Talking Science: Biodiversity in the 21st Century

Yesterday evening the British Library hosted a fascinating debate led by Professor Georgina Mace FRS, President-Elect of the British Ecological Society. A large audience assembled to hear Prof. Mace discuss ‘Biodiversity in the 21st Century: are we missing the target’, at the tenth in the British Library’s ‘Talk Science’ series.

Prof. Mace began by providing some background to the development of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD developed, along with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The ‘2010 target’, to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010, was set at the CBD ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP) meeting in 2002. The COP-10 meeting in Nagoya last month resulted in Parties signing up to a new set of targets, for 2020. Unfortunately the final version of these targets is not yet available, although an advance unedited version has now been released by the CBD (as of 2 November).

Prof. Mace suggested that the process of setting the 2010 target had proceeded somewhat via ‘horse trading’ and that with the formation of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), Parties to the CBD would be forced to proceed differently with negotiations, with greater attention to the science than perhaps previously.

There was an interesting discussion about the role of scientists in policy-making. Prof. Mace commented that the role of scientists is to provide advice, being ‘policy relevant, not policy prescriptive’, in the words of Prof. Bob Watson, Defra Chief Scientific Adviser. Prof. Mace recognised that this was not always easy, but cautioned that scientists could lose scientific credibility if their advice was clouded by opinion. Another member of the audience commented that scientists could comment both as scientists, and as citizens with their own opinions, and that the situation would have to be judged for the appropriateness of each.

There was a discussion about the appropriateness of placing economic values on ecosystem services: can we trust markets and the economy to conserve these services? Prof. Mace commented that there were three main arguments for conserving biodiversity: for ethical/ aesthetic reasons, recognising its intrinsic value; for the direct value of nature, for example through ecotourism; the ecosystem services that humans rely on. Prof. Mace said that all three arguments were equally valid and that in fact, argument three conserved different aspects of biodiversity than did argument two: for example, conserving charismatic megafauna for ecotourism purposes, and conserving soil biodiversity for ecosystem service provision.

Other interesting questions from the floor concerned how changes in ecosystem services could actually be measured – for which the answer was inconclusive – and why we couldn’t simply use ‘nature’ as a proxy for biodiversity and ecosystem services, making these concepts easier for people to relate to. Prof. Mace commented that ‘nature’ implied naturalness and pristine environments, which was not a reflection of the true diversity of species and ecosystems, whilst in fact some definitions of biodiversity did pick up on concepts of ‘naturalness’. The implication was that ‘biodiversity’ can be useful terminology, if adequately communicated.