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When it escapes from pet owners, the South American coati (Nasua nasua) can wipe out bird colonies. A U.N. assessment of the threat posed by this invasive species and others has been delayed by budget cuts.

Ariadne Van Zandbergen/Alamy Stock Photo

Global biodiversity group confronts cash crunch

A major effort to size up and preserve biodiversity is under threat, like so many of the species it surveys. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) had an auspicious start in 2012, signing up 126 member nations and publishing its first assessment, a 556-page tome on pollinators and food production, to much fanfare a year ago. But governmental donations to the effort, which is overseen by the United Nations, have not kept pace with its ambitious 7-year agenda. 

“The honeymoon is over,” says Carsten Rahbek, director of the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen, who is not involved in the effort. “There’s a huge challenge here.” To make ends meet, IPBES approved contentious budget cuts at its annual meeting in Bonn, Germany, earlier this month, including a cut of almost one-third for 2018. It also postponed three major reports, sparking acrimony among its members.

IPBES was created with the hope that it would mirror the success of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a 3-decade-old body that has issued influential reports. The remit of IPBES is broader. In addition to documenting biodiversity trends, it also identifies practical policy tools for protecting species and helps build the capacity of governments and others to use those tools. IPBES has recruited more than 1300 experts to assist with its work, including two assessments released last year—the pollinators report and another on methods used to build biodiversity models. It is now working on one global and four regional assessments of biodiversity, plus a look at land degradation.

A startup grant of $8.2 million from Norway helped IPBES launch its first work program, which ends in 2019 and has a price tag of $40.5 million. Donations from 21 other nations have helped keep the gears turning. But with the Norway grant running out and future donations uncertain, budget negotiations ran late into the last evening of the recent annual meeting, as delegates split over how conservative the operating budget should be. The dilemma, says IPBES chair Robert Watson of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K., is: “To what degree do you gamble that money will come in?”

In the end, delegates cut this year’s budget by 8%, to $8.7 million, and slashed the 2018 budget by 30% to $5 million. Most savings come from delaying three pending assessments. One would advise on how to control invasive species; a second would examine the sustainable use of wild species. The third would explore how different cultures perceive and measure nature’s benefits. 

Developing nations say the second and third reports are particularly important. Brazil, for example, wanted IPBES to immediately start recruiting specialists for the sustainability assessment—the process can take up to 8 months—so they could be ready when the money came in. “We are disappointed with the lack of ambition to start the process,” says ecologist Carlos Scaramuzza, ecosystem conservation director at Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment in Brasília.

IPBES also cut funding for capacity building and policy support, and that could prove an even bigger loss than delaying the assessments, worries Carsten Neßhöver, a science policy expert at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany. “A big report … is not necessarily the best way to impact policies,” he says.

The changes have left some developing countries feeling that major funders are skewing IPBES priorities. “It’s creating a sense of mistrust” and putting the future of the group “at high risk,” says Hesiquio Benítez of the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity in Mexico City. 

Watson says that impression is misplaced. He and other IPBES managers—three dozen academics and government officials around the world—say they are contending with not only a cash crunch, but also a lack of staff and volunteer time. Outside experts, government officials who nominate experts and review drafts, and IPBES staff overseeing the process simply can’t keep up with the commitments. “We are stretched to capacity,” says Paul Leadley, an ecologist at the University of Paris-Sud who serves on an IPBES review panel. 

Watson and IPBES Executive Secretary Anne Larigauderie, based in Bonn, say that boosting the accounts is a top priority. In an unusual step for a U.N. body, in September IPBES will get a professional fundraiser, paid for by France. A draft fundraising strategy includes the idea of having “champion countries” persuade other nations to donate. “We are not pessimistic, but we can’t be complacent,” Larigauderie says. 

But the budget worries have delayed what could be an effective fundraising tool: an external review of IPBES. Watson says there are early signs that its assessments are having an impact. France, South Korea, and a few other nations have cited the pollinators report, for example, as they create action plans to address declines. But a rigorous endorsement of IPBES’s work could help make the case to donors. “If IPBES proves it has value, it could go on for 20 [or] 30 years,” Watson says. “If not, it will fold.”

*Correction, 31 March, 7:20 a.m.: IPBES was not created by the United Nations, as this article previously stated. It works in partnership with four U.N. agencies but it was established independently by member nations.