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New UN science body to monitor biosphere

'IPCC for biodiversity' approved after long negotiation

All creatures great and small: A newly approved global science organization to oversee life on earth will have its work cut out for it. Credit: Cesar Paes Barreto

Representatives from close to 90 countries gathering in Busan, Korea, this week, have approved the formation of a new organization to monitor the ecological state of the planet and its natural resources. Dubbed the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the new entity will likely meet for the first time in 2011 and operate much like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In essence, that means the IPBES will specialize in "peer review of peer review", says Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for the United Nations Environment Programme, which has so far hosted the IPBES birth process. Its organizers hope that its reports and statements will be accepted as authoritative and unbiased summaries of the state of the science. Like the IPCC, it will not recommend particular courses of action. "We will not and must not be policy prescriptive", emphasized Robert Watson, chief scientific advisor to the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and a vice-chair of the Busan meeting. "That is critical, or it will kill the process."

According to the document approved June 11, IPBES will conduct periodic assessments of the diversity of life on earth and its 'ecosystem services'—those outputs of ecosystems, such as clean fresh water, fish, game, timber and a stable climate, that benefit humankind. These assessments will answer questions about how much biodiversity is declining and what the implications of extinctions and ecosystem change are for humanity. Assessments will take place on global, regional and sub-regional scales.

There was concern... that this not become a huge bureaucracy. Nick Nuttall , United Nations Environment Programme

IPBES will also take a hand in training environmental scientists in the developing world, both with a to-be-determined budget of its own and by alerting funders about gaps in global expertise. The organization will also identify research that needs to be done and useful tools—such as models—for policymakers looking to apply a scientific approach to such decisions as land management.

In Busan, negotiations stretched late into the night as delegates debated the scope of the proposed IPBES, including the specifics of how it will be funded. "There was concern among the developed countries that this not become a huge bureaucracy," says Nuttall. "Governments wanted to be reassured that it would be lean and mean and streamlined."

Another bone of contention was to what extent IPBES would tackle emerging issues or areas of contested science. In the end, it was agreed that the body will draw attention to "new topics" in biodiversity and ecosystem science. "If there had been something like this before, then new results on issues such as ocean acidification, dead zones in the ocean and the biodiversity impacts of biofuels would have been rushed to the inboxes of policymakers, instead of coming to their attention by osmosis," says Nuttall.

Among the governments who assented to the IPBES's creation were the European Union, the United States, and Brazil. The plan will come before the general assembly of the United Nations, slated to meet in September, for official approval. Those involved with the process say that that the UN creation of the new body is a virtual certainty.

Structural integrity

Anne Larigauderie, executive director of the Paris-based biodiversity science clearing house Diversitas, was jubilant at the outcome but said that the final agreement included a few disappointments. She hoped that IPBES would be set up to take requests for information or reports not only from governments and biodiversity-related conventions, such as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, but also from environmental organizations, academic societies and economic interests such as agricultural and trade organizations. Instead, all requests to IPBES will go through its voting members—all of them government representatives.

Larigauderie suggests that this organizational structure represents an effort by governments to control potentially embarrassing information. "We were struck with the fear in governments," she says. "To them, scientific information represents a potential threat."

Hugh Possingham, a mathematical ecologist at the University of Queensland, Australia, specializes in decision-making tools for use by governments and conservation organizations. He says IPBES will have to make predictions to be useful. "Until we can make forward projections of meaningful biodiversity metrics under different policy scenarios, biodiversity is not even at the policy table," he says.

Watson says that IPBES will indeed make predictions, as its charge is to conduct "comprehensive" assessments.

Larigauderie say that IPBES has the potential to turn the "fragmented" field of biodiversity research into a more coordinated "common enterprise" that will lead to better predictive models of future biodiversity changes.


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Marris, E. New UN science body to monitor biosphere. Nature (2010).

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