History and Assessment of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
Summary and Keywords
The recent implementation of the IPBES is a major cornerstone in the transformation of the international environmental governance in the early 21st century. Often presented as “the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 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 NGOs who increasingly came to view the failure of achieving effective conservation of nature as the consequence of the gap between science and policy, rather than of a lack of knowledge. The new institution embodies an approach to nature and nature conservation that results from the progressive evolution of international environmental governance, marked by the notion of ecosystem services (i.e., the idea that nature provides benefits to people and that nature conservation and human development should be thought of as mutually constitutive). The IPBES creation was entrusted to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Social environmental studies accounted for the genesis and organization of the IPBES and paid special attention to the strong emphasis put by IPBES participants on principles of openness and inclusivity and on the need to consider scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge (e.g. traditional ecological knowledge) on an equal footing. Overall the IPBES can be considered an innovative platform characterized by organizations and practices that foster inclusiveness and openness both to academic science and indigenous knowledge as well as to diverse values and visions of nature and its relationship to society. However, the extent to which it succeeded in putting different biodiversity values and knowledge on an equal footing in practice has varied and remains diversely appreciated by the literature.
Keywords: Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), environmental governance, international institution, nature conservation, science-policy interface, expert assessment, inclusiveness, biodiversity knowledge
The recent implementation of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is a major cornerstone in the transformation of the international environmental governance in the early 21st century. Officially created in 2012, the IPBES is an international organization bringing together scientists, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and various environmental stakeholders with the aim to provide relevant and reliable knowledge to decision makers. Often compared to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is an international body providing regular scientific reports on the state and evolution of climate, the IPBES was created to take biodiversity knowledge into account more systematically in policymaking and governance processes and to help decision makers design better biodiversity governance both at the local and international levels. It includes representatives from 124 governments and more than 1,000 international experts.
The IPBES creation in 2012 builds on a long history of regulations and organizations aiming to tackle environmental degradation and species loss both at national and international levels. The new institution embodies an approach to nature and nature conservation that results from the progressive evolution of international environmental governance, marked by the idea that nature provides benefits to people and that conservation should first conserve biodiversity as the basis for healthy and productive ecosystems that render a range of vital “services” to human societies. This new approach distances itself from the notion that nature should be protected from the threats created by human activities and that special zones should be created in which human activities are forbidden. It results from two innovative sets of reflections and organizations in the field of nature conservation: the first set draws on the coining of the term “biodiversity” and the implementation of new policies to conserve biodiversity at the turn of the 1990s, including the first international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), implemented in 1992, which defined biodiversity as diversity at three distinct yet interrelated levels: genes, species, and ecosystems. The second set of reflections and organizations draws on the popularization (since the mid-2000s) of the notion of “ecosystem services,” which was defined as the services rendered by ecosystems to societies; these services emphasize that nature conservation, human development, and well-being should be thought of as mutually constitutive.
Social environmental studies accounted for the genesis and organization of the IPBES and its significance for international environmental governance. These studies produced a number of insights mainly located at the crossroads between organization and management studies, international relations studies, and science and technology studies. Scholars have paid special attention to the capacity of the IPBES to transform the existing international environmental governance by introducing a strong emphasis on principles of openness and inclusivity and seeking to consider scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge (e.g., traditional ecological knowledge) on an equal footing.
A New Institution in the International Environmental Governance Landscape
Historical Development of a New Approach to Nature and Nature Conservation
The Critics of “Wilderness” and the New Focus on “Biodiversity”
Historically, nature conservation has been centred on a rather limited set of species. Species and notably animal species were the first to obtain a conservation status in the late 19th century. To give but a few examples of this focus on species, national laws such as the U.S. Endangered Species Act have created notions of endangered species and protected species, which have no equivalent for ecosystems (until recently at least). Protected areas (i.e., natural parks and reserves) were created in the first place as a means of safeguarding iconic species first in North America and then in Europe. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was created in 1948 and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was adopted in 1963: it implemented the Red List of Threatened Species in 1964—which regularly updates the status of endangerment for a wide range of species and is a keystone of nature conservation at the international level.
The function of natural parks and reserves is to re-create sites of wilderness devoted to wildlife and devoid of human activities and presence as much as possible. Especially in North America, parks were created by conservationists during the 20th century in order to keep or restore nature as it was supposed to be before European settlement. Environmental historians emphasized how the notion of wilderness as a pristine and untouched state of nature was in fact a sociopolitical construction by which the settlers completely denied the fact that the land had been inhabited and transformed for thousands of years by indigenous peoples. They strongly criticized the parks and reserves’ aim of protecting a “wild” and “pristine” nature from any human activity without recognizing that the land was in fact the outcome of certain indigenous practices and continuous presence. This criticism was not as strong in Europe, as the European parks and reserves had been in existence since the early 20th century and could not claim to have the same pristine wilderness and natural areas as in North America. This is because of the historical presence of agriculture and dense human settlements.
Yet, in the wake of the alarm over pollution and environmental degradation raised by the nascent environmentalist movement in the 1960s and 1970s (for instance Rachel Carson with her widely read book Silent Spring), natural scientists became increasingly aware of ongoing species extinction. In the mid-1980s the new word “biodiversity” was coined by a small group of North American activist biologists who aimed to ring the alarm over the accelerated rates of the loss of species (despite the existence of parks and reserves) and to foster new measures to fight species extinction and endangerment. Although it was initially meant to be a short title for an international scientific conference addressing issues of biological diversity in 1986, the new word “biodiversity” was highly successful in attracting public attention. In 1992 the Rio World Summit implemented the first international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). A new international program for biodiversity research, Diversitas, was set up in order to foster research activities addressing the various scientific questions linked with the loss of diversity and to provide the CBD with the science needed for biodiversity conservation.
In Europe two new directives were implemented to protect biodiversity: the Birds Directive (1979) and the Habitats Directive (1992). Importantly, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the new European Directives started to associate the conservation of biodiversity with that of the habitats needed by animals and plants to feed and reproduce.
As the loss of species seemed to accelerate and became a public problem, the ecosystem approach or ecosystem management approach appeared as a promising, more effective, and less costly response to the ongoing crisis. An important innovation was that the new European directives aiming to protect biodiversity and habitats did not focus on wilderness sanctuaries: on the contrary, they aimed at protecting both iconic species and more ordinary, less attractive animals and plants. And they attempted to achieve their protection also in sites frequented and exploited by farmers, fishers, hunters, foresters, tourists, and residential inhabitants. Biodiversity conservation was increasingly conceived of as requiring not only the conservation of wild areas devoid of human disturbances but also the sustainable management of areas inhabited and exploited by people. New biodiversity regulations and organizations brought the idea that provided human activities follow specific guidelines and good practices; they can help restore and conserve biodiversity, which itself provides the basis for the pursuit of human activities. This was an important break from the idea that nature conservation requires the protection of wild areas from human activities that were necessarily conceived of as negative disturbances: with the new biodiversity organizations and institutions, the idea that human activities may, under certain conditions, not be detrimental (and may even be beneficial) to nature and nature conservation. One principle of the ecosystem approach that the CBD adopted and started to actively promote in 1995 is that humans “are an integral component of many ecosystems.”
The Need for a New Science/Policy Interface
On the other hand, during the 1990s international leaders of biodiversity science, who had become aware of the accelerated loss of global biodiversity, and participated together in Diversitas, became convinced that the failure of previous nature conservation organizations resulted from the gap between science and policy rather than from a lack of knowledge: a new science-policy interface seemed to be needed in order to really wield political influence and achieve effective biodiversity conservation.
This conviction was fueled by a number of lessons drawn from the unsatisfactory capacity of the existing biodiversity institutions to provide decision makers with relevant knowledge of biodiversity and ecosystems, including an earlier attempt to fund and carry out a large assessment of biodiversity at the global scale: namely the Global Biodiversity Assessment (GBA), which was realized in the early 1990s under the auspices of the Global Environmental Facility. The GBA was criticized for its scientific-driven processes, which neglect the political and social aspects of biodiversity knowledge and issues. As governments refused to consider the GBA results in the decision making, biodiversity scientists came to the conclusion that what they considered a scientific achievement could be a political failure jeopardizing their capacity to attract the resources and establish the alliances needed to foster a transformation of the existing environmental governance. What was needed then was a new science/policy interface able to produce reliable and policy-relevant opinions on the current state and likely evolution of biodiversity and ecosystems.
Leaders of biodiversity science thus became convinced that global biodiversity assessments should be demand-driven and co-designed by scientists and policymakers in order to gain political influence: a genuinely international body should be created involving both scientists and policymakers.
This conviction was also linked to biodiversity stakeholders’ observation of the success of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in turning climate change into a political concern for policymakers and governments. Compared to the role played by the IPCC concerning climate awareness and policies, the scientific body that was supposed to play a similar role for biodiversity, namely the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice that had been part of the Convention for Biological Diversity since 1992, was found to be unable to bring an equivalent scientific input to policymaking and public attention.
Yet in the early 2000s it became increasingly clear that this set of regulations and organizations could not stop species loss and environmental degradation. An increasing number of biodiversity scientists and stakeholders shared the notion that a new organization was needed.
The Long Genesis of the IPBES
In the first half of the 2000s an extensive assessment of the state of biodiversity and ecosystems was prepared by biodiversity scientists and published in 2005 under the name of Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA, 2005). The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment made it once again clear that despite all the regulations and organizations implemented in the 1990s at national and international levels, species loss and ecosystem degradation were far from stopped and had even accelerated in many areas of the world. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was also influential in promoting a new way of addressing nature conservation challenges aiming to break with the long-lasting cleavage between nature conservation and social development: instead, the report endorsed the notion of “ecosystem services” in order to stress that nature conservation and social development should be considered mutually constitutive. While nature conservation had long been criticized as being a concern of rich countries at odds with the more vital priorities of poorer countries—i.e., reducing poverty and hunger and fostering socioeconomic development—the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment wanted to raise awareness of the close links between the existence of “healthy” and diverse ecosystems and that of socioeconomic development. The notion of “ecosystem services” was proposed in order to emphasize the benefits of conserving biodiversity and ecosystems in terms of reducing poverty and fostering social and economic development. The claim that conservation and development could be reconciled enabled the recruitment of southern countries and to launch a global campaign.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was successful in popularizing the term of ecosystem services that was defined as the services rendered by ecosystems to human societies. It identified four categories of ecosystem services: supporting services (including, for instance, pollination by insects, crucial to crop growth), regulating services (including for instance the regulation of climate, which influences disease distribution and prevalence, among other things), provisioning services (including, for instance, water filtration by soils, which is crucial to groundwater quality and quantity), and cultural services (i.e., aesthetic, inspirational, and recreational aspects of biodiversity).
On the other hand, promoters of a new biodiversity international institution under the auspices of the Convention of Biological Diversity implemented a consultative process toward an International Mechanism on Scientific Expertise on Biodiversity (IMoSEB) with the aim of discussing the role, missions, and potential organization of a new biodiversity institution. The IMoSEB was decided in the wake of the international “Biodiversity, Science and Governance” conference held at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France, in January 2005, which stressed the importance of establishing “an international or intergovernmental mechanism playing a role akin to that of the IPCC for climate change on all aspects of biodiversity.” In the spring of 2008 the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment follow-up strategy was merged with the IMoSEB to create an Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). From then on, the name of the new institution placed on the same footing the notion of biodiversity and that of ecosystem services. This parallelism reflects the IPBES promoters’ will to establish an approach to nature conservation that would not be restricted to the classical cleavage between nature and social development but could instead encompass an inclusive approach to the mutual benefits of conservation and development, nature, and society.
From 2008 onward the official creation and organization of the IPBES was taken up by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP)—drawing on UNEP’s experience in the creation and implementation of previous environmental international institutions such as the Intergovernmental Platform on Climate Change. A series of intergovernmental meetings were convened under the auspices and the procedural rules of the United Nations Environmental Program in order to establish the IPBES by the end of 2010, declared the International Year of Biodiversity by the United Nations. Three intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder meetings were convened by UNEP in Putrajaya (Malaysia), Nairobi (Kenya), and Busan (South Korea).
Early discussions in those IPBES meetings opposed people who were convinced that a new institution was needed and other people who emphasized that the institutional landscape of biodiversity governance was already dense and complex, arguing especially that a new institution would only weaken the recognition and role of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Here a number of Diversitas scientists played an important role in steadily promoting the need for creating a new biodiversity institution, including for instance Anne Larigauderie and Paul Leadley (France), Michel Loreau (Canada), Harold Mooney (United States), Georginia Mace (United Kingdom), Alfred Oteng-Yeboah (Ghana), and Sandra Diaz (Argentina). They represent a range of scientific approaches to biodiversity and ecosystems and have had a lobbying role in favor of the IPBES, for instance by authoring a range of opinion papers devoted to promoting IPBES role and utility. From 2015 onward those papers have been marked by the increasing influence of Diaz’s approach to “nature’s benefits to people” defined as “all the benefits that humanity- individuals, communities, societies, nations or humanity as a whole—in rural and urban settings—obtain from nature” (Diaz et al., 2015, p. 6). Diaz also put great emphasis on promoting IPBES’ capacity to “connect nature and people” by taking into account various biodiversity values and visions across cultures (often referred to as “biocultural diversity”). Robert Watson also played a key role as the chairman of the IPBES preparatory meetings to defend the importance of creating the new platform while retaining the interest and participation of a range of participants with various and partly competing interests and visions. Robert Watson is a British scientist with a background in chemistry who was chair of the IPCC between 1997 and 2002 and then chair of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment from 2001 to 2005; he was also a member of the consultative process toward an IMoSEB.
In 2010 the Convention on Biological Diversity eventually recognized that the goal to halt biodiversity loss by the end of the decade had not been reached (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2010) so that a need was felt for a new international biodiversity institution. The third IPBES preparatory meeting organized in June 2010 led to an official agreement known as the “Busan outcome” (UNEP, 2010), which identified four functions for IPBES: catalyze the generation of new knowledge, produce assessments of existing knowledge, support policy formulation and implementation, and build capacities relevant for achieving these goals.
In December 2010 the UN general assembly decided on the installation of an IPBES and requested that the platform be operationalized “at the earliest opportunity.” But two more plenary meetings (in Nairobi and Panama) were necessary to determine the platform’s modalities of work and institutional arrangements regarding especially governance structure, rules of procedure, and location of secretariat. Substantial progress toward the IPBES implementation was made at the Panama conference in April 2012 when the final organization of the IPBES was decided. On its last day the parties finally officially decided to establish the IPBES and to locate its secretariat in Bonn, Germany. The institution would include a Multidisciplinary Expert Panel (MEP), an operational steering group and a plenary assembly composed of delegates of the states and open to the participation of diverse stakeholders. The MEP is an appointed body of 25 experts charged with overseeing the scientific and technical elements of IPBES. It works alongside the bureau, which is in charge of performing administrative functions to coordinate the IPBES work program. The MEP is also responsible for the selection of authors, experts, and reviewers, as well as overseeing the scoping, drafting, and review of each deliverable. The experts of the MEP and members of the bureau were nominated1 at the first full session of the platform’s plenary, which was held in Bonn in January 2013. Five experts from each of the five United Nations regions were nominated.
The IPBES produces expert assessments of the state and evolution of biodiversity and ecosystems. An assessment is defined as “a critical evaluation of the state of knowledge in biodiversity and ecosystem services. It is based on existing peer-reviewed literature, grey literature and other knowledge systems such as indigenous and local knowledge. It does not involve the undertaking of original research.”2 IPBES assessments include both thematic and regional assessments. Released and ongoing thematic assessments address a given topic such as the threats on pollination, pollinators, and food production; on land degradation and restoration; on invasive species and their control between 2012 and 2016. Regional assessments will address the state and evolution of biodiversity and ecosystems at the scale of a continent or given geographic area, for instance at the level of Africa, Americas, Asia Pacific, and Europe, and Central Asia. The first assessment on pollination shows that findings are expressed by using four distinct classes to articulate their degree of confidence—in a similar manner as in IPCC reports: “well established,” “established but incomplete,” “unresolved,” and “inconclusive.” Also in the same was as IPCC reports, it includes an executive summary for policymakers.
Assessing IPBES Inclusiveness
There has been an increasing amount of scientific literature devoted to the IPBES, with a steady increase in the number of papers addressing the organization and significance of the new institution since 2010 in a number of fields including environmental governance studies, international relations, organization and innovation studies, and science studies. This literature strongly leans on the exploitation of the official documents produced by the IPBES itself and available on its website (i.e., documents preparatory to the meetings, meeting notes, conceptual framework, first assessments), backed up with social network analysis and ethnographical approaches (observation of meetings and interviews) in order to capture the social and political patterns of the ongoing process of creation of a new institution. For instance, early papers published in 2013 addressed the creating of a future institution that was not yet officially implemented. At the core of this literature lies an attempt to assess the capacity of the IPBES to transform the existing international environmental governance according to principles of openness and inclusivity. Much attention has been lent to the question of IPBES “social representativeness” (i.e., its capacity to represent and include a wide range of social worlds and social visions of nature and biodiversity) and its capacity to generate legitimate knowledge by attempting to manage participants’ various perceptions and values regarding what counts as salient, credible, and legitimate knowledge (Cash et al., 2002) and particularly by including both state-of-the art academic research and other forms of knowledge on an equal footing.
In addressing the IPBES as a science/policy boundary organization, scholars documented the types of tensions and conflicts at stake in the institution well beyond the binary cleavage between science and politics (II-1); they produced various assessments of the IPBES level of inclusiveness and openness including critics of the IPBES as reproducing the dominant Western approach to knowledge and nature, as well as more nuanced evaluations recognizing both the IPBES quest for compromises and openness and its limits (II-2).
The IPBES as Boundary Organization
The IPBES is an institution that exists between science and policy. Its goal is to “strengthen the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being and sustainable development” (https://www.ipbes.net). Many scholars have contributed to characterizing the type of science/policy interface that the IPBES implements by drawing on the seminal insights developed by science studies scholar Sheila Jasanoff, who showed that science and politics should not be considered two preexisting and separate realms: instead, the boundary between what counts as science and what counts as politics is constantly defined and negotiated by the actors in presence. In line with the idea that the boundary between science and politics, far from being pre-given, is the outcome of social negotiations and organization arrangements, David Guston developed the notion of “boundary organization” in the context of U.S. applied research, studying the Office of Technology Transfer Office (Guston, 1999) in order to draw attention to the role of institutions “exist[ing] at the frontier between science and politics” (Guston, 2001, p. 401). A boundary organization is an institutional arrangement considered to act as an agent between two well- identified “principals” (for instance, science and policy). Effective boundary organizations “succeed in pleasing two sets of principals and remain stable to the external forces astride the internal stability at the actual boundary” (Guston, 2001, p. 401). Importantly, Guston’s definition insists that boundary organizations are accountable to both worlds (science and politics), according to the criteria of these worlds, but they also enable the delivery of independent forms of authority. In line with this latter observation, the IPBES constantly sought to strike a balance between what seemed to provide it with scientific credibility, on the one hand, and political legitimacy on the other.
The literature on science-policy interfaces, including the IPBES, suggests that science-policy organizations involve much more complexity and plasticity than the binary boundary between science and policy would suggest. The need for better accounts of the internal heterogeneity and plasticity of the worlds of science and policy has been underlined by Miller in the case of climate science-policy interface and Arpin et al. (2016) in the case of the IPBES. Arpin et al. (2016) suggested that—as demonstrated by Parker and Crona in their study of a university-based boundary organization—the tensions at stake among the various IPBES participants were not static but instead flexible and changing. Even the conflicting stakeholders were not well neat and permanent figures: instead, the IPBES was characterized by moving and shifting audiences that alternately formed and broke up according to the issues and moments of the process, so that IPBES leaders such as Robert Watson for instance had constantly to navigate in a constantly shifting “landscape of tensions.”
Assessing IPBES Inclusiveness of Various Visions of Nature and Biodiversity Knowledge
Although often compared to the IPCC, the IPBES differs from it in its stress on stakeholder involvement and knowledge inclusion. Compared to the IPCC, the scope of the IPBES mission is broader: it does not only aspire to provide policy-relevant knowledge to governments, multilateral environmental agreements, and other publics, it also wants to build capacity, support policymaking, and encourage new knowledge generation. Importantly, the IPBES also aspires to avoid the critics, which was once made to the IPCC on the grounds that it had failed to engage with alternative forms of expertise—notably local knowledge—and that climate science was too unilaterally produced by (and meant for) northern countries—without taking the knowledge and interests of southern countries adequately into account. The IMoSEB had especially stated the idea that the future biodiversity institution was meant to achieve balance between developed and developing countries and to be inclusive of different disciplines and knowledge systems. The IPBES had to face the following challenge: achieving a level of scientific credibility comparable to that of the IPCC, even if the IPCC has been harshly criticized by climate skeptics while integrating complex issues at a much earlier stage than in the case of the IPCC. In particular, many governments required that the IPBES take two issues into account from the beginning: the regional and national specificities of biodiversity and biodiversity problems and the diversity of forms of knowledge. The early and intense involvement of social scientists in the creation process worked the same way. They, too, strongly defended the need to acknowledge and integrate the diversity of knowledge forms and saw to it that the IPBES would not contribute to perpetuating forms of Western domination through science.
The question of deciding which types of knowledge should be involved in the future IPBES raised a long-lasting tension that deeply divided the participants in the international meetings convened by UNEP in order to establish the future institution. Debates focused on the question of defining what should count as legitimate and reliable biodiversity knowledge. Should reliable knowledge be defined as peer-reviewed academic science, or should it include also non-academic types of knowledge such as Traditional Ecological Knowledge—knowledge held by local people on their environment and the living beings that inhabit it, often acquired over centuries in relation to hunting, cultivating, and feeding habits—as well as traditional ways of healing diseases and pleas. While some participants advocated to rely solely on peer-reviewed nature sciences, others argued in favor of the integration of other knowledge forms, notably indigenous or traditional knowledge. Non-academic knowledge also included the knowledge produced by volunteers and citizens, often referred to as citizen science, which plays an increasing role in a range of national observatories of biodiversity.
Those long-lasting tensions and cleavages opened the way to contrasting views regarding the extent to which the IPBES eventually succeeded in genuinely including diversified approaches to biodiversity and ecosystem knowledge and values. Social scientists split on the question of knowing whether the IPBES constitutes a new, more inclusive type of science-policy interface, or remains instead strongly biased in favor of Western and northern countries’ ways of knowing and valuing nature associated to the notion of “ecosystem services.”
The Role of Social Scientists in the Promotion of IPBES Openness and Inclusiveness
While some participants aimed to achieve legitimacy through a science-based institution drawing on scientific excellence, independence, and objectivity from external bias, others aimed to shape an inclusive institution whose legitimacy and credibility would be based on participation, openness, and inclusiveness. To proponents of the latter position, diverse expertise was needed for insuring democratic accountability of the IPBES, with the idea that its credibility not only depends upon the scientific quality of the experts mobilized but also their diverse experiences and place-based affiliations. Eventually the issue of defining what should count as legitimate biodiversity knowledge also raised the problem that academic science, which has been mostly produced by northern countries, may also be viewed as a means for said countries to continue exerting their domination, through science and science-led international organizations, over the rest of the world.
The question of including indigenous knowledge triggered particularly long-lasting strong opposition and controversy. The cleavage between promoters of the academic science only option and the more inclusive option was already present before the IPBES in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which recognizes the importance of traditional ecological knowledge through its article 8j. In the IMoSEB it has also been constantly at stake as the initiative stated the need for “independent scientific expertise” but also for “a dialogue among diverse knowledge systems.” Preparatory documents to UNEP meetings stated the need both to achieve “scientifically credible” assessments, and to “recognize and respect the contribution of indigenous and local knowledge” (UNEP, 2010). In those meetings governments of many southern countries (Brazil, Mexico) but also Scandinavian countries3 have been fully in favor of involving non-academic forms of knowledge and especially indigenous and local knowledge (ILK). Opponents to the idea of opening up the definition of reliable and legitimate knowledge emphasized that peer review process constituted the cornerstone of the credibility of scientific knowledge, and it remained unclear how other forms of knowledge would be assessed and validated should they not be submitted to peer evaluation as in the case of academic articles and proceedings. They tended to consider the inclusion of non-peer-reviewed knowledge to be a threat to the IPBES scientific credibility. Tensions were harsh between promoters of inclusiveness in the definition of biodiversity knowledge and promoters of a more restrictive definition who refused to place holders of non-academic knowledge on an equal footing with “scientific and technical experts.”
The Critics of IPBES as Reproducing the Dominant Approach to Knowledge and Nature
Social scientists attempted to assess the extent to which the IPBES really achieved inclusiveness of various types of biodiversity knowledge. To a number of social scientists, including sociologist Alice Vadrot, the place that the IPBES gives to the notion of “ecosystem services” shows that the new institution remains clearly biased in favor of Western values of nature and telling of their trend to attribute utilitarian and financial values to biodiversity and ecosystems. To Alice Vadrot, “the IPBES project sustains and reproduces dominant perspectives” (Vadrot, 2014, p. 5) because it contributes to “epistemic selectivities” already at stake in global biodiversity governance: that is, to certain political agendas, disciplinary framings, and administrative logics that converge toward a selective approach to biodiversity linked with the permanent attempt to extract economic and financial value from animals, plants, and all the non-human living beings that is characteristic of Western society. The circulation of the notion of ecosystem services was indeed correlated with the establishment of initiatives aiming not only to identify the services but also to assess their financial value in order to estimate the contribution of different ecosystems to economy (that was, for instance, the goal of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity [TEEB]). The emphasis of the IPBES on the assessment of ecosystem services is seen as proof that the institution is heavily biased toward economic and financial worldviews, turning a blind eye to less human-centered and utilitarian worldviews: they consider the IPBES to be part of a wider trend toward the commodification of nature that is characteristic of global capitalism. Drawing on the Foucauldian idea of governmentality, social scientists suggested that underlying IPBES is a logic that tends to marginalize those forms of knowledge that cannot easily be translated into the ecosystem services approach. They emphasized that the value of biodiversity and nature conservation should not only build on their usefulness to humans, the economy, or markets. Instead they would like more emphasis to be put on other, non-Western ways of valuing and assessing living beings and nature and on their intrinsic value of existence (i.e., the idea that nature has a value in itself however people use it).
Such critical assessments of the IPBES as reproducing dominant approaches to knowledge and the economy is in line with other studies arguing that biodiversity governance institutions (including the Convention for Biological Diversity) are biased in favor of a market-based approach, in the form of bioprospection or payments for environmental services.
IPBES Quest for Compromises and Inclusiveness
However, other social scientists have emphasized the IPBES achievement and originality in matters of inclusiveness and openness to a range of values and visions of nature and biodiversity. According to Maud Boris and Mike Hulme for instance, the IPBES has come to position itself as a knowledge-policy interface open to different ways of knowing biodiversity. They emphasized that the organization of the IPBES, in contrast to that of other science-policy interfaces, takes account of gender balance, ensures representation from both developed and developing countries, and includes a diverse range of disciplines and knowledge systems, encompassing natural science, social sciences, and traditional and indigenous knowledge. Compared, for instance, to the IPCC which predominantly mobilizes academic knowledge produced by Western geoscientists, the final organization of the IPBES attempted to implement a more inclusive definition of knowledge that would meet both Western countries’ and non-Western countries’ definitions and practices of producing knowledge on nature: it thus managed to open up the boundaries of more traditional science-policy interfaces such as the IPCC.
Montana and Borie recalled for instance that although the IPBES concept note (UNEP, 2010) initially proposed to form a “scientific panel,” which would be solely composed of prominent scientific experts, the final organization decided in 2012 includes a “Multidisciplinary Expert Panel” (MEP) (see also Arpin et al., 2016). While still keeping the reference to expertise, the “MEP” is clearly open to experts from different backgrounds. In addition, the “MEP” does not include any reference to academic science and thus leaves open the possibility of mixing scientists and traditional knowledge holders: members of the Multidisciplinary Expert Panel are selected and nominated depending on their expertise regarding “both natural and social sciences and traditional knowledge” (UNEP, 2012, p. 21). The definition of multidisciplinarity established in 2013 recognized the participation of “scientists . . . policy and technical experts, natural resource managers, [and] other relevant knowledge holders and users” (UNEP, 2013, p. 14).
Borie and Hulme also underlined that the notion of ecosystem services was intensely debated and contested among IPBES participants. While this notion was considered by some participants to be a neutral, pragmatic, and effective way to communicate and convey biodiversity issues to decision makers, it was considered by others to be deeply embedded in a utilitarian and human-centered view of nature focused on those elements of biodiversity and ecosystems that are useful to humans. This contestation especially arose when the IPBES started to articulate a single Conceptual Framework to support its work in 2012 and 2013. At this time the new institution was at an early stage, and the members of the Bureau and Multidisciplinary Expert Panel had not yet been nominated. A first draft of the conceptual framework was proposed by a small group of natural and social scientists at the end of 2012. Discussions and debates around this draft made it clear that, for a number of participants (including representatives of South American and social scientists) the notion of ecosystem services represented a Western approach to nature that they suggested was far from being neutral. Although the debates around the notion of ecosystem services have expanded well beyond the IPBES, the negotiations to create and organize the IPBES certainly stimulated the development of those debates.
As the first draft of the Conceptual Framework was made available, the delegation of Bolivia, supported by other South American delegations, strongly contested it—backed up by some other countries (including, for example, Germany, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Japan). They criticized the proposal on the ground that it was biased toward a Western vision of biodiversity and the value they attribute to utility and commodification. They emphasized that the proposal did not adequately include the plurality of values attributed to nature and biodiversity by other countries, such as the notion of “Mother Earth” favored in Bolivia. The notion of Mother Earth emphasizes that the earth is a living system or living being and foregrounds the value of living in balance and harmony with nature.4
Two MEP members, Sandra Diaz (Argentina) and Sebsebe Demissew (Ethiopia) played a particularly significant role in the process and acted as co-chairs in the workshop that led to the writing of the final conceptual framework in Cape Town in August 2013. The final draft of the conceptual framework was eventually officially adopted in December 2013 during the second plenary session of IPBES in Antalya, Turkey. Its writing had involved representatives of Bolivia and the final diagram represents two different worldviews on an equal footing: the worldview based on the notion of ecosystem services and the worldview based on the idea of Mother Earth. To Borie and Hulme, this shows that the IPBES succeeded in fostering a high degree of inclusiveness regarding non-Western views and values of nature and biodiversity. The conceptual framework recognizes explicitly multiple knowledge-systems (scientific knowledge and traditional and indigenous knowledge) and their equivalence while also maintaining their difference.
Sociologists Isabelle Arpin, Céline Granjou, Guillaume Ollivier, and Marc Barbier also underlined the IPBES strong efforts and attention toward inclusiveness. They showed that in the process of creating the IPBES, much effort has been devoted to building an organization inclusive of a broad range of actors and encompassing different perspectives on biodiversity. It eventually took several years (from 2008 to 2012) to establish the IPBES: the duration of the process has notably to do with the major challenge of managing the diversity and internal fragmentation of the IPBES stakeholders and representatives. Drawing on the ethnographic observation of the final meeting of the IPBES creation process in 2012 in Panama, they first suggested a number of pervasive issues of friction during the Panama conference and more broadly during the whole process, including the issue of knowledge but also the definition of the regions for the regional assessments. These tensions are not restricted to a difference of fixed views between scientific and political representatives; instead, observation revealed deep fragmentation within scientific and political communities that tended to be at least as strong as the science-policy divide. Furthermore, the composition of the groups sharing similar views tended to shift and change depending on the issues addressed.
This research showed that creating the IPBES required handling a host of changing divides between participants depending on the issues and tensions at stake in order to achieve as much inclusiveness as possible. The authors emphasized that the chair of the IPBES conferences, Robert Watson, played an important role by implementing a number of techniques of inclusiveness that were crucial to achieving the IPBES institutionalization. Leaning on his experience, his leading position, and his intuition and knowledge of the diversity of opinions and interests among the participants—and of their relative capacity to block the negotiation process—he played a crucial role in preventing scientists from withdrawing out of fear of getting stuck in an endless process. But he also prevented government representatives from withdrawing out of fear of allowing premature and undesirable agreements. Ways of achieving agreements included notably the Chair making suggestions about different issues, deciding to leave aside some questions (including both minor and blocking issues), adding extra time for discussion and never reopening a point that had previously been agreed upon, such as the outcomes of previous meetings. These findings meet the emphasis put by Jean-Frédéric Morin and co-authors on the role of “knowledge brokers” played by specific experienced individuals such as Alfred Oteng-Yeboah between scientists and policymakers.
While the inclusiveness of the diverse groups and actors participating in the future institution remained partly unattainable, such techniques of inclusiveness were essential to the legitimacy and success of the IPBES creation. In using them the chair did not just seek to ease the tensions: he also aimed to demonstrate that an inclusive organization was actually being built. He thus managed to handle the fragmentation and plasticity of the groups of interest involved in the institutionalization process by keeping “everybody on board” despite persisting conflicts and contestations.
The Limits to IPBES Inclusiveness
At the same time, the social scientists who praised the IPBES efforts for achieving openness, transparency, and participation also emphasized the limits of its achievements in this perspective. Granjou et al. (2013) showed that strong and early claims for transparency and traceability of the IPBES implementation process were counterbalanced by UNEP’s bureaucratic modalities of working, recreating opaque areas and some level of arbitrary decision within the process. Montana and Borie (2015) observed, for instance, that achieving the principles of regional, gender, and disciplinary balance in mobilizing biodiversity knowledge has sometimes proved difficult to achieve in practice for the IPBES. The interim Multidisciplinary Expert Panel that was set up during the first two years of the IPBES functioning (2012 and 2013) did not meet principles of diversity and inclusiveness, they suggest, as it predominantly included male natural scientists. The second Multidisciplinary Expert Panel included social scientists in European regions, and more women overall, yet remained partly biased in favor of natural sciences, Western countries and men. In the same way, drawing on a detailed social network analysis of the IPBES, Jean-Frédéric Morin and co-authors show that social representativeness and epistemological inclusiveness of IPBES remains biased in favor of environmental expertise over other sorts of expertise (for instance in the field of agriculture, development, and in a still stronger manner trade and culture). They found that “natural scientists are over-represented numerically (87%) and socially (87%)” while “the most marginalized knowledge system is not social science but traditional knowledge” (p. 18). In addition, Florian Charvolin showed that IPBES analysts need to consider not only IPBES participants’ official missions and classifications (as scientists or country or NGO representatives) but also their training: taking into account the level of training makes it clear that many government representatives have in fact a master’s or PhD thesis related to natural sciences. This suggests that scientists and government representatives may share certain common references and ways of thinking.
Assessments of the extent to which the IPBES succeeded in including social sciences are nuanced as well. On the one hand, the literature emphasizes that the IPBES achieved an earlier inclusion of social sciences approaches and concepts than previous science-policy platforms such as the IPCC. For instance, the IPBES framework adopted in December 2013 placed “institutions” and not “nature” at center stage, hence highlighting the importance of sociopolitical aspects to adequately manage biodiversity—also in line with a broader scholarship on global change research, which has called for the participation of social sciences in order to understand management and institutional settings and to foster more pluralist approaches. Underlying indeed the view that social sciences should be part of the IPBES was the conviction that in order to address biodiversity issues we need not only scientific knowledge on the state of ecosystems but also knowledge on how ecosystems are inhabited, conceived of, and managed: addressing complex issues of biodiversity and ecosystem services could not be achieved without the inputs not only of natural sciences but also of social sciences and indigenous and local knowledge systems. Yet, on the other hand, Morin, Louafi, Orsini, and Oubenal (2016) argued that the expertise of social scientists within the IPBES “is highly concentrated in the fields of economy and management”—also supporting a market-based approach: “ethnography, sociology, philosophy of sciences, and other disciplines that are crucial for a reflexive and self-critical boundary organisation are not represented within IPBES” (p. 19). For that matter, the IPBES may lack some reflexive insights into the social construction of ecological concepts such as invasive species for instance and “risks building its knowledge on implicit and shaky assumptions” (Morin et al., 2016, p. 19).
Löfmarck and Lidskog (2017) proposed to address the IPBES as a “third knowledge space”: that is, a space in which “different systems with contrasting rationalities work together on an equal footing,” in order to identify enduring difficulties related to bridging the knowledge divide. They emphasized the fact that Traditional Ecological Knowledge “does not only serve to complement and enrich scientific knowledge: it often contradicts it” (p. 28). To them the IPBES tended to repeat the rationale of putting scientific and traditional knowledge on the same footing as “an important message for policy-makers to hear,” yet in practice “it has not yet found forms for dealing with contrasting rationalities, diverging ontological claims, and different criteria for knowledge validation.” The IPBES still strives to go beyond “the preoccupation with the ‘mythic community’ [present] in much of the conservation literature, i.e. the idea that there are small, integrated groups with developed norms for managing resources in a fair and sustainable way” (p. 24)—whereas traditional knowledge is produced, just like scientific knowledge, by certain social groups with situated, gendered, and shifting interests that are not necessarily shared by the whole community.
The IPBES is a key element of the international governance implemented at the beginning of the 21st century in order to address the major environmental challenges associated with the unprecedented impacts on and threats to ecosystems and societies created by global environmental changes. While the will to articulate and build new proximities between nature conservation and social development is much older (this has been the objective of the notion of sustainable development, brought forward by the Brundtland report in 1987), the creation of the IPBES in the aftermath of the release of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is part of a broader move to bring nature conservation and social development together through the use of the notion of “ecosystem services.”
The importance of the model of the IPCC in negotiating and implementing the IPBES suggests the evolution of political standards for producing expert assessments of the state and evolution of the global environment. Those standards regard both which sort of knowledge and knowledge holders can qualify for participation and which procedures should be designed to build a legitimate and credible science/policy organization. The IPBES thus “holds important lessons for future efforts to transform knowledge production and the overall framing of environmental challenges” (Löfmarck & Lidskog, 2017, p. 22). The IPBES attests indeed to an original combination in which the standard of participation and inclusiveness tends to be predominant on the standard of “purified science” (which restricts legitimate knowledge to academic science only). This emphasis on diversity and inclusiveness also characterizes, albeit to a lesser extent, the evolution of the IPCC assessments in which ecological and social assessments of the impacts of climate change on ecosystems and societies have taken increasing importance, alongside physical and chemical approaches to the dynamics of the atmosphere.
Overall, the IPBES can be considered an innovative platform characterized by organizations and practices that foster inclusiveness and openness both to academic science and indigenous knowledge as well as to diverse values and visions of nature and its relationship to society. However, the extent to which it succeeded in putting different biodiversity values and knowledge on an equal footing in practice has varied and remains diversely appreciated by biodiversity scholars. Literature converges toward the idea that, while the IPBES gave priority to currently dominating approaches in Western science and society, it crucially acknowledges the existence and importance of alternative approaches. For instance, it takes up the notion of ecosystem services in its very name, but it refers to notions that oppose the ecosystem services perspective in its conceptual framework.
The IPBES is still in its infancy, and it is particularly difficult at this early stage of its history to evaluate whether and to what extent it will achieve the openness and integration of systems of knowledge that have oriented its creation process and first steps—or whether it might paradoxically raise a risk of scientizing indigenous and local knowledge. How it could influence national and local ways of tackling biodiversity issues also remains an open question. Many local biodiversity institutions seem to remain closer to a “purified science” model than the IPBES, but the participation of an increasing number of people in the IPBES activities may gradually provoke a shift toward a more inclusive and pluralistic model of knowledge systems.
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(1.) MEP members can be nominated by governments only.
(2.) IPBES 4/9. (2016). Guide on the production and integration of assessments from and across all scales.
(3.) For more details on Nordic countries’ view regarding indigenous knowledge see: H. Tunón, M. Kvarnström, and P. Malmer, Report from the project: Indigenous and Local Knowledge in a Scoping Study for a Nordic IPBES Assessment. CBM: skriftserie 96. Swedish Biodiversity Centre, Uppsala (2015) https://www.cbd.int/doc/meetings/sbi/sbi-01/other/sbi-01-nordicilk-ipbes-2015-en.pdf
(4.) Here we follow Borie and Hulme’s analysis, which also noted that “this position mirrors a law which has been adopted in Bolivia, the “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth” which attributes rights to nature (Bolivia, Law 071, 2010)” (p. 13).