Envisioning the future of biodiversity

March 4, 2019

By Alastair Spriggs

Imagine a world where the oceans and coastlines are full of life; rivers are awarded legal rights as living systems; and strong cultural institutions ensure the recognition of indigenous peoples’ sovereignty over territories, resources and knowledge.

A group of experts and scientists from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES) believe that these types of visions of alternative futures, which focus on protecting nature’s contributions to people, could influence the next generation of policy and decision making around biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Between March 25 and March 29the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies will be hosting the IPBES Scenarios and Models expert group as they hope to develop scientific tools and frameworks needed to quantify the monetary value of nature to highlight the importance of biodiversity, and understand how these envisioned futures might be achieved.

“We know that biodiversity is under threat, but we’re trying to broaden the conversation about what biodiversity actually means,” said 2017 Wall Scholar William Cheung, associate professor at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, and coordinating lead author at IPBES. “It’s not just about the number of endangered dolphins, or the terrestrial area of rainforest, there is a need to recognize the different ways humans use and value nature.”

(William Cheung, 2017 Wall Scholar)

“It’s time to take biodiversity management seriously,” he added, pointing to a recent IPBES report that found nature’s total contributions to people is estimated to be more than US$24 trillion per year, yet roughly 65 per cent of these contributions are in decline as a result of climate change.

With the expiration of the 2011-2020 Strategic Plan for Biodiversity and it’s corresponding Aichi Biodiversity Targets — the overarching framework in biodiversity conservation for the entire United Nations system and international biodiversity related conventions — fast approaching, Cheung and the IPBES Scenarios and Models expert group will be developing the framework for a post-2020 agenda.

Dr. Carolyn Lundquist, a principal scientist at New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, and member of IPBES, says current framework is limiting as it places too much emphasis on protected areas.

According to Lundquist, existing biodiversity scenarios fail to include policy objectives that relate to social-ecological feedbacks. An over prioritizing on the protection of land and ecosystem creates little incentive for governments to shift towards more sustainable management.

“If we can create scenarios and metrics that allow us to recognize the quantifiable benefits that nature is providing people, as well as the more intangible, harmonized, and cultural benefits, then  maybe governments would be more incentivized to pay more attention to protecting biodiversity,” she added.

The first step in formulating this framework began at a 2017 visioning workshop held in Auckland, New Zealand, where the IPBES Scenarios and Models expert group and various stakeholders created a set of visions, called Nature Futures, based on how participants valued nature and how they hope the future might look like.

These Nature Futures include a diverse range of predictions and visions, from alternative futures catered towards maximizing human extraction from ecosystem services, to futures that focus on the cultural aspects, emphasizing the values of indigenous peoples who live in harmony with nature.

However, both Lundquist and Cheung agree that developing the indicators, scenarios, and models needed to create a framework for these abstract nature values and visions is the most challenging task lies ahead.

“This type of abstract thinking around quantifying nature values and creating scenarios and models to supplement them has historically been too difficult to consider. But, this is what fascinates us, and we accept the challenge,” she added. The goal of the week-long workshop hosted by the Peter Wall Institute is to fill these gaps.

The team must now supplement the Nature Futures with models that use scientific data to project how animals, the earth, and society may change, and to create high tech models and parameters that allow scientists and stakeholders to understand the pathway to achieve these future scenarios.

Cheung says specific visions for biodiversity and ecosystem services don’t currently exist. But if a framework can be developed, he believes that this workshop will contribute to new supportive theories and science that could lay the foundation for informing decision making and policy, similar to how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change helped shape the 2015 Paris Agreement.

A range of political scientists, economists, and various stakeholder groups will also be participating in the workshop, that Cheung hopes will provide opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. Anyone interested in learning about the work of IPBES and its contributions to informing policies for sustainable developmentis is also invited to attend a public panel discussion scheduled for March 26.

“I know the Peter Wall Institute as a hub that promotes big ideas and out of the box thinking, I think the Institute’s values align well with abstract and complex work that we are trying to accomplish,” he added.