What’s the scenario with global biodiversity?

By Chris McKay March 9th, 2016

Scenario modelling is a tool used by climate scientists to project what the future might look like based on different scenarios. Now, this same tool is being used to benefit the world's biodiversity and ecosystems.
Fishing boat on grey ocean waters with sea gulls circling against a grey, gloomy sky.

Fishing boat off the coast of Spain, near the Cíes Islands. Modelling future scenarios for biodiversity could be used to build more sustainable fisheries. Image: Armando G Alonso / Flickr

When the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC)—the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, consisting of 195 member countries—reviews and assesses the most recent scientific information on climate change, one of the central things they are concerned with are climate projections and future scenarios. That is, what the future climate is likely to be and what impact that might have on our economies, societies and ecosystems.

The IPCC regularly update a range of future scenarios based on factors that affect climate, like greenhouse gas emissions. They can show us what the future climate might look if we continue on the same greenhouse gas emissions trend, or if we reduce or increase our rate of emissions. They can then predict what is likely to happen if certain policies are implemented or actions are taken to curb emissions. Having commenced this work in 1988, the IPCC’s ability to model these future scenarios, and how we are tracking against them, has become increasingly refined.

Now, the world’s biodiversity and ecosystems are set to benefit from this kind of scenario modelling. Late February in Kuala Lumpur, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)—which does for biodiversity what the IPCC does for climate—adopted an approach for using scenarios and models to inform policy making related to biodiversity and ecosystem services.

The approach that was adopted by representatives of IPBES’s 124 member nations is spelled out in the report, The Methodological Assessment of Scenarios and Models of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The assessment was conducted by 83 experts and cited in more than 3,000 scientific papers and, in two rounds of peer review, received 4,066 comments from 230 independent reviewers.

“IPBES’s goal is to give policymakers and all of society a more complete understanding of how people and nature interact, and how policy and management decisions made today might affect these interactions in the future,” said Dr Simon Ferrier, the scenarios and models assessment’s Co-Chair and Senior Principal Research Scientist with CSIRO.

Examples include the use of scenarios and models to sustainably manage fisheries or to carry out land use planning that balances needs for development and biodiversity protection.

In setting out the rationale for using scenarios and model, IPBES had as an objective to move away from the current reactive mode of decision-making, to a proactive mode in which society anticipates change and thereby minimises adverse impacts, and capitalises on important opportunities.

“The scenarios and models assessment is the starting gun for mobilising scientists, decision makers and other stakeholders to jointly embark on an ambitious, global effort to better understand and use scientific information about biodiversity and ecosystem services,” said Dr Karachepone N. Ninan, the other Co-Chair of the scenarios and models assessment and Chairperson of the Centre for Economics, Environment and Society in Bangalore, India.

IPBES’s member nations also approved the commencement of a new global assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services, which will be completed by 2019, and will measure progress towards meeting the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, 2011-2020, and the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Mobilisation of work on scenarios and models across the broader scientific community will allow this assessment to also explore the potential consequences of alternative policy options for maintaining and improving the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services into the future.

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