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Nations approve first guidelines for valuing nature

The IPBES guidelines could prod decision-making beyond just politics and economics to deal with our massive loss of species and rising temperatures.

A coral reef off the Red Sea coast of Yanbu, Saudi Arabia
A coral reef off the Red Sea coast of Yanbu, Saudi Arabia (AN/Saad Alaiyadhi)

GENEVA (AN) — The first guidelines for valuing nature in more than just economic and political terms won the backing of 139 nations that belong to IPBES, capping four years of work.

If put to broad use, the guidelines approved on Saturday by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES, could prod better decision-making about how to deal with the planet's massive loss of species and rising temperatures.

“Biodiversity is being lost and nature’s contributions to people are being degraded faster now that at any other point in human history,” said IPBES Chair Ana María Hernández Salgar. “This is largely because our current approach to political and economic decisions does not sufficiently account for the diversity of nature’s values."

The new IPBES Values Assessment precedes talks later this year over the creation of a new global framework that Hernández Salgar hopes governments will use with the aim of "shifting all decisions towards better values-centered outcomes for people and the rest of nature.”

'Diverse values' in decision-making

The assessment draws on four years of work by 82 top scientists and experts from around the world to promote four general perspectives: living from, with, in and as nature.

Living from nature emphasizes the food and material goods it provides. Living with nature focuses on the importance of non-human lives. Living in nature refers to the sense of place and identity it confers. Living as nature views it as a physical, mental and spiritual part of ourselves.

Patricia Balvanera, an ecologist and co-author of the assessment, said it gives decision-makers concrete tools and methods to better understand how people and communities value nature. When considering a development project, she said, it can be used to weigh jobs against loss of species or heritage sites.

"The report provides guidance for combining these very diverse values," said Balvanera, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico's Center for Ecosystem Research in Morelia.

Billions rely on wild species at risk of dying

Many of the world's poorest people depend on firewood for cooking, and on wild plants and animals for their daily food and income, at a time when many of those species are threatened with extinction.

About 2.4 billion people need wood for fuel to cook with and more than 1.5 billion people rely just on wild plants, algae and fungi for their food and income, IPBES said on Friday.

Its report recommends providing more secure rights for Indigenous and local peoples, who rely on wild species and tend to manage lands more sustainably, and more education around the world that facilitates the passing on of traditional knowledge about these types of land practices.

“Indigenous stewardship of biodiversity is often embedded in local knowledge, practices and spirituality,” said Marla Emery, a research geographer with the U.S. Forest Service, who co-chaired the assessment. “The sustainable use of wild species is central to the identity and existence of many indigenous peoples and local communities."

Some 70% of the world’s poor directly depend on wild species, Emery said. One-in-five people rely on wild plants, algae and fungi for their food and income, she said, and about 90% of the 120 million people working in capture fisheries are supported by small-scale fishing — particularly in the Global South.

Lack of alternatives puts some wild species under pressure

Experts with IPBES say their report on the sustainable use of wild species resulted from four years of work by 85 experts in natural and social sciences, people with Indigenous and local knowledge, and 200 contributing authors, drawing on more than 6,200 sources. The report summary was approved earlier this week by representatives of the 139-nation intergovernmental organization based in Bonn, Germany.

IPBES was set up as an independent body in 2012 by 94 governments and has since grown under the stewardship of four United Nations agencies: U.N. Environment, UNESCO, the Food and Agriculture Organization and U.N. Development Program.

It emphasizes the threat inherent in its findings two years ago: that human actions are causing Earth’s natural life support systems to reach a breaking point, threatening as many as 1 million plant and animal species with extinction in a challenge as colossal as the climate crisis.

“With about 50,000 wild species used through different practices, including more than 10,000 wild species harvested directly for human food, rural people in developing countries are most at risk from unsustainable use, with lack of complementary alternatives often forcing them to further exploit wild species already at risk,” said Jean-Marc Fromentin, a researcher with the French national ocean science institute IFREMER, who also co-chaired the latest assessment.

In its 2019 report, IPBES said devastating human negligence has caused a dire nature emergency for plants and animals large and small. That report was based on the work of 145 wildlife experts from 50 countries over three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors.

More than a half million species on land are threatened by extinction due to “insufficient habitat for long-term survival," it said, and marine life is similarly imperiled. IPBES said it hopes to galvanize global agreement for emergency action similar to the 2015 Paris Agreement on the climate crisis.