Credit: Science Photo Library via AFP
19 Jun 2024 Story Chemicals & pollution action

How science-policy bodies are driving solutions to planetary crises

Credit: Science Photo Library via AFP

At the United Nations Environment Assembly in 2022, 190 Member States agreed to establish a new body that would provide policymakers with robust, independent information on chemicals, waste and pollution. The new science-policy panel – expected to be operational as early as 2025 – will help governments, companies, farmers and a broad array of other stakeholders tackle what has been called a mounting crisis.

There are already two global science-policy panels addressing major environmental issues. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assesses the science of climate change and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) focuses on the science of biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people. Both have played a vital role in ensuring better informed decisions and actions, with thousands of scientists and knowledge holders – such as Indigenous Peoples – working together to distil the latest research, evidence and policy options into reports accepted by governments around the world.  

This month, a UNEP-hosted working group gathered in the Swiss city of Geneva to decide on the structure of the new science-policy panel, with the first session of the panel’s governing body expected to be held early next year. Ahead of that, here is a deeper look at science-policy panels and why they are important. 

What is a science-policy panel? 

Science-policy panels are specifically designed to provide decision makers, including governments, with the information they need to make informed environmental policy. The work of science-policy bodies can also help to raise awareness of an issue, in some cases even sounding the alarm on emerging crises. They aim to strengthen the science-policy interface – by finding a workable balance between assessments, and their dissemination and use in decision-making.  

Why are they important? 

Science-policy bodies are a vital tool for combatting the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. They assess the latest science to come to an authoritative consensus of where the science and evidence stands.  

“Science-policy bodies help the world develop evidence-based solutions that are scalable and translate into effective responses to our shared environmental challenges”, says Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, Director of the Industry and Economy Division of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).   

“By including all the stakeholders involved in the life cycle of a particular issue, these panels take into account all the technical, economic, environmental, health and societal aspects of a given problem, and allow for the creation of effective solutions.”  

Who participates in the work of science-policy organizations? 

A variety of scientists, government representatives and other actors, such as civil society organizations, contribute to the work of these bodies. The resulting products, agreed by member governments, represent the best available evidence on a specific subject.

IPCC is made up of three working groups and the Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories. The three working groups assess different aspects of climate change, including on how communities can adapt to it and mitigate it, as well as the physical science basis of climate change. IPBES assembles author teams of the world’s leading experts on a wide range of topics – such as the links between pollination and food production, the sustainable use of wild species and invasive alien species and their control.  

Thousands of experts from around the world volunteer their time to produce the IPCC and IPBES assessment reports. They are used as the basis of negotiations during global intergovernmental processes such as the annual UN Climate Change Conference under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the biennial UN Biodiversity Conference, under the Convention on Biological Diversity

What breakthroughs have they achieved? 

The IPCC’s first and second assessment reports laid the foundation for modern climate agreements. The IPCC’s inaugural report in 1992 played a role in the creation of the UNFCCC and the climate Conference of Parties (COP), the annual climate conference where countries negotiate on climate action. The IPCC’s follow up assessment report – and in particular the sentence “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate"—was a a landmark moment for climate action. It provided countries with enough evidence to start agreeing to targets for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. That led to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Paris Agreement in 2005. “Since its establishment in 1988, every IPCC Assessment Report has left a clear and indelible mark in international efforts to address the climate change challenge,” says IPCC Secretary Abdalah Mokssit. 

IPBES has produced 11 reports since 2016, including the 2019 Global Assessment Report that alerted the world to the scope of the worldwide biodiversity crisis, with its finding that 1 million species of plants and animals are now at risk of extinction, many within decades.The 2023 IPBES Invasive Alien Species Assessment revealed that the annual global cost of biological invasions exceeds US$423 billion and that these species have played a key role in 60 per cent of all plant and animal extinctions.  

“IPBES is about biodiversity – life on earth in all its immense richness. It is about the contributions and quality of life that nature provides to people,” says IPBES Executive Secretary, Anne Larigauderie. “It is about the causes of the loss of these contributions and, very importantly, IPBES is also about the options for action that exist for us all.” 

Enabling the science-policy interface to repair the ozone layer

Other organizations and multilateral environmental agreements host experts’ groups to enable the science-policy interface. One example is the Technology and Economic Assessment Panel established in 1990 by the countries who signed the Montreal Protocol, a multilateral agreement that regulates the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances. The panel provides information about the alternative technologies that have made it possible to virtually eliminate the use of substances that harm the ozone layer, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons. 

How is the role of science-policy bodies changing? 

Science-policy bodies will continue to do the important work they have been doing, experts say. But they may play a bigger role in taking stock of what progress has been made on key international environment agreements, such as the Biodiversity Plan, also known as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. Science-policy bodies will also keep balancing their role between assessments and their dissemination and uptake in real-world decision making. “Policy-relevance remains the key priority for the IPCC so that decision-makers at all levels can make effective use of the best available and most up-to-date science in shaping of their policies and actions,” the IPCC’s Mokssit says. 

Why is the new science-policy panel on chemicals, waste and pollution so important? 

The decision to establish the panel will give the third prong of the triple planetary crisis its own scientific body. Pollution is estimated to be responsible for 9 million deaths a year globally, with pollution-related deaths increasing by 66 per cent over the past two decades. Chemical pollution increases the risk of antimicrobial resistance, which caused almost 1.3 million directly attributable deaths and nearly 5 million associated deaths in 2019. The new science-policy panel will help countries implement international treaties on chemicals, waste and pollutionand identify effective solutions to this crisis. 


The Global Framework on Chemicals is a comprehensive plan to guide countries and stakeholders in jointly addressing the lifecycle of chemicals, including products and waste. Adopted in Bonn in September 2023, the framework includes five strategic objectives and 28 targets for the sound management of chemicals and waste, with a vision for a safe, healthy and sustainable future.