UN authorizes new body to stem loss of ecosystems vital to life

Ecosystem management key to long-term climate change adaptation and risk reduction

21 December 2010 – A new international body aimed at reversing the unprecedented loss of species and ecosystems vital to life on Earth due to human activity has passed its final hurdle with approval by the United Nations General Assembly.

In a resolution adopted by consensus, the Assembly yesterday called on the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to take the necessary steps to set up the Intergovernmental Science Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the final approval needed for the body for which the groundwork had been laid at UNEP-sponsored meetings earlier this year.

“IPBES represents a major breakthrough in terms of organizing a global response to the loss of living organisms and forests, freshwaters, coral reefs and other ecosystems that underpin all life, including economic life, on Earth,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said today.

It caps 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity, launched in January to raise awareness and generate public pressure for action by global leaders on the vital link between biodiversity, ecosystems and survival, based on the premise that the world's diverse ecosystems purify the air and the water that are the basis of life, stabilize and moderate the Earth's climate, renew soil fertility, cycle nutrients and pollinate plants.

IPBES, which in many ways mirrors the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that has helped to catalyze government action on global warming, will foster the search for government action needed to reverse the accelerating degradation of the natural world and its species, which some experts put at 1,000 times the natural progression.

Its role includes high-quality peer reviews of the wealth of science on the issue from research institutes across the globe and outlining transformational policy options to bring about real change.

As to the economic costs, a UN-backed Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study last year estimated loss of natural capital due to deforestation and degradation at between $2 trillion and $4.5 trillion every year – “a staggering economic cost of taking nature for granted.” It said an annual $45 billion investment into protected areas alone could secure delivery of ecosystem services worth some $5 trillion a year.

Outlining some of the potential benefits of IPBES, UNEP cited bringing to the attention of Governments so-called “new topics” identified by science. Some, for example, claim that evidence of deoxygenated dead zones in the world's oceans took too long to migrate from scientific circles into the in-trays of policy-makers. Similar concerns exist over the pros and cons of biofuels.

Some experts are convinced that many discoveries, from the identification of new lower life forms to the fast disappearance of others, remain within the corridors of research institutes and universities for many years before they reach the wider world, by which time it may be too late to act to protect the species concerned.

Unravelling the precise role of animals, plants, insects and even microbes within ecosystems and their functions in terms of the services generated, from water purification to soil fertility, could also be a major thrust, UNEP said.

While IPBES will support some capacity building in developing countries, a main role will be to catalyze funding to assist them.

UNEP, as the interim Secretariat of the new independent body, will now organize a plenary or meeting of Governments in 2011, the first year of the International Decade of Biodiversity, to decide which country will house the IPBES and which institutions will host it along with other institutional arrangements.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), one of several UN agencies that will be involved in setting up IPBES, noted that record growth in cultivated land, overexploitation of freshwater resources and fish stocks, massive pollution by fertilizers and erosion of certain natural environments such as mangroves and coral reefs in the past 50 years have led to the massive extinction of species.

Some 12 per cent of birds, 25 per cent of mammals and 32 per cent of amphibians are now threatened with extinction within a century, it added.


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