Telling local stories: Scientists discuss scenario building ahead of IPBES

IPBES can use scenarios to tell stories about how biodiversity and ecosystem services in regions of the world, like the Amazon Basin shown here, might evolve in the future. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team
Feb 2016

The week before a landmark plenary session of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a team of international scientists is recommending a "multi-scale" approach to scenario development.

When participants in the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) gather next week in Kuala Lumpur, one of the biggest topics of discussion will be scenarios: or the narratives that scientists create to explore how the world might evolve in the coming years. Scenarios, experts say, are important for helping people and governments across the planet to make informed decisions about the future. And they’re crucial to the mission of IPBES, an international science-policy interface that seeks to synthesize scientific research about the planet’s ecosystems and their connections to people. The organization also identifies and spurs new research priorities to respond to the policy needs of decision-makers around the world.

But ahead of fourth plenary session of IPBES, which begins Monday, a team of scientists is recommending that the organization complement its current efforts surrounding scenarios to include a deep understanding of local ecosystems. The researchers say that this path, called a “multi-scale” approach, could help IPBES to better tailor its scenarios so that they’re useful for a variety of decision-makers — and would open up new ways for indigenous and local groups to contribute to the organization’s activities, a chief priority of IPBES. The team published its recommendations January 22 in Sustainability Science.

“There is now a window in the coming one or two years or so to really set a strategy in place in which future assessments would benefit,” says Marcel Kok, lead author of the report and programme leader for environment and development at the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

A multi-scale approach to scenario building

In part, that window exists because IPBES will release its first two assessment reports for approval at next week’s meeting in Malaysia, marking an important step for this organization, which was officially formed in 2012. One of those assessments will address the state and future of pollinators around the globe. But the other will delve into scenarios and modeling, informing how IPBES will employ these tools in its upcoming assessments on biodiversity and ecosystem services. In 2015, the organization began assessments on four regions of the planet and will launch a global assessment in the next few years.

Member nations will “literally work through our summary for policy-makers almost on a line-by-line basis,” says Simon Ferrier, a senior principle research scientist at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). He is also the co-chair of the soon-be-released IPBES assessment called “Policy support tools and methodologies for scenario analysis and modelling of biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

Such scenarios aren’t new to international research, says Garry Peterson, a co-author of the report and a professor in environmental science at the Stockholm Resilience Centre of Stockholm University. They can take different forms, but, in general, they create “stories,” he says, about the different paths that the planet might take in coming years.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for instance, employs scenarios to envision how world powers might ramp up, or cut back on, their emissions of greenhouse gases. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, an early effort to assess the state of the planet’s ecosystems, published a series of scenarios in 2005. One of these possible futures, called the TechnoGarden Scenario, imagines a world where nations largely respond to environmental concerns like deforestation and pollution using technological solutions, including developing new green energy sources. These stories can help leaders around the world to make choices about how they want the future to look — avoiding some paths and working toward others.

Peterson says that one of the main challenges that IPBES faces in its scenario development comes down to scale. He explains that many influential scenarios, such as the IPCC’s emission scenarios, have been global in scope. That means that they don’t go into detail about what might happen in individual countries or regions. But biodiversity and ecosystem services are inherently local processes. It matters, in other words, if you cut down a forest in Brazil versus in the Congo, he says. Both ecosystems are home to different species and people who relate to their environment in different ways. “Birds eat bugs differently around the world,” Peterson says. “People interact differently with nature all around the world through their cultures, their institutions and their geography.”

To account for those local processes, he and his colleagues are pressing IPBES to take a new approach to scenarios. Their strategy would combine the sorts of global scenarios created by IPCC and others with a series of regional scenarios. These “bottom-up” scenarios would explore possible futures in smaller parts of the globe. The large-scale and regional scenarios would, in turn, bounce off of each other with local stories influencing the trajectory of global biodiversity and ecosystem services — and vice-versa.

“What we propose is taking this bottom-up approach to get the local specifics into the scenarios,” says Marcel Kok of the Netherlands. But also “combining that with the global approach, as well, to provide those interlinkages between regions.”

The team’s recommendations are meant as a path forward, helping IPBES to provide its members with more useful scenarios for their future work. Simon Ferrier of CSIRO says that many of the ideas championed by Kok and his colleagues align well with options proposed in the assessment report that will be considered in Kuala Lumpur. “There’s nothing in that paper that diverges very strongly at all at from what we are going to be putting forward at that plenary,” he says.

Co-building the next generation of scenarios with stakeholders and including indigenous knowledge

IPBES also has the opportunity to include groups in its scenario building that haven’t traditionally been involved in international scientific initiatives, says Esther Turnhout, a professor in the politics of environmental knowledge at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The scenario strategy that Kok and his colleagues tout could help the organization to do just that. Indigenous groups, for instance, carry a wealth of knowledge about their local ecosystems that they could add to regional scenarios. IPBES cites engaging with indigenous and local knowledge holders as a key priority in both its official framework and work programme.

The paper “fits quite well with what some academics, including myself have been arguing,” says Turnhout. “In order to be actually useful and to deliver added value when compared to other biodiversity knowledge initiatives, [IPBES] has to engage local and indigenous knowledge.”

Including such communities in the IPBES process “closely resonates with the Future Earth vision and work of co-design and co-production of science,” says Anne-Hélène Prieur-Richard, the Future Earth global hub director in Montreal. “This approach is crucial to produce scientific products such as this new generation of scenarios and models in a way that responds to the needs of decision-makers and society.” Prieur-Richard supports the work of several projects in Future Earth to build this next generation of scenarios.

Rosemary Hill, one of the coauthors of the Sustainability Science paper, agrees that IPBES should work to include indigenous knowledge in its scenarios. She’s a principal research scientist at CSIRO Cairns and serves on the IPBES Task Force on Indigenous and Local Knowledge. She explains that indigenous groups aren’t just affected by shifts in the planet’s forests and oceans. They’re also making decisions that will have long-lasting consequences for global biodiversity and ecosystem services. Aboriginal groups, for instance, manage more than 40% of Australia's National Reserve System.

In some cases, these groups view the world in different ways than the scientific community. She draws on the case of the Kawaiwete people, an indigenous group that lives in the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil. Stingless bees native to the Amazon are important to the cosmology and myths of these groups, Hill says. Losing these bees, then, to habitat loss or invasive species would have far-reaching consequences for the Kawaiwete people that go beyond the insects’ role in pollinating plants. Regional scenarios can be an important tool for bridging the world views of such groups and the international scientific community.

“They provide a way of bringing those different worlds together into something that we can all say, ‘OK, this is the world that we’re living in together, and now we can start to think about what the future might be,’” Hill says.

In the end, Ferrier expects a lively, and rigorous, debate over scenarios during what he says will be a “very busy” week. “It’ll be very interesting,” Ferrier says. “But it’ll be a rigorous and exhaustive process, as well.”

Paul Leadley, chair of Future Earth's bioDISCOVERY project, adds: "Future Earth is already engaged with IPBES through its cluster on 'support for IPBES,' and is actively addressing the issue of multi-scale scenarios and models in its cluster on 'modeling sustainable futures' coordinated by Sander van der Leeuw of the AIMS project."  Both these clusters mobilize a wide range of Future Earth projects, says Leadley, who is based in France and also co-chairs the scenarios and modeling assessment with Ferrier.

Prieur-Richard adds that “Future Earth and its community of 60,000 scientists stand ready to take up this challenge, and to design and produce the needed science in close collaboration with IPBES' members and partner stakeholders, and as a direct contribution to the work of the platform."