Thursday, 11 October 2007

Science-based policy making. This often discussed goal has proven difficult to implement in practice. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it look relatively easy. The recognition that the IPCC’s work has garnered for the climate change issue, topped off by the announcement that it would receive the Nobel Peace Prize, has resulted in a great deal of IPCC-envy in the international environmental community. What lessons does the IPCC experience offer?

Lynn Wagner, Ph.D.
Editor, Linkages Update
and MEA Bulletin

The credibility attributed to the IPCC’s assessments highlights the importance of engaging respected scientists from a broad range of backgrounds, although this has been a challenge for the scientific bodies of many multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). The Rio conventions have adopted models that permit all member governments to nominate representatives to their scientific subsidiary bodies, but the resulting discussions are often criticized for sounding more like “mini Conferences of the Parties” rather than scientific exchanges. Several MEAs, including the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, have developed formulas to ensure that the relatively few scientific representatives selected to serve on their scientific bodies represent a range of expertise and geographic criteria. Recognition that the Rio conventions’ models are not resulting in the desired level of scientific inquiry and participation in examining questions on those bodies’ agendas has spurred some reform efforts. The Convention on Biological Diversity’s scientific body is engaged in a discussion on its own effectiveness (http://www.iisd.ca/biodiv/sbstta12/). Consultations on an International Mechanism of Scientific Expertise on Biodiversity (IMoSEB) have considered a number of possible structures through which scientific assessments related to biodiversity could be generated (http://www.iisd.ca/ymb/imoseb5/). In September, delegates to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification established a new format – a scientific conference – for that Convention’s scientific committee (http://www.iisd.ca/desert/cop8/).

Developing a procedure that creates an assessment for policy makers based on the scientific advice is another challenge altogether. Policy makers ultimately need to take ownership of the scientific findings and incorporate the recommended actions into their decisions, but a mechanism through which this will take place has not always been incorporated into the scientific advice process or implemented in a transparent manner. During 2007, the IPCC held three meetings during which political decision makers discussed summaries for policy makers line-by-line. Our Earth Negotiations Bulletin reports record the debates and trade-offs involved in approving the summaries for policy makers (http://www.iisd.ca/climate/ipwg3/). A transparent process can provide information on the expected winners and losers, including in the natural environment, from the policies that ultimately move forward as recommendations to negotiators in the policy arena.

Inevitable calls to replicate the IPCC model for other issue clusters should keep in mind that the IPCC pre-dates, and in fact spurred decision makers to adopt, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Furthermore, the IPCC produces assessments of existing research that is relatively advanced and has increasingly converged in its findings of climate change’s global implications.

Among the many lessons that will no doubt be drawn from the IPCC experience, another might focus on what the IPCC can do for other MEAs and issue areas. Delegates at recent meetings of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the Convention on Biological Diversity have asked if the IPCC could be asked to examine issues related to their agendas. It might also prove fruitful to examine the IPCC outputs in this respect. IPCC 26 was informed by the UN International Strategy on Disaster Reduction secretariat that it will be writing a document on links between adaptation to climate change, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development, using material from the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (http://www.iisd.ca/download/pdf/enb12321e.pdf). Other environmental agreements might find this to be a worthwhile approach to address their IPCC-envy in an effort to pursue scientific-based policy making.
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