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Opening Remarks by UNEP Deputy Executive Director, Angela Cropper at the Intergovernmental and Multi-stakeholder Meeting on an Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

Nairobi, 5 October 2009 - Honorable Minister Michuki; Distinguished President of the Committee of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity; Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am so pleased to add my voice of welcome to you all to the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi and to the second meeting on an intergovernmental science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

First, may I extend our appreciation to you, Minister Michuki, for attending this meeting. For thirty six years, your beautiful country has been host to the UN Environment Programme and UN Habitat - the United Nations agency for human settlements.

The economic, social and environmental challenges that Kenya is tackling today are common to many countries of the developing and developed world. And, some of these are reflected in the deliberations of this meeting on future arrangements for improving the interface between science and policy on issues relating to biodiversity and ecosystem services. Kenya is a country which can attest to the centrality of biodiversity and ecosystem services to the foundation of economy and society.

I also express UNEP's gratitude to the Governments of France, Finland, Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Community, for their generosity in providing the financial support for organizing this meeting.

Distinguished delegates;

We meet against the background of intense preparations for celebrating the International Year of Biodiversity next year; a high level segment on biodiversity at the sixty-fifth session of UN General Assembly in 2010; and the 10th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan in October 2010. All of these will contribute to reviewing progress made in achieving the 2010 biodiversity targets and identifying future biodiversity targets.

These critical international events scheduled for next year are under-pinned by the grave findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. The Assessment brought home to us the fact that our ecosystems have degraded more rapidly and extensively over the past 50 years than in any comparable period in human history. This has resulted mainly from our approaches to satisfying the growing demands of human society for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel. The message emanating from the Assessment is clear: unless these problems are addressed urgently, the degradation of ecosystem services and the irreversible loss in biodiversity will substantially diminish the benefits that future generations could obtain from ecosystems.

Our reliance on the Earth's non renewable resources of oil and other fuel and non fuel minerals is well understood by most people. Yet, when caught in the tide of technological advances that seem to dominate our everyday lives, we can easily forget the extent to which the modern, industrial world still depends on the biological world: both on the ecological systems that we have already learned to manage and master, such as farms and orchards, and on those we have not.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is now widely recognized that the international community will most likely fail to achieve the targets for reducing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. This is a failure that will have serious implications for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. Reducing biodiversity loss and ecosystem services is not only an environmental issue but a human development problem.

Four years have passed since the release of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report. And yet, the world has continued to witness continuing losses and changes in biodiversity and ecosystem services. There seems to be a disconnect between the findings of the Assessment and the urgent changes required in the policies of governments.

While climate change is receiving close attention, deservedly so, an important basis of mitigation and adaptation options for dealing with climate change - i.e. biodiversity - is not being given the consideration that it deserves.

Most importantly, the rigor with which science is used in policymaking and implementing biodiversity conservation actions is still being questioned. This sometimes calls into question the credibility of arguments for tackling biodiversity issues at the policy and political levels.

It can be argued that a wide range of science-policy interfaces exist at multiple levels of governance. While these processes can provide an important basis that we can build upon and strengthen, I must underline the fact that they often apply different approaches, frameworks, and methodologies, and do not necessarily convey coherent messages to feed into decision-making processes.

If our approach to analyzing and understanding that interface remains fractured, we can expect that our responses will continue to lag behind the trends in biodiversity loss for want of being concerted, coherent and comprehensive. Meanwhile, the driving forces that contribute to biodiversity loss and undervaluing of ecosystems services continue unabated.

Another issue that I wish to bring to your attention is the lack of integrated analysis of policy implications of the scientific information generated by existing mechanisms. Even where policy relevance is clear, as in the case of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, independent evaluations have indicated that it has made little impact on decision-making, especially in developing countries. And this, despite the critical importance of biodiversity and ecosystem services to their economies.

This can be attributed to a number of reasons, including the lack of clear authoritative synthesis that is endorsed by an intergovernmental process, as in the case of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as the lack of clear targeted communication in the form of policy alternatives.

It should also be noted that, although there exist a wide range of assessments on biodiversity and ecosystem services, unlike in the field of climate change where the IPCC plays a critical role in providing timely scientific information to policy-makers, there is no regular periodic multi-level assessment process that provides the authoritative scientific information for policy-makers on the changes in biodiversity and ecosystem services, and their consequences for human well-being.

In this context, I draw your attention to the report by the European Environment Agency entitled: "Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000", which identified gaps between scientific findings and policy responses. This should be a wake up call to us all. The report analyzed various cases where early warnings provided by scientists were ignored or not fully translated into actions, such as risks related to asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PBCs) and acidification. In many cases, adequate scientific information about potential hazards was available, but the information was either not brought to the attention of the appropriate decision-makers early enough, or was not fully taken into consideration by policy-makers because of short-term economic and political interests. The report highlighted that the gap between the time the specific problems were identified and effective action was taken was fairly long - several years or decades, even a century!

I ask you, I ask you representatives of governments and societies across the world, can we afford this luxury? There is evidently a pressing need for an effective dialogue and interaction between scientific and policy communities.

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen;

On a personal note - if I may be allowed to interject a personal point of view. I have had the opportunity for some time and from various contexts to reflect on this need:

  • Having had a hand in launching the governance process of the Convention on Biological Diversity, as its interim Executive Secretary, including organizing the first scientific meeting to establish its Subsidiary Body for Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA);
  • Having supported the process to produce the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, as co-chair of its assessment panel;
  • And having now a shared responsibility with the Executive Director and other colleagues to ensure that UNEP continues to fulfill its mandate in service to the global community, as its current Deputy Executive Director:

I am firmly of the view that we need an effective mechanism to reflect, in a unified and authoritative way, the panoply of issues across the full range of biodiversity and ecosystem services, if we are to make an impact on the environmental phenomena and human needs with which we are all concerned.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

When we met in Putrajaya, Malaysia in November last year, my colleagues and I in UNEP were gratified by the general agreement among countries on the genuine need to strengthen the science-policy interface. Participants had recommended in the Chair's summary that mechanisms to achieve this should continue to be explored. And that a gap analysis should be undertaken for the purpose of guiding how that science-policy interface might be strengthened.

You have the report of that gap analysis before you. I would simply highlight here the main needs that have emerged from the gap analysis which could be considered at this meeting:

  • Need for further improvement in scientific independence of the science-policy interface through increased credibility, relevance and legitimacy;
  • Need for strengthening collaboration and coordination in generating knowledge to have a common and shared knowledge base;
  • Need for regular and timely assessments to generate and disseminate policy-relevant advice;
  • Need to support policy implementation;
  • Need for building capacity, particularly for developing countries to produce scientific knowledge, use science effectively in policy-making processes and also to participate actively in science-policy dialogues.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I hope that in this five day meeting, participants will discuss and decide on the concrete steps required to address these needs identified in the document prepared by the secretariat entitled, "Needs and actions to strengthen the science-policy interface on biodiversity and ecosystem services".

It is our hope that this meeting will clearly indicate the means by which we might strengthen the science-policy interface, including a decision on the establishment of the new mechanism under consideration.

Twenty one years ago a similar response was made in relation to the need for a global interface between science and policy in relation to perceptions of changing climate, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established. It has been serviced jointly since then by UNEP and the World Meteorological Organisation. We have seen how its four Assessment Reports in that time have successively - and successfully - catalysed the negotiation of the Framework Convention on Climate change, the development of the Kyoto Protocol and its ratification, and now the need to formulate a continuing framework for global commitments to respond to the unfolding challenges posed by climate change. In that time also it has established much practice to fulfill requirements for independence, credible science, responsiveness to needs of decision-makers in a policy relevant but non-prescriptive way, and involvement of governments and other stakeholders in its processes. That edifice of purpose, practice and performance is there to be used, as relevant and appropriate, in guiding your consideration of how we might meet similar needs in the domain of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Finally, let me say that the Secretariat of UNEP has been privileged to be at your service in your process of considering how to strengthen the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services. And given UNEP's role in the United Nations System to address the environmental foundation of sustainable development, as well as its historical function as an effective link between the scientific community and policy makers, the Secretariat of UNEP stands ready to continue to support you on this important issue, and to respond as you may wish to the recommendations and decisions that may come out of this meeting.

I am very pleased to make these opening remarks, and to be a personal witness to a process that has the possibility of leading to a historic decision.

I thank you very much.