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Tuesday, 22 January 2013

IPBES PLENARY: the first two days (21-22.1.2013)

By SCB-ES Board member: Guy Pe’er.

 IPBES plenary is on the move. Delegates from over a 100 countries meet to discuss how governments, scientists and “others” – many others – interact to jointly resolve Earth’s environmental problems…
Sounds bombastic: After a short opening (very short, in fact: what a nice surprise!), everyone delves into dealing with texts. Lots of texts (“words, words, words” as Hamlet may say).

I sit behind the empty seats of Samoa and the Syrian Arab Republic, later moving to an even better spot behind the empty seats of Poland and Qatar. From here I could watch how discussions about every detail of section “one-slash-one-slash-two-INF-3-a“ (etc.) slowly form the structure and procedures of a body which could reshape the way governments throughout the world respond to the biodiversity crisis and its implications on nature and our future.

Obviously the delicate discussions are constantly pulled and pushed between those who are generally more in favour or more careful, those who recognize the critical role of scientists versus who those who are more concerned about the rights and roles of indigenous people and their knowledge.
Also it is pretty obvious that the plenary discussions are merely the superficial reflection of much bigger currents of corridor-discussion and evening-to-night sessions, where “stakeholders” (that is, the broad form of “we”) actually have the opportunity to interact with each other and with governmental representatives.

No point of going into any details, as there are many of them. Instead I would prefer to focus on one comment which I found particularly thought-invoking. On the first day (that is, yesterday), Japan made a remark which might have passed rather unnoticed about the question how to deal with natural disasters. Quite understandable, of course. Now, what does this comment implies on the structure and “rules of procedure” of IPBES, if we concentrate only on this example?

First, we are talking about a “local” (national) disaster. Is this global enough? Obviously, it’s a reflection of a global phenomenon where human populations increase, infrastructures are pushed to more and more risky locations, and consequently natural disasters affect us more strongly. In this case the disaster was not induced by climate change, but we all know that in many cases such disasters relate to extreme weather events, and are often aggravated by ecosystem collapse. In other words, local or national case-studies are nothing else but manifestations of the global crisis.

Second, natural disasters necessitate a quick decision and action: Do we want to assess the causes and impacts of this or that event? If so, the deciding body must be able to act here and now. This affects the “rules of procedures”: if the deciding body is too heavy, or depends on “the next meeting of the plenary”, it cannot respond effectively. Switzerland’s representative put it nicely: IPBES must respect the MEP (the “multidisciplinary expert panel” – who will have to decide on such issues) and give it freedom, for the value of the MEP is its scientific independence.  The texts that will determine who sits in the MEP and what procedures it applies are currently under discussion.

Guy Pe'er at the IPBES, Bonn
Finally, if the IPBES wants to act rapidly in response to natural disasters, they also have to find the experts asap. Who would they contact and how? This global organization called IPBES will be tested in its capacity to work, effectively and quickly, with various organizations and people from local to global (in fact, mostly local…). Our point was: The only way to do it is with an effective “stakeholder engagement strategy”. Bolivia’s way of putting it: “we need to set-up eco-regional structures within which scientists and academics, indigenous networks and social organizations must be included”. Many of us are rather concerned about this issue, because this is was one of the major reasons to decide about establishing IPBES from the first place: previous bodies such as SBSTTA (Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice) did not manage to successfully engage scientists.
And still, the Plenary couldn’t reach a consensus even on the question of the admission of observers (that’s us) to the plenary.

Many breaks and sessions are still ahead of us for discussions, and the road is long, bumpy and exhausting, but it’s surely interesting to see how the puppet of words forms colours and shape.

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