Focus on the process! That’s what restoring ecosystems means, and needs.

August 31st, 2012

In 2011, Australian ecologists David J. Tongway and John A. Ludwig, published a grand summary of their multiple years of on-the-ground experience of restoring disturbed landscapes and ecosystems. Using examples from restoration works on mine sites, road verges, rangelands, and farmland they illustrate how their function-based approach plays out.

The book, “restoring disturbed landscapes – putting principles into practice“, published by Island Press, is a very accessible introduction to the Ecosystem Function Analysis method developed by CSIRO.

One of their main ideas is that restoring degraded ecosystems first requires that the problematic physical (abiotic) processes be solved: the negative effects of topography on water and material flows must be mitigated before self-sustaining biological processes can play their part (e.g. vegetation, grazing regimes, etc.).

First, solve the underlying physical processes! No point in planting your favourite flower here…

Of course, they also remind us that restoration must be framed and carried out in an adaptive management feedback loop where the ecosystem or landscape’s trajectory is monitored and compared to reference conditions. The book is a nicely illustrated reminder of these good practices…

In the context of mitigation requirements for development impacts on biodiversity, the following quote summarizes nicely one of their main points:

switching from simply observing the presence, absence, or abundance of organisms to assessing the status of functional processes in an explicitly spatial (landscape) context is as challenging as venturing into previously uncharted waters. (…) Being able to “read the landscape” is a rare and valuable asset.

Intelligent tinkering : a personal account of the science and practice of ecological restoration

August 9th, 2012

You’re interested in the real world application of the knowledge and methods of ecological science, and especially restoration ecology? Maybe you’re interested in how the practice of ecological restoration can inform ecological theory? Whichever way, Robert J. Cabin has some interesting stories to tell on the complex and often awkward relationships between the practice of ecological restoration and the science of restoration ecology.

He tells his stories in Intelligent Tinkering, a book published by Island Press in 2011. The book starts off with a personal account of how, as an aspiring research ecologist, R.J. Cabin got drawn to the hands-in-the-mud nitty-gritty business of getting restoration plans off the ground, or rather, in the ground. He participated in planing countless native trees and shrubs in order to restore tropical dry forests in Hawaii.

Restoring these forests involved working with many different stakeholders, who often had diverging agendas. It also involved project management and hard physical labour. There was some science in there too, but it’s role didn’t follow the standard model of knowledge feeding into action… Trained as a research ecologist, maybe this model is what R.J. Cabin had initially expected to encounter when coming to Hawaii to work on restoration. The real world is just a lot more messy.

His account of how he confronted this is very interesting, and you get to learn a lot about the island’s ecology, and politics. Good writing makes it easy to follow. In a second part of the book, he tries to outline a few things he learned from that experience. This attempt to theorize the links between science and practice comes a bit short however, both in style (especially given the quality of the first part of the book), and in content.

Many authors have explored how science and practice interact but no grand theory has emerged. As R.J. Cabin explains, maybe that’s because no final, widely shared, definition has been given to either… Anyway, the key message from the book is probably that, in the end, getting things done is what matters.

Sharing nature’s bounty or managing the services provided by natural capital?

August 7th, 2012

In an article in the Guardian, a UK newspaper, George Monbiot, takes a hit on ecosystem services and natural capital.

He finds the current shift in vocabulary very worrying:

  • Nature has become natural capital
  • Natural processes have become ecosystem services, as they exist only to serve us.
  • Ecosystems (hills, forests, river catchments, etc.) are now green infrastructure
  • Biodiversity and habitats are now asset classes within an ecosystem market
  • He basically argues that all the hype around these new terms and concepts carries with it the privatization of nature. He uses private ownership of land, exemplified by the enclosure of the commons, as an illustration of that privatization process.

    Enclosure Act for Shifnal, 1793

    Land ownership (…) has involved the gradual accumulation of exclusive rights, which were seized from commoners. Payments for ecosystem services extend this encroachment by appointing the landlord as the owner and instigator of the wildlife, the water flow, the carbon cycle, the natural processes that were previously deemed to belong to everyone and no one.

    His message is clearly stated, but it is not new. In fact, this has been a constant worry of all those involved in the growing incorporation of biodiversity, ecosystems, and ecosystem services into decisions affecting our environment. This includes both public bodies such as local governments involved in land planning, and private entities such as NGOs looking for extra funding or businesses trying to manage their dependency or impacts on natural resources and ecological processes.

    His critique focuses on the idea that only by giving a monetary value to the ecosystem services provided by natural capital can we internalize them into our decisions. This is one way forward, but because it assumes that natural capital is thus interchangeable with human or financial capital, it carries the risks outlined by the article. Another approach is to identify which bits of our natural capital are not exchangeable (fungible), and adopt a no net loss approach to their management.

    Managing our natural capital: No Net Loss vs. Monetization

    No net loss of natural capital has been one of the guiding principles of environmental legislation and is generally translated into regulations – such as the European Habitats Directive – than impose a sequence of steps aimed at avoiding, reducing, and offsetting impacts on natural capital.

    Concerning offsets, George Monbiot clearly does not trust environmental authorities to give priority to avoiding over reduction and offsetting of impacts.

    The government warns that these offsets should be used only to compensate for “genuinely unavoidable damage” and “must not become a licence to destroy”. But once the principle is established and the market is functioning, for how long do you reckon that line will hold? Nature, under this system, will become as fungible as everything else.

    He is probably right. Would impacts have been avoided if offsets had not been possible through this pilot scheme? Probably. Is that a good enough reason to give in? Maybe.

    George Monbiot takes the creation of the UK’s Natural Capital Commitee as a symbol of the worrying trend towards a gradual monetization, and thus privatization, of nature and natural processes. Let’s hope we can get a bit of no net loss principles in there…

    Biodiversity offsets: the most promising nature-based opportunity for UK businesses?!

    July 9th, 2012

    DEFRA (the UK government department responsible for policy and regulations on the environment, food and rural affairs) recently published a report on opportunities for UK business that value and/or protect nature’s services. What does it say?

    Well, the authors identified 12 promising opportunities for UK business to help protect and value nature. First among them is the development of biodiversity offsets and habitat banking. The report suggest they move from their current voluntary status to a mandatory regime.

    Rank 1=: BIODIVERSITY OFFSETS, INCLUDING THROUGH CONSERVATION BANKING – an opportunity to stimulate creation of new companies and new business models for existing companies to provide biodiversity offsets in the UK, by moving from the current voluntary approach to a (soft regulation) mandatory regime.

    The report mentions “soft regulation”, and describes (section 2.1, 1 of the final report) this as:

    regulation or unambiguous policy interpretation by government that clarifies that biodiversity offsets are necessary in defined circumstances, and that establishes a framework for implementation to a particular standard, including through conservation banks.

    The report also mentions the need to :

    support for a brokering system which can provide national, regional and local choice against desired spatial delivery, and can provide transparency and ease of purchase of credits and management of contracts with those providing offset sites, all of which would reduce risk

    To learn more about the business side of the report’s conclusions, dive in and read Attachment 1.

    Grasslands: are they all equivalent?

    Although the report’s overall outlook is positive, it doesn’t mean creating a market for biodiversity offsets will be straightforward. There are still many technical and institutional difficulties to overcome

  • how will the avoidance and reduction steps of the mitigation hierarchy be enforced?
  • how are “credits” constructed?
  • how will their prices be set?
  • how are liabilities defined?
  • who is in charge of controls and sanctions?
  • (…)
  • These questions are not new, but they deserve some detailed thinking, and transparent debates.

    The IBPES is established – Is it all good news?

    April 23rd, 2012

    The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was officially created on April 23rd. It’s secretariat will be based in Bonn (Germany).

    In brief, the ambition of the IPBES is to replicate the IPCC’s role in the climate debate in informing the sustainable use / conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services. That’s appears to be an even more challenging goal that limiting green-house gas concentrations…

    Establishing the IPBES is certainly a victory for biodiversity and conservation worldwide, with greater scientific input into decisions that affect biodiversity across the globe. Nevertheless, this victory will certainly come at a cost.

    Two issues are worth considering:

  • Who will pay for this? If its workings are comparable to those of the IPCC, then funding IPBES will require a lot of money. Unfortunately, the funds for running the IPBES will most likely have to be taken from existing public funding for conservation. Deciding which programs will loose out (on-the ground actions? research?) will be tricky.
  • How legitimate will it be on the ground? The IPBES is clearly set in a vision of natural resource management that subscribes to the technogarden scenario of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. One can easily imagine that – as is the case for the IPCC – not everyone will want to have scientists, mostly from the developed world, monitor their activities and publish recommendations and guidelines on how to minimize biodiversity impacts or enhance ecosystem services.
  • Concerning this second issue, Morgan Robertson puts it nicely in his blog:

    one person’s ecosystem services are another person’s conditions of biological existence, and to have them continuously monitored, valued and recorded is… unsettling. At the very least — regardless of the merits of the conservation actions — it unavoidably creates an unequal power relationship (or, more likely, reinforces an already-existing one) between the monitor and the monitored.

    This is worth remembering. As was often remarked by those involved in launching the IPBES, the devil lies in the governance structure. As always!

    The metrics debate: habitat for middle-aged great blue herons who don’t like shrimp?

    April 22nd, 2012

    Whenever discussions on biodiversity offsets get technical, they either focus on legal and cost issues (if you’re paying) or on their underlying ecological reality (if you’re the regulator). Concerning the latter, the question is how you actually assess equivalence between what is lost on the one hand, and what is generated by the offset on the other? So it’s all about what and how you measure to assess those gains and losses – hence the metrics debate.

    In his blog, Morgan Robertson exposes this issue as a “paradox”.

    I’ve been thinking about this for a long time — in fact it seems like everything I’ve ever written boils down to “defining environmental commodities is HARD because ecology is complex and commodities need to be abstract”.

    The paradox is that the metrics must strike a difficult balance between their ecological precision and their ability to foster exchanges on a market for offsets.

    Too much precision (i.e. the habitat for middle-aged great blue herons who don’t like shrimp of Robertson fame since 2004) might better reflect the complexities, or rather the ecological uniqueness, of each location (and time), being assessed. It would however make any market completely useless… At the other extreme, a metric that hardly encompasses these complexities (try wetland area) would make the market highly fungible.

    This paradox should be on the mind of anyone developing metrics or methods for assessing ecological equivalence or credit-debit systems, or using them to actually design an offset scheme. The same applies to any type of ecosystem service market off course (PES or otherwise).

    It is interesting to note that in their pilot schemes for testing habitat banking, France and the United Kingdom have made very different choices in terms of metrics. More on this later…

    Do we need pandas?

    April 22nd, 2012

    Published in 2010, Ken Thompson‘s book on the uncomfortable truth about biodiversity offers a refreshing perspective for conservation.

    After a very good explanation of what is meant by the term biodiversity, Ken Thompson goes on to discuss several key concepts:

  • ecosystem services, and their “links” with biodiversity
  • wilderness versus rare species
  • cost-efficiency of conservation investments (or spending)
  • the direct experience of biodiversity by people
  • One of the fist messages that the book upholds is that biodiversity is the outcome of ecosystem-level properties (structure and processes, including those determined by geography : soils, climate, etc.) and not the other way round. In this sense, conserving biodiversity because it contributes to ecosystem service provision is not the right way to frame the issue. Rather, the loss of biodiversity is an indicator of changing ecosystem-level properties, which lead to specific losses and gains in service provision. Conservation should target ecosystems, not particular species.

    Another important message is that conservation actions must take cost-efficiency into account. In this respect, once again, the focus should be on ecosystem properties and not on targeting this or that species. Another related point is the abundance of large areas of wilderness for which conservation actions could have large impacts for little investment. This is especially true when compared with conservation carried out in densely populated areas when land is scarce and thus expensive.

    In spite of the opportunity of doing things on a grand scale in the remaining wilderness areas of the world, Ken Thompson also argues that to ensure that people care about biodiversity, they must be exposed to it. As such, biodiversity should be present, and accessible, in people’s everyday surroundings: gardens, urban parks, countryside areas, etc. Reserves are not the solution to that issue.

    There are lots of interesting anecdotes and facts in the book but the messages above appear to be the most refreshing from a nature conservation perspective…

    Refining the definition of PES schemes

    March 13th, 2012

    The original definition of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes by Wunder et al. (2005) was recently modified to reflect variations in the implementation of real-life PES schemes.

    Sven Wunder presented the modified definition at the CIVILand conference on payments for ecosystem services and their institutional dimensions organized in November 2011 by the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (pdf of the presentation here).

    The definition has been reformulated as follows (in italics):

    1. voluntary transaction – to a variable extent on the buyer side; to full extent on provider side

    2. a well-defined environmental service (ES) or a land-use proxy, or some bundle thereof

    3. is being “bought” by a (min. one) ES buyer – which can be a public entity

    4. from a (min. one) ES provider or a community

    5. if and only if the ES provider continuously secures ES provision – i.e. conditionality has to be present to some extent in design and function

    The institutional needs for PES schemes remain the same: cooperation & trust between providers, buyers, and regulators, land & resource rights, degradation rights, and low transaction costs.

    No net loss : where are fisheries and farming?

    February 21st, 2012

    At an IUCN event on Red Lists for Europe, Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy (Member of the European Parliament) talks about nature conservation in Europe.

    He paints quite a bleak picture of the current situation, where solutions are few, and state coffers are empty… So should we follow the money? Maybe there are opportunities to fund nature conservation through the polluter – pays principle, applied to biodiversity (and wilderness?), instead of the citizen – pays principle of many established policies.

    This opportunity is hotly debated at the moment, with many countries working their way towards “no net loss” targets for biodiversity through reinforced obligations for developers to “compensate” their impacts.

    Of course, Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy doesn’t fail to mention that those that need to act fastest are the fisheries and farming sectors. They have been given “rights to thrash” and they have used them to a large extent. Shouldn’t they play a part in the application of the polluter-pays principle?

    Where are fisheries and farming in the no-net-loss debate?

    Ecometrica’s Normative Biodiversity Metric: is it really a good idea?

    February 12th, 2012

    Ecometrica, a Scottish consultancy, just wrote up guidelines for a new biodiversity metric. The Normative Biodiversity Metric (NBM) uses an interesting shortcut between “pristine” land and biodiversity to assess the overall land-holdings of the organization being assessed.

    Because the metric uses widely applicable classes of “pristiness”, it can itself be widely applied, at various spatial scales. In fact, NBM relies on existing mapped data concerning land-use and land-cover. This wide applicability is the metric’s main strength.

    In trying to apply concepts and ideas developed for green house gas emissions (GHG) to biodiversity, Ecometrica has chosen to simplify the later to a single easy to use metric. Why not? That choice does however raise the issue of over-simplification. When does “pristine” actually equate biodiversity and is that particular biodiversity the most relevant one to consider in assessing an corporation’s impact?

    The NBM is designed to provide an equivalent to corporate GHG assessment, for biodiversity impact.

    The documentation shows that the metric can incorporate additional field information, e.g. from surveys of the species or habitats that are actually present on-site. Yet, it is clear that the metric was developed to avoid field surveys as much as possible:

    the biodiversity assessment methodology cannot be wholly dependent on the use of ecological surveys carried out by experts

    Is that really a good idea? As usual, it depends what you use the metric for…