Most of the world's nations -- unanimously committed to protecting biodiversity -- nevertheless cannot measure and assess their genetic and biological resources, nor the value of key ecosystem services nature provides to them, international experts from 72 countries warned this week.
In addition to taxonomists, nations lack economists able to put a value on the water purification, storm protection and other services of nature, which would inform trade-off choices in development planning. And fewer still deploy social scientists to estimate nature's non-economic (e.g. cultural) values, or to find ways to effect needed changes in human attitudes and behaviour.
Those concerns drove a three-day meeting of 300 scientists ending today in Malaysia, looking at how best to help countries develop relevant expertise across a span of disciplines to take up these critical tasks.
Strengthening the ability of nations to conduct biodiversity and ecosystem service-related assessments for better informed policy decision-making is a key mandate of the UN's new Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which convened the meeting, hosted by the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology and supported by the Government of Norway.
Often likened to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the new Bonn-based IPBES is chaired by Zakri Abdul Hamid, science advisor to Malaysia's prime minister.
"There's an old saying: We measure what we treasure," said Dr. Zakri, recently appointed also to the UN Secretary-General's new Science Advisory Board. "Unfortunately, though we profess to treasure biodiversity, most nations have yet to devote adequate resources to properly measure and assess it along with the value of ecosystem services. Correcting that is a priority assignment from the world community to IPBES."
The UN's new Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, now under consideration, are expected to include biodiversity-related targets for achievement by 2030, together with indicators of progress, he said.
"To be effective, obviously, it is vital that nations have the tools and personnel to establish authoritative scientific baselines and collect ongoing data to know whether headway is being made or not," Dr. Zakri said.
Delegates in Kuala Lumpur broke the capacity-building challenge down into three immediate tasks: identify the widely-varying existing resources and needs of individual nations and regions, set priorities for helping them address deficits, and create a way to monitor the adequacy of national capacities on an ongoing basis.
Dr. Zakri said biodiversity scientists, who see a crisis looming in the rapid rate of loss of species and ecosystem services in many areas, "need to stop talking amongst ourselves. The message needs to get through to policy makers, politicians, captains of industry and the general public. We need to start talking in terms people understand -- economics and health, for example."
Scientific papers have documented that biodiversity, for example, provides a kind of human health insurance, he noted, by diluting the pool of virus targets.
Other research in recent years has revealed enormous dollar values of ecosystem services - including food, pollution treatment and climate regulation - provided by forests and coral reefs.
A single hectare of coral reef, for example, provides annual services to humans estimated at US $130,000 on average, rising to as much as $1.2 million, according to researchers with The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).
TEEB estimated in 2010 that the planet's 63 million hectares of wetlands provide some $3.4 billion in storm protection, food and other services to humans each year. Up to half of the $640 billion pharmaceutical market relies on genetic resources, with anti-cancer agents from marine organisms alone valued at up to $1 billion annually. And the loss of biodiversity through deforestation will cost the global economy up to $4.5 trillion every year.
"Harvard professor E.O. Wilson put it well," said Dr. Zakri, "Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal." The rainforest in Malaysia is estimated to be around 130 million years old.
"The knowledge deficit is high," Dr. Zakri added. "Of the estimated 10.8 million species on land and in the oceans, less than 2 million have been scientifically described. If we don't know what species there are out there, we don't know what niche they fill in a healthy ecosystem or perhaps in remedying some human condition," he said, citing the Kalahari desert's San people plant (Hoodia gordinii) recently found to help curb obesity among those who include it in their diet.
Sir Robert Watson, IPBES vice-chair, stressed that social scientists are needed as well to evaluate nature's non-economic -- such as cultural and social -- values to be factored also into trade-off considerations by policy-makers.
"I'm not convinced there's even a handful of countries today that could do a proper evaluation of ecosystem services," he said, noting that the UK's efforts at such an assessment involved detailed databases dating back several decades, a highly-skilled scientific community, and about $5 million in expense despite the donation of time to the cause by many experts.
"In essence, three abilities are needed: generate knowledge, assess it, and then use it -- not only in government but in the private sector and civil society as well. Capacity-building is needed everywhere, even in the most developed countries."
In some parts of the world, he said, individual countries may need to begin by pooling and sharing resources to create, interpret and use regional and sub-regional rather than strictly national assessments of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Recommendations from the Malaysia meeting will be taken up by the 114 members nations of IPBES at the organization's second world plenary session, December 9-14 in Antalya, Turkey.
About the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)
About the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT)