The challenges of undertaking global biodiversity assessments

Thursday, 24th March 2016

Dr KatrinPager, James Hutton Institute  reports back on the recent ESCom Series event


The Uptake and Evaluation strand of the Ecosystem Service Community of Scotland hosted a discussion panel focused on The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Three IPBES contributing scientists (Drs Allan Watt, AdamVanbergen and Prof Mark Rounsevell),were joined by Sally Thomas, Head of Land Use and Biodiversity policy team, Scottish Government and Dr Diana Mortimer the co-ordinator of the UK IPBES Stakeholder Hub ( Each panel member gave an introduction to their role in relation to IPBES, which was followed by questions from participants.

My takeaway points were:

  1. The difficulties of integrating tacit local knowledge into biodiversity and ecosystem assessments are yet to be overcome. Although the process of ILK (indigenous local knowledge) and its associated Task Force aim to encourage the consideration of such knowledge in the assessments, it is proving full of challenges regarding how to codify non-codified local knowledge. When local people bringing forward information this may be coupled with expectations about how and what purpose it is going to be used for, making it difficult to disentangle advocacy and ‘objective’ scientific evidence.
  2. The numerous layers from international panels, UN regions, national governments, interest groups, agencies and local governments bring about transaction costs for coordination, sharing information and streamlining processes. Not all governments pledge money to the IPBES process, which creates imbalances in their influence. Cooperation between nations can be extremely sensitive to statements and behaviour, so that even hosting an observer from a certain country can become an issue. My impression was that politics pose a real risk of delaying or derailing the assessment process.
  3. The challenges of carrying out assessments based on extremely different datasets make comprehensive global assessments difficult. For example, there is a rich, detailed data available on biodiversity in Western Europe, while data (and scientific experts) are scarce in the vast expanse of Eastern Europe (in the UN classification it reaches all the way to Eastern Russia). Scientists address this imbalance in the data by including confidence statements. However, I wonder to what extent policy makers can interpret these and how much support for interpretation actually comes from scientists. This highlights the importance of balancing time invested in writing the assessments vs time invested in interpreting and communicating the results.


Interestingly, all three points are discussed in more depth in a recent paper by Kovacz and Pataki in Environmental Science and Policy.

Overall, this was a lively, enjoyable and useful event to hear in more detail about the IPBES based on insider experience. Around 40 participants from across policy, practice and academia were able to meet and discuss the challenges and benefits of the IPBES process in a Scottish context.  Many of these topics: local knowledge; imbalance in data availability; and how to communicate complex and uncertain findings will be further discussed at the ESCom Annual Conference (20-21st April 2016)

You can watch the discussion on our YouTube channel


Kovács, E. K., and G. Pataki. 2016. The participation of experts and knowledges in the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Environmental Science & Policy 57:131-139.