Review of assessments and their role in the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystem services
Assessments are social processes, which aim to bring the findings of science to bear on policy and decision-making. They involve a dialogue and interface between the policy or decision-making community and the scientific community, in order to: 1) determine and articulate policy needs for scientific information; 2) to respond to those needs through a credible process of information compilation and then critical judgement of that information; and 3) the communication of the assessment findings to decision-makers in a policy-relevant manner. Although scientific reviews have been widely conducted, assessments on biodiversity and ecosystems services, which provide critical judgement of the information in response to the needs of decision-makers, are relatively recent.
Assessments can be undertaken at multiple scales, to meet the needs of multiple or single decision-makers, and there is a wide variety of existing and recent assessment initiatives focused on biodiversity and ecosystem services at global, regional, national and local scales.
Recent and ongoing assessment initiatives
During the last decade, there has been a proliferation of assessments relating to biodiversity and ecosystem services, at global and sub-global scales. Drawing on early experiences of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other assessments such as on ozone and on biodiversity in the 1990s, the most recent series of global assessments have increasingly been designed to be policy-relevant, credible and legitimate. They have also increasingly aimed to be more integrated in the manner in which biodiversity and ecosystems services issues are assessed.
Key amongst recent global assessments of biodiversity and ecosystem services have been the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), the 4th Global Environment Outlook (GEO4), the IPCC 4th assessment report (AR4), the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture (CAWMA), the 2nd Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO2), the 2005 Forest Resources Assessment (FRA), the Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA), and the global Assessment of Peatlands, Biodiversity and Climate Change.
The thematic focus of recent global assessments varies between those focusing strictly on biodiversity assessment, such as the GBO or IUCN Red List assessments, those encompassing a broad ecosystem service assessment, such as the MA and GEO, and those focussing on a narrower range of specific ecosystem services, such as FRA, GIWA, IAASTD, LADA. Likewise, many of the recent and ongoing global assessments cover a full range of ecosystems, such as in the MA, GEO, and IPCC, and some focus on specific ecosystem types, such as GIWA, LADA, FRA, and the Assessment of Peatlands, Biodiversity and Climate Change.
Most recent and ongoing assessments evaluate both environmental and socio-economic factors. Key elements include: status and trend of natural resources and their relationship with human well-being and development, environmental issues and impacts of drivers of change on the environment, and scenarios and response options. Only one of the ongoing global assessments, the Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO), additionally evaluates the implementation of a specific corresponding policy mechanism (the CBD) for its impact on biodiversity and ecosystem services. The World Water Development Report (WWDR) and the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture (CAWMA) also considered the effectiveness of resource management, but not with regards to a particular policy, and the MA considered the effectiveness of a broad range of policy responses, but not comprehensively with regard to particular policy mechanisms.
In addition to variation in content and coverage, recent assessments also vary considerably in their design and process. Some, such as the MA and GIWA, were designed as one-off assessments that could be repeated in the future should the demand and resources exist. Others, such as GEO, GBO, IPCC, and FRA, are part of ongoing assessment initiatives (see diagram illustrating schedule and Table below). Some, such as the MA, the IPCC and GEO, involve a broad spectrum of the scientific community, whilst others, such as the GBO and FRA, are based on contributions from a more selective group of experts (see Table below). The breadth of stated target audiences also varies considerably between assessments.
There is a wide range of scientific community and non-governmental involvement in assessments. Assessments with high numbers of individual involvement (1000-2500 individuals) include MA, IPCC, GIWA, and the RedList assessments. Assessments with medium involvement (400-900 individuals) include CAWMA and the GEO. Assessments with low involvement (<60 individuals compiling the assessment material) include AoA (GMA), FRA, TEEB, GBO, and WWDR. Despite the relatively smaller number of scientists involved in some of these processes, many of these assessments have very strong and credible scientific involvement within multi-stakeholder advisory groups or guidance teams, and often draw on the work of many hundreds or more individuals beyond the direct assessment team.
In the case of terrestrial biodiversity and ecosystem services, the vast majority of the data and much of the expertise for its analysis is found in civil society – including in the various science institutions and networks, and in non-governmental organisations at national, regional and international scales. Data, information and expertise is also held by local communities, and the private sector (especially in the case of some provisioning services).
A number of recent global assessments, such as GEO4, and the IPCC 4th assessment, have been overseen by intergovernmental governance bodies, providing significant legitimacy for their findings amongst national governments. In the case of the MA and IAASTD, the assessments were overseen by a multi-stakeholder board, including governmental, non-governmental and private sector stakeholders. Experiences from these and earlier assessments, such as the Global Biodiversity Assessment in the mid-1990’s, suggest that strong governmental involvement in assessment governance supports (although does not guarantee) the uptake of assessment findings by governments. In addition to Governments, many civil society actors, including NGOs, private sector organisations, and community groups are also key users of assessment information.
Along with the recent proliferation of global assessments, there has also been an increasing number of sub-global assessments conducted and planned in the last decade – at scales from continental to local communities. The MA, GIWA, GEO4 and IAASTD explicitly included sub-global (in most cases regional, and in the case of the MA some multi-scale) assessment elements. A range of independent regional assessments have also been conducted, such as the Arctic Climate Change Impact Assessment, and there have been many national level assessment-type activities, often as part of national state of the environment reporting processes. In the coastal and marine realm, the Global and Regional Marine Assessment Database (GRAMED) lists more than 70 regional assessments.
Sub-global assessments vary considerably in their scope and coverage, depending on the geographic location and information needs for decision-making at the scale of assessment. They also use a wide variety of data and indicators, which has allowed for those assessments to better respond to user needs at the scale of operation.
Schedule of key international biodiversity and ecosystem services assessments, 2000-2010.
GIWA- Global International Waters Assessment; MA – Millennium Ecosystem Assessment; WWDR – World Water Development Report; FRA – Forest Resources Assessment; LADA – Land Degradation Assessment; IPCC – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; GBO – Global Biodiversity Outlook; CAWMA – Comprehensive Assessment of water management in agriculture; GEO – Global Environmental Outlook; IAASTD – International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development; AoA (GMA) – building the foundations for a Regular Process for the Global Reporting and Assessment of the state of the marine environment, including socio-economic aspects.
Strengths of existing processes
There is no doubt that issues which have been treated comprehensively by a credible, legitimate and relevant assessment processes have had higher political prominence, and have been addressed in more comprehensive and sophisticated ways in policy fora than those issues which have not been considered by such assessments. The Scientific Assessments of Ozone depletion, and the IPCC, for example, have had considerable impact on the discourse and (in the case of climate change, ongoing) policy processes. It is a widely held belief that this is in large part due to the intergovernmental character of the governing bodies of these assessments. These assessments are frequently cited as the latest source of credible information, including in decisions of the MEAs and in ongoing policy dialogues.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, despite being frequently cited as falling short in its communication potential, has however brought the concept of ecosystem services, and to some degree the process of integrated assessment, into mainstream environmental and development political processes, and is frequently cited in environmental, and development dialogues. Likewise, GBO2 remains a key point of reference within the CBD to the status of global biodiversity. For those user communities that have requested scientific information, and for which assessments have been undertaken at the particular scale and with the particular focus of relevance, there have been considerable benefits from the recent series of assessment initiatives. In particular, regular assessments, such as the IPCC, the Ozone assessment, the GBO, and FRA, provide an opportunity to periodically update the state of knowledge, and to provide focused assessment on emerging policy issues.
Weaknesses, gaps and needs in assessment processes
Although many recent assessments have been designed with the explicit intention of influencing decision-makers within the context of Multilateral Environmental Agreements, only very few, including the MA, IPCC, LADA and GBO, have been explicitly endorsed by those MEAs that they seek to inform. Of the assessments explicitly endorsed or otherwise officially recognised by MEAs, only the IPCC and GBO are anticipated to be repeated in the future - the remainder were conceived as one-off initiatives. Other assessments, such as GEO and GIWA have been endorsed by other decision-making, or intergovernmental, fora such as the UNEP Governing Council. Lack of endorsement by the MEAs can restrict the ability of MEA Secretariats to play a role in supporting the assessment processes, and communicating their findings to Government users. Although some assessments with intergovernmental governing bodies have had relatively little impact on policy processes, it is clear that formal recognition and endorsement by users is critical for the successful impact of an assessment.
At the sub-global scale there remains relatively little coherence or coordination between approaches to assessment within and between scales. Even those assessments that are well networked within the MA follow-up process make use of a wide variety of data and indicators within a diversity of thematic scope and geographical coverage, which complicates the synthesis of lessons across assessment initiatives, and hampers the process of drawing conclusions relating to multi-scale aspects of biodiversity and ecosystem services. There remains significant potential for better linking assessments at different geographic scales, and with different but related thematic foci, through the use of a core set of common, scaleable variables. This would allow for the assessment of linkages between ecosystem services at different scales – for example global climate regulation and local climate-related hazard prevention. Likewise, effective and coherent assessments linking global and local values of biodiversity conservation have been limited to date.
A wide variety of conceptual frameworks are also used for assessment design and implementation, although at a global scale for recent integrated assessments, and in many regional and national assessments, there has been an increasing convergence on variations of the framework developed in the MA global and sub-global assessments (an ecosystem services and human well-being focused variation of the DPSIR framework). The forthcoming publication of the MA methodology manual, currently being finalised by UNEP-WCMC and partners, is likely to help considerably in bringing coherence to assessment process and design in the future, although there remains a continued need for coordination, and remains a gap in any process by which syntheses from the ongoing and completed sub-global assessments can be drawn in the future.
Many assessment initiatives have been limited by data and information availability. This is the case at all geographic scales for a range of ecosystem services and for biodiversity. Gaps in data for biodiversity and non-provisioning ecosystem services are particularly widespread, and in many cases prevent more comprehensive assessment being completed at global, regional, national or local scales. In terms of scope and coverage of ecosystems considered by biodiversity and ecosystem services assessments, there has also been relatively less assessment focussed in some key biomes and system types, including islands, mountains, wetlands, oceans, polar and urban systems. Relatively less attention has also been given to regulating and supporting services, and there remain key assessment gaps on the interlinkages between biodiversity and climate change.
Whilst there are expected to be ongoing periodic assessments planned that focus on climate (IPCC), water (WWDR), forest resources (FRA) and biodiversity (GBO), (see diagram illustrating schedule) few of these or other ongoing assessments provide flexible mechanisms to respond to demands from Multilateral Environmental Agreements for targeted or rapid integrated assessments on emerging issues relating to biodiversity and the full spectrum of ecosystem services. In addition, although there may be spin-off benefits from the convening of the scientific community which helps to accelerate the publication of scientific papers, the long time-scale periodicity of the ongoing global assessments can preclude responding to many emerging issues in a timely manner to guide decision-making, even for those selected issues which are covered by such assessments.
Global assessment initiatives relating to biodiversity and ecosystem services
Water and Agriculture
Benefits, costs and impacts of water management.
Global and national (developing countries).
~700 agricultural and environmental scientists.
Investors, private sector, and decision-makers.
Periodic (5 years)
State of forests, drivers of pressures and change.
Global, regional, and national.
Global advisory group guides compilation of national data.
National policy-makers, and international negotiations.
Periodic - 2001, 2006, 2010
Status and trends of biodiversity and analysis of CBD implementation.
Summary of existing information by selected experts.
CBD and governments.
Issue analysis and assessment of challenges.
Global, regional, national, typological.
UNCED, CSD, and EU Energy Initiative for Poverty Eradication.
Environmental change and development
Periodic global and regional assessment. Ongoing sub-global reporting.
State and trends of environment, human dimensions of change, scenarios.
Global and regional.
~400 individual scientists involved as authors and reviewers in GEO4.
UNEP Governing Council, and governments.
Global assessment in 2006, sub global assessments in 2005.
Status and scenarios for transboundary waters (coastal and inland).
Global, regional, and subregional.
~2000 experts and scientists.
Decision-makers, environmental managers, GEF and its partners.
Agricultural knowledge, science and technology.
Global and 5 regions.
~900 experts and scientists.
National and local governments, and international agencies.
Periodic (~5 years)
Assessment causes, impacts, and scenarios for adaptation and mitigation.
Global, regional, and sub-regional.
~2500 authors and reviewers in AR4.
Public, private sector, national and international conventions.
Status assessments, monitoring methodology, strategy recommendations.
Global, national and local.
22 international and national partner organizations and agencies.
UNCCD and national governments.
Ecosystem Services and Human Well-being
One-off global assessment 2001-2005. Sub-global assessments ongoing
Assessment of status, scenarios and response options.
Global and ~30 sub-global assessments from local to regional.
~1300 individual scientists involved as authors and reviewers.
CBD, Ramsar, UNCCD, CMS, and Private Sector
Conservation status of species in the wild
Ongoing assessment, with periodic updates
Threat assessment of species.
~2500 members of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission.
Species conservation practitioners and policy makers.
Economics of biodiversity and ecosystem services
One-off, currently ongoing
Analysis of costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem services, and costs of management.