By Pierre Commenville, former Programme Officer with IUCN, now Deputy Director for Protected Areas at the French Ministry for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy.

Discussions on creating a global science-policy interface on biodiversity have been underway for the past decade. While the potential for such an initiative is enormous, we have struggled to find the right design, one that ensures legitimacy through ownership by national governments, scientific credibility and relevance to the big issues facing society. I have been part of the effort to build this mechanism — the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and a close witness to the discussions.

Five years ago, IPBES was discussed during a ‘multi-stakeholder’ forum where national representation was nothing more than the participation of some interested scientists and policy makers. In 2010 several countries agreed to establish IPBES as a formal intergovernmental body allowing for strong public participation.

Then, in December 2013, the first work plan of the Platform was adopted for 2014-2018. This includes developing a set of assessments on pollination and food production, land degradation and invasive species, aimed at providing policy makers with the tools to tackle pressing environmental challenges.

A set of procedures was also agreed for implementation of the work plan. These restrict the direct participation of civil society to a minimum, with only a few options for direct nomination of experts (non-governmental nominations cannot exceed 20% of the selected experts) and review of the reports. A stakeholder engagement strategy, designed to involve a wide range of groups in the Platform’s work was not discussed and its adoption postponed.

As IPBES has been designed as a non legally-binding instrument, there were expectations that civil society organisations might have direct access to its work, as long as their inputs are relevant and of the scientific quality required. Naturally, IPBES stakeholders include the large academic networks such as IUCN’s expert commissions and other science-based organisations, as well as international representatives of indigenous peoples whose knowledge has been recognized as an important resource. Put simply, stakeholders are the knowledge providers. They form a vast community, much larger than the knowledge providers of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which are allowed to provide direct submissions. The knowledge on biodiversity is far more developed, diverse and scattered than that on climate change.

In many cases, governments have developed national procedures to harness biodiversity knowledge. They have also held national consultations to understand the demands of society on biodiversity conservation and sustainable use. These processes are immensely important for IPBES as they should be used to determine the relevant experts and to communicate the findings of the various reports and assessments.

While at the international level, global networks should cooperate to contribute effectively to IPBES, national processes represent the appropriate setting for debating the most relevant expertise and available knowledge. These procedures, when they exist, should work with adequate time and financial resources and with maximum transparency. One good option is to nest these processes in institutions that are independent from government and which have the potential to reach out to different sectors on different scales. And, when they do not exist, IPBES should promote their establishment. This may have direct benefits for the recognition of experts, whatever discipline they are working on, and could help improve the allocation of resources for their work.

Making sure the right procedures are in place at the national level to involve as broad a spectrum of experts and organisations as possible has the potential to ensure the bottom-up approach that IPBES is seeking. If we seize this opportunity, then the full participation of civil society may prove one of its greatest achievements.