the IPBES endeavored to encompass the various approaches to nature and to handle them through the experimentation of new inclusive organizations and notions. They also emphasized that bridging science and policy is a collective, ongoing, and fragile achievement that requires diplomatic skills of the institutional leaders so that they can handle the shifting tensions between the participants and build a truly inclusive platform. The IPBES may thus be considered a new, emergent institutional model for organizing science/policy interfaces in the early 21st century, focusing on the production of assessments both scientifically robust and socially inclusive in order to address the unprecedented threats to biodiversity and ecosystems in a time of global change.