Archive for the ‘Biodiversity’ Category

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

Tuesday, 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…

    The IBPES is established – Is it all good news?

    Monday, 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!

    Do we need pandas?

    Sunday, 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…

    No net loss : where are fisheries and farming?

    Tuesday, 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?

    Sunday, 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…

    On time-lags and location selection in offsets

    Monday, October 10th, 2011

    Ascelin Gordon and his colleagues from Melbourne recently went through an interesting modelling exercise. They modelled the long-term effects, in both space and time, of different offset policies concerning urban development impacts on native grasslands around the city.

    Their modelling explicitly included uncertainties , following the approach described by Langford et al. (2009). These uncertainties were both ecological (edge effects on conservation value, grassland response to management and offsetting, etc.) and political: which offset policy?

    They compared five different offset policies:

  • No change
  • Development without offsets
  • Non strategic offsets (wherever, whenever)
  • Strategic offsets (offsets are located together, in designated areas)
  • Strategic immediate offsets (offsets are effective at the start of simulations, a.k.a. habitat banking)
  • Their conclusions are that offset policies that include spatial and temporal constraints on offsets give the best conservation outcomes. They also point out the obvious: the selection of the baseline is central to any assessment of policy outcomes.

    whether (or when) [policies] achieve the objective of a “net gain” completely depends on the choice of baseline.

    It might be obvious but it is certainly tricky when looking at policies that involve long-term ecological dynamics…

    To find out more, check out their paper in Environmental Modelling & Software*. A pdf can be downloaded here.

    * Gordon A., Langford W.T., Todd J.A., White M.D., Mullerworth D.W. & Bekessy S.A. (in press): Assessing the impacts of biodiversity offset policies. Environmental Modelling & Software, in press.

    New books on the shelves

    Friday, September 23rd, 2011

    Several new books on the topic of market-based instruments for nature conservation were recently published (or will soon be). Expect so see reviews here soon.

    The first book is by Royal Gardner, a law specialist, who has worked on wetland mitigation in the USA. Entitled Lawyers, Swamps, and Money: U.S. Wetland Law, Policy, and Politics the book provides an in-depth look into the inner workings of the wetland mitigation “industry” and especially its governance. You can take a look on Amazon.

    The second book is by Ece Ozdemioglu of the British consultancy EFTEC. It will provide guidance on ecological equivalency methods that can be applied to biodiversity offsets and payment for ecosystem service schemes. Here is what her personal page on the EFTEC website says:

    Her next book (with Josh Lipton and David Chapman, forthcoming in 2011 by Springer) will be on the use of resource equivalency (including economic valuation) methods for assessing environmental damage and liability and selecting the appropriate compensation measures. This will help implement European Directives of Habitats, Wild Birds and Environmental Liability as well as input to new policy instruments like biodiversity offsetting, payments for ecosystem services and habitat banking.

    According to Open Trolley, the expected publication date is September 29th, with the title “Equivalency Methods for Environmental Liability in the European Union: Assessing Damage and Compensation Under the Environmental Liability Directive”. Most of the contents probably reflect EFTEC’s work as part of the EU funded REMEDE project which provides lots of interesting insights.

    If you haven’t read it yet, you can still have a look at Carroll, Fox and Bayon’s book on conservation and biodiversity banking published by EarthScan.

    Habitat banking on trial in France

    Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

    Yesterday, the French environment ministry officially expanded the on-going “experiment” with habitat banking which started three years ago in the Crau area, between Arles and Marseilles in Provence (southern France). There, a subsidiary of the French Sovereign Fund (a for profit public organization) called CDC Biodiversité transformed an industrial orchard into habitat for steppe-land birds such as the Little Bustard or the Lesser Kestrel.

    The Ministry called a tender for three more such experiments, in order to further test the potential of habitat banks to cater for the offset needs of future infrastructure development plans (e.g. high speed train lines and the like). This requirement has been in place in France since 1976 but it has been rarely enforced (and if so, ill-applied). Only recently, under pressure from the EU for the transposition of the 1992 habitats directive, have developers and public authorities started to take it seriously.

    Three areas and issues are favoured by the Ministry for setting up such habitat banks:

  • Alsace (Strasbourg), with a specific focus on the European Hamster,
  • Nord-Pas-de-Calais (Lille), with a focus on connecting calcareous grasslands
  • Poitou-Charentes (Poitiers), with a focus on birds that use extensive cereal crop-land, and in particular the little bustard (again!)
  • The call to tender is on-line on the Ministry’s website.

    To be continued…

    Biodiversity: you can only manage what you can measure!

    Sunday, June 19th, 2011

    Francis Vorhies, the Green Mind columnist in Forbes Magazine, recently published a short piece on biodiversity.

    His article emphasizes the various definitions of biodiversity, highlighting two alternatives: (1) a focus on wild species and their habitat requirements (as in the USA) or (2) “the integrity and diversity of natural environments and processes” (more akin to the CBD‘s definition).

    He states that for companies, the second approach is probably more useful. He doesn’t however explain why… and I would tend to think the opposite.

    The integrity and diversity of environments and processes is much harder to pin-down, and hence measure, monitor and manage, than the presence, absence or abundance of a species in a given area of land.

    The issue of biodiversity, in terms of impacts, responsibilities and opportunities, can only be dealt with if it can be properly managed. Some say you can only manage what you can measure…

    The knowledge base for identifying and measuring species and their habitats is stronger than that of complex interacting ecological processes, let alone “integrity” which requires setting a reference (which one?).

    What do you think?

    The nature of ecosystem service risks for business

    Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

    KMPG, a consultancy, recently published a report on ecosystem service related risks to business. The 20-pages report is available for free on the web (pdf here) and it provides some interesting insights into the business point of view.

    A complex issue that needs to be made more palatable
    The report mentions the need to demystify biodiversity and ecosystem services for business. This is probably central to any further consideration of these issues in the corporate world yet the report starts by mingling the complex and varied issues of biodiversity and ecosystem services into a single handy acronym “BES”. This is certainly helpful but such over-simplification could also generate confusion. Business leaders and decision-makers will be tempted to look for all-in-one solutions to all their “BES issues”, with little regard to differences in the specific issues they have to consider: land degradation, dynamics of species and natural habitats, natural resources (water, timber etc.), access to land…

    Risks : exposure x preparedness
    The report offers a nice summary of BES-related risks for businesses. These 5 risks are the same as those of the TEEB report but they come in handy:

  • Reputational risk, especially concerning access to funding
  • Regulatory risk, such as the expansion of protected areas or the strengthening of protected species legislation
  • Operational risk, concerning the sustained provision of key inputs (e.g. clean water) or ecosystem services
  • Legal liability risk, for example in the case of accidental damage to ecosystems or protected species
  • Systemic risk, when a business is overly dependent on a particular ecosystem service
  • The authors reviewed 11 published reports (which they claim to be “authoritative”) and consulted 5 experts to make a cross-sectoral analysis of business exposure to BES risks (exposure to each of the 5 risks above was rated on a scale of 1 to 3 and an average calculated) and their preparedness (which is a weighted average of scores given on a scale of 1 to 3 for the role of BES in a business’s competitive advantage, governance, policy/strategy and management/implementation). The report identifies three sectors as facing particularly high risk: food & beverages, mining and oil & gas. They also mention the banking sector because it is very unprepared.

    The report concludes by identifying three main areas for companies to focus on:

  • Their dependence on water
  • Their reputational risk, especially if their operations are associated with land conversion (= habitat destruction) or carbon (= green-house gas emissions)
  • Their dependence and impacts on BES throughout their value chain – why dependence on water was singled out as distinct from this broader issue is not explained.
  • Recommended actions and new opportunities (?)
    The report does not provide a new set of suggested actions for increasing a business preparedness regarding BES but instead lists those of the TEEB report. Among these is the recommendation to take action to “avoid, minimize and mitigate BES risks, including in-kind compensation (‘offsets’) where appropriate”. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the report mentions environmental markets as an opportunity for land intensive industries (i.e. extractive industries), if they make the effort to value ecosystem services within their land holdings to “identify potential assets as well as risk”.

    This recommendation, together with a widespread push in favour of payment for ecosystem services schemes and “conservation banking” (the latter is also mentioned in the report) is bound to stir concern in the nature conservation community : should a business be rewarded for owning land that harbours biodiversity or provides ecosystem services or should it be rewarded for actually acting in favour of BES, e.g. through proactive restoration or enhancement efforts?