Ecosystem services: Between proof-of-concept and early adoption

Bob Searle and Serita Cox of the Bridgespan group recently published a report on “the state of ecosystem services” (pdf available here). The report analyses the current use of the ecosystem service concept in practice, i.e. in public policies and private sector initiatives. Many of the report’s conclusions are well know to people in the field of ecosystem service science, but several points deserve to be mentioned.

For a start, the report concludes that ecosystem services conservation is between proof-of-concept and early adoption. Never more. Often less.

It also looks into the challenges facing the concept for it to gain policy-relevance and thus go beyond early adoption. The missing requirements are often the following:

  • Scientific evidence that is on a comparable scale to the policy’s authority
  • Scientific evidence that is geographically applicable
  • Scientific evidence that is sufficiently validated and appropriately standardized to avoid legal challenges
  • Strong leadership and advocacy to create the drive to change
  • The issue of standardization is often overlooked by ecosystem scientists yet one of the most difficult aims to achieve without reaching outside academia to other actors such as EIA consulting companies, government agencies, businesses or NGOs. Such reaching out requires common goals, which are themselves dependent on strong leadership and advocacy. Who are the individuals and institutions who are taking up this role? Pages 18 to 23 list interesting examples of ecosystem service-based initiatives, both in the public and private sector.

    The report lists a set of barriers to the development and implementation of ecosystem service conservation (page 24) as well as risks associated with the spread of the ecosystem service concept:

  • Shifting of negative impact: The small scale of most ecosystem services efforts can lead to shifting of negative impact behavior to other regions.
  • Social inequity: Placing a dollar value on something that has been free creates equity concerns and can negatively affect people living in poverty.
  • Decreased cost-effectiveness: Ecosystem services programs may not be the most cost-effective approaches to conservation.
  • Diversion of scarce resources: Focusing on the conservation of an ecosystem service could divert resources from known, tested solutions to unknown, experimental approaches (e.g., restoring mangrove forests instead of building storm walls).
  • Abandonment of established practices: Ecosystem services programs could lead environmental groups to abandon other forms of environmental conservation that have worked in the past.
  • Lack of biodiversity conservation: Ecosystem services programs do not necessarily lead to biodiversity conservation and may negatively affect full, native biodiversity.
  • Unknown, unintended consequences: On a large scale, the risk of unintended consequences becomes a significant concern. Ecosystem services projects could lead to unpredicted, unknown, and irreversible outcomes.
  • This list of potential risks does not mention more general concerns about the “parcelisation” or “commodification” of nature commonly associated with ecosystem service based approaches. The report does however mention that most ecosystem service projects focus on only one or a short selection of ecosystem services rather than on the full suite of services that a given ecosystem provides. Pushing this concern further would show that maintaining fully-functional and/or resilient ecosystems might be a more useful goal than maintaining or enhancing their capacity to provide one or a few services. One or a few services that are deemed important here and now but perhaps not there and then…

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