How to face the unknown: how the Convention on Biological Diversity can change its approach to scientific uncertainty

By Deborah Scott

Next week, delegates to the scientific advisory body of one of the world’s largest environmental treaties, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), will gather in Montréal. If it is like most recent meetings of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA), delegates face a week of increasingly long days (and nights) of contentious debate around how to understand and respond to pressing global environmental challenges. And if it follows the pattern of the past decade, delegates will continue to sabotage the CBD by avoiding debate on how to act in the face of uncertainty.

Scientific uncertainty is an unavoidable aspect of international environmental governance. In these arenas, scientific literature is rarely unified in identifying what the problems are, let alone able to provide clear advice on how to solve them. This is particularly the case for biodiversity, as ecological knowledge is marked by “persistent and often intractable uncertainties and a high level of ignorance.” Thus, while most environmental treaties claim to be ‘science-based,’ they must also have strategies for governing both what is insufficiently understood and what cannot be known with our current scientific tools.

A clear example of this is the history of “New and Emerging Issues.” This mechanism was introduced in 2006 to allow issues of particular novelty and urgency to be added to the treaty’s programme of work. The first “New” issue was biofuels, which led to almost a decade of contentious negotiations on how to “promote the positive and mitigate the negative impacts of biofuels on biodiversity.” Ultimately, it resulted in little agreement and minimal guidance, and along the way “New and Emerging Issues” became “a poisoned chalice,” as an observer told me.

Indeed, since biofuels no issue has been successfully introduced as a New and Emerging Issue. In 2008, seven criteria for identifying “New and Emerging Issues” were established, including: new evidence of unexpected and significant impacts on biodiversity; evidence of limited tools to mitigate negative impacts on biodiversity; and the urgency of addressing the issue. Since 2010, the CBD’s decision-making body, the Conference of the Parties (COP), has been mulling over whether one issue meets these criteria: synthetic biology.

One of the uncertainties around synthetic biology is its definition. In 2016, the CBD COP finally agreed on an operational definition – “synthetic biology is a further development and new dimension of modern biotechnology that combines science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the understanding, design, redesign, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems.” More snappily, the critical NGO ETC Group describes it as “extreme genetic engineering.” Both point to synthetic biology’s connections to pre-existing biotechnology and its goals to go further. While some argue that the greater precision of synthetic biology tools decreases uncertainties regarding ecological, human health and other impacts, others argue that synthetic biology opens up new areas of uncertainty, raising questions of whether existing regulatory regimes or risk assessment and management methodologies are adequate to identify and mitigate potentially new harms.

The CBD’s decision-making body, the Conference of the Parties (COP), has discussed four times whether synthetic biology should be added, in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016. Each time, the Parties have called on each other to “take a precautionary approach” to synthetic biology. Whether or not to act with precaution is an on-going debate in international environmental governance, often pitted between the USA (against) and the European Union (for). In the case of the CBD, not only is the USA not a Party, but the treaty is already committed to a precautionary approach, as found in the treaty preamble.

But as many times as the COP has invoked a “precautionary approach” to synthetic biology, it has dodged the question of what this means. When faced with insufficient evidence to determine if the New & Emerging Issues criteria are met, the COP keeps calling for more scientific evidence and more ‘robust’ analysis. They repeatedly delay action, seemingly in the hope that science will provide a clear answer.

Uncertainties around synthetic biology’s potential impacts on biodiversity won’t be neatly resolved any time soon. The CBD COP must make a political decision about how to act in the context of ecological, economic, social, and other kinds of uncertainties. The response to such uncertainties cannot simply be to demand more, and more certain, science.

The upcoming SBSTTA meeting will consider how to treat the New and Emerging Issues criteria – as a mandatory list, as context-specific guidelines, or otherwise. In interviews that I conducted with observers, delegates, and Secretariat staff members, these criteria were described as nearly impossible to meet if interpreted as a mandatory list.

If CBD Parties are to apply precaution rather than simply invoking it, they must be able to respond to threats before harm is certain. Thus, delegates should take the Secretariat’s suggestion that the extent of each criterion’s application be determined on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, I would urge CBD delegations to consider New and Emerging Issues as a mechanism specifically for tackling issues saddled with intrinsic scientific and social uncertainties – emerging technologies and sciences for which there is not yet evidence of significant impacts, but there are questions about how to identify and measure potential impacts, who should fund such research, what principles should guide their development.

What would it mean for synthetic biology to become a New and Emerging Issue? The CBD’s outcomes are almost entirely soft law, influencing international norms rather than specific, legally-binding commitments; the CBD is not going to “stop” synthetic biology. But acting with precaution doesn’t just mean saying “No.” The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has recommended that for deeper and more intractable scientific uncertainties, there is a responsibility to gather a diversity of relevant knowledges, engage a plurality of different perspectives, and interrogate the full range of alternative options. The designation of “New and Emerging Issue” could be a commitment by the CBD to undergo such processes.

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