Science & Environment

UN gives final approval to biodiversity science panel

Chained orangutan
Image caption The costs of forest destruction are being borne by orangutans among other species

The UN has given final approval for the establishment of an expert panel to advise governments on science and policy issues relating to biodiversity.

Endorsement came at the UN General Assembly in New York.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) will assess evidence on the causes and effects of nature degradation, and policy options.

Details will be worked out during the first few months of next year.

The new organisation is roughly modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and will be similarly charged with providing "gold standard" reports to governments.

Discussions on establishing it have been going on for more than two years, and a decision in principle was taken earlier this year; but final approval was needed from the General Assembly, as the UN's governing entity.

"IPBES represents a major breakthrough in terms of organising a global response to the loss of living organisms and forests, freshwater, coral reefs and other ecosystems that underpin all life - including economic life - on Earth," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (Unep).

Unep will host the fledgling panel until a decision is taken on where it will be sited.

It is not yet clear whether the new panel will be structured along identical lines to the IPCC, with separate working groups covering science, impacts and policy.

The IPCC is in the middle of a reform process following criticisms of its performance in past years, and IPBES' proponents have indicated they want to learn from the IPCC's experiences and construct their panel along modernised lines.

Guide to biodiversity

Biodiversity is the term used to describe the incredible variety of life that has evolved on our planet over billions of years. So far 1.75m present day species have been recorded, but there maybe as many as 13m in total.
The term "biodiversity" refers to diversity of ecosystems, species and genes. In wetlands, for example, you might find different types of fish, frogs, crabs and snails; and within each species, differences in the genes which determine disease resistance, diet and body size. Research shows that ecosytems containing more variety are more productive and more robust.
Biodiversity loss affects most of the major branches of life on Earth. Amphibians and corals are among some of the most threatened. Rising human populations, habitat loss, invasive species and climate change all take their toll.
Around half of the planet's natural environments had been converted for human use by 1990. The IUCN projects that a further 10-20% of grass and forest land could be converted by 2050.
Deforestation represents one of the most serious threats to biodiversity. The map shows the extent of the planet's remaining frontier forests - which exist in a state untouched by human interference - and the original extent of forest cover.
The rising population and economic growth mean that natural resources are used at less and less sustainable rates. WWF calculates that by 2050, humanity's resource use would need two-and-a-half Earths to be sustainable.
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The case for establishing the body hangs on the fact that across the world, biodiversity - the variety of life on Earth - is in decline.

This has been highlighted in recent years through periodic projects such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Global Biodiversity Outlook.

But governments now believe a more consistent effort is needed.

Meanwhile, the economic case for conserving biodiversity - at least in some situations - has been strengthened by evidence from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) project, a UN-backed analysis of the costs and benefits of sustaining nature as opposed to allowing it to degrade.

Approximately 10 nations are to conduct their own national-level Teeb analyses, which will probably result in a wider adoption of economic levers that reward conservation and penalise destruction.

"2010, the International Year of Biodiversity, began on a mute note after it emerged that no single country had achieved the target of substantially reversing the rate of loss of biodiversity," said Mr Steiner.

"But it has ended on a far more positive one that underlines a new determination to act on the challenges and deliver the opportunities possible from a far more intelligent management of the planet's nature-based assets."

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