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New UN panel to focus on saving life on Earth

In South Korea last week 230 delegates from 85 nations approved a new UN science panel focusing on saving life on Earth, known as the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The panel, which is to be modeled off of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is meant to bridge the gap between scientific understanding of biodiversity loss and the policy decisions necessary to stop it.

“IPBES represents a major breakthrough in terms of organizing a global response to the loss of living organisms and forests, freshwaters, coral reefs and other ecosystems that generate multi-trillion dollar services that underpin all life — including economic life — on Earth,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Program (UNEP).

The panel’s creation comes after governments around the world failed to live up to a pledge to turn around biodiversity loss by this year: a pledge that both scientists and officials agree has been drastically missed, threatening not only species around the world but also the ‘ecosystem services’ they provide such as pollination, carbon sequestration, pest control, food, medicinal breakthroughs, and clean water.

A red millipede scurrys up a tree in Madagascar. Millipede are important for decomposition and nutrient cycles in soils. Hand shows size-comparison. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“Alongside climate change, biodiversity loss is the greatest threat we face,” explained Caroline Spelman, the UK environment secretary, to The Guardian. “Our very way of life is linked to the natural world; the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink; as well as providing the habitats for the Earth’s millions of species of plants and animals. IPBES will provide governments and policy makers across the world with independent and trusted scientific advice so that we can take action to protect the world’s natural environment.”

Much like the IPCC, the IPBES will regularly release reports for governments on the state of biodiversity around the world and in specific regions. Other functions could include encouraging research in neglected areas, as well as providing research and conservation opportunities in developing countries.

“The essence of this vision is to ensure environmental sustainability while pursuing development,” Chan-Woo Kim, chairman of the meeting and director-general of South Korea’s environment ministry, said as reported by the BBC. “For this to be realized, it is crucial to have a credible, legitimate and policy-relevant understanding of biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

The next step for the IPBES is to be formally established by the UN General Assembly meeting in September and then endorsed by environment ministers at UNEP’s global meeting in February of next year.

According to many experts, the world is in the midst of a mass extinction. The IUCN Red List, the global authority on species’ endangerment, has found that 40 percent of its evaluated species are threatened with extinction, while researchers estimate that extinctions are happening at rates 100 to 1000 times the background extinction rate as determined by fossils.

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