Archive for the ‘Ecosystem assessment’ Category


Friday, December 10th, 2010

In a paper in press in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Erhun Kula and David Evans discuss how long term impacts on the environment (and environmental gains) should be taken into account in cost-benefit assessments of projects. Their discussion mainly focuses on the tricky question of the discount rate which is used to calculate the net present value of future gains and losses.

The authors’ main argument is that different discount rates should be used for economic and social costs and benefits and for environmental costs and benefits, because man-made capital (i.e. the former) is not finite and is – largely – substitutable while natural capital (i.e. the latter) is finite and not substitutable (because it is being degraded beyond its capacity to sustain ecosystem goods and services).

(…) economic and social costs and benefits should be streamed separately from environmental costs and benefits within a cost-benefit analysis. Indeed, each stream should have its own set of objectives and constraints, costs and benefits, risks and uncertainties.

Setting restoration targets : how specific should they be?

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

In a recent paper published in the journal Wetlands, Diane De Steven and her colleagues present a 5 year restoration experiment where they tried to pilot restored coastal depressional wetlands in South Carolina to either herbaceous wetlands or wet forests. They failed!

Well, they didn’t fail overall. In fact, they generate a whole suite of restored wetlands that are well within the range of preserved wetlands in the region in terms of hydrology and plant communities. What they failed to do was to correctly predict which one of the 16 wetlands they restored would (likely) evolve into either a herbaceous wetland or a wet forest. This is because they could not predict the restored hydrology of each wetland (restored by plugging drains) which is the main determinant of tree establishment, ahead of planting tree seedlings into the wetlands targeted to become wet forests.

Diane De Steven and her colleagues draw several conclusions from this outcome :

  • There are high stakes in evaluating ecological restoration success in wetlands because of the requirements for mitigating wetland losses
  • Restoration success is rarely a simple yes / no outcome
  • Specifying, in advance, a specific plant community as a target for restoration ignores the variability of ecological (and community) dynamics and under-appreciates the multiple possible states of natural wetlands
  • More flexible restoration targets, based on a spectrum of reference communities (“natural” or otherwise) is more fitting to an adaptative management approach to restoration.
  • The spectrum could be defined in terms of wetland functioning, plant communities or even functional groups or functional traits (thereby recognizing that different plant assemblages can provide similar functions).
  • These are interesting ideas to keep in mind when discussing restoration (of course!) but also in designing assessment methods for wetland mitigation : with which metrics and against which targets should losses and gains in wetland condition be assessed?

    The biodiversity planning toolkit

    Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

    The British Association of Local Government Ecologists (ALGE) has put on-line a very interesting tool for anyone interested in environmental issues related to planning in the UK. The biodiversity planning toolkit provides user-friendly information on several important points including:

  • Fundamental Considerations
  • Law / Policy / Practice, including primary legislation and statutory regulaions
  • Types of Development
  • Designations, key species, habitats and components of geodiversity
  • Forward Planning
  • The most interesting offer of the toolkit is the interactive landscape which lets the user navigate the different issues listed above in an attractive setting which is pretty much self-explanatory. The interactive landscape is very useful as a first introduction to the British planning regime and environmental regulations as well as all the key components of biodiversity, ecosystems and landscapes that are under consideration.

    Well done!

    Adding a first step to the mitigation hierarchy

    Friday, November 5th, 2010

    The standard mitigation hierarchy is to avoid impacts on the environment, reduce impacts that could not be avoided and only offset residual impacts.

    Applying this mitigation hierarchy requires precise knowledge on the environment that might be impacted, in order to design appropriate measures to avoid and reduce impacts as well as design and size offsets. To underline the importance of this knowledge, why not add “study” to this hierarchy?

    Any thoughts?

    Biodiversity quality?

    Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

    Alan Feest and his colleagues have been very productive recently in arguing for a new concept: biodiversity quality. What is that?

    Basically, considering that considering the total number of species in a given location is not enough to describe that location’s value in terms of biodiversity, they argue that decision-makers should instead use a basket of indicators that includes standard biodiversity indicators (such as the Shannon-Wiener index) but also densities, biomass and/or indices of species conservation value (built through a weighing of species based on their conservation status). Mr. Feest says so himself: this is not new!

    Calling this approach a new paradigm and labelling it “biodiversity quality” might be a bit presumptuous but the point of jointly using multiple indicators remains particularly relevant. This is because ecosystem management and nature conservation are now under heavy pressure to itemise ecosystems into “manageable” components (e.g. “biodiversity” or this or that “ecosystem service”). Multi-criteria methods such as those advocated by Mr. Feest are no doubt a useful answer, which could be used as an alternative to the bundling of the items suggested by Kosoy and Corbera (2010).

    On commodity fetishism and the itemisation of ecosystems

    Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

    In a remarkable paper, published in 2010 in Ecological Economics*, Nicolás Kosoy and Esteve Corbera, gave an in-depth political-science look at payments for ecosystem services (PES). They suggested that their development as a solution to nature conservation’s failures amounted to “commodity fetishism” (after Karl Marx’s use of the term for describing the nascent labour relations in Capital [1867]).

    They described the process of commodification which is prevalent in PES but more generally in all the current and up-coming “markets” for biodiversity and ecosystem services, which need precise ecological “things” to trade, sell, value or offset. Accounting frameworks such as the ones we discussed in a previous post require commodification. Concerning PES, this is how they describe commodification:

    First, it involves narrowing down an ecological function to the level of an ecosystem service, hence separating the latter from the whole ecosystem. Second, it assigns a single exchange-value to this service and, third, it links ‘providers’ and ‘consumers’ of these services in market or market-like exchanges.

    Commodification leads to complex ecosystems being compartmentalised into discrete elements or items. Ecological sciences are increasingly called upon to identify, quantify and map these “items”, and hence ignore the complex interactions between and among ecosystems (which they strive to untangle!). Because tradable items must be reliably (and cheaply) measured or counted, proxys are usually needed which further reduces the ecological complexity or realism they encompass.

    Kosoy and Corbera suggest that ecosystem services be bundled up to favour the provision of multiple ecosystem services rather than aiming for the maximum production of a unique target service. This requires additional knowledge about the interactions between ecosystem services and the synergies and trade-offs between services. These lines of research are in their infancy, and remain limited by the many gaps in our understanding of real-world ecosystem dynamics, concerning the effects of management interventions or those of external drivers such as climate change. Exchanging scientific accuracy for simplification will not help in this endeavour!

    A more general solution to the issue of itemisation that bundling services would be to set safeguards on ecosystem management, whereby market-based mechanisms would be allowed to operate within certain ecological limits that guarantee a site’s “evolutionary” and “ecological” potential. This requires mixing marked-based mechanisms with standard (command-and-control) mechanisms. Would that be an on-the-ground translation of the pluralism that Kosoy and Corbera call for?

    * Kosoy, N. & Corbera E. (2010): Payments for ecosystem services as commodity fetishism. Ecological Economics 69: 1228-1236.

    Restoration fundamentals

    Thursday, October 28th, 2010

    The following is a modified version of discussions on the ECOLOG-L discussion list (with contributions by Wayne Tyson and Eric Branton). It summarizes the fundamentals of a successful restoration programme.

    Design and implement the required restoration actions
    Step 1: Assess current ecosystem condition (structure and processes)
    Step 2: Describe and agree on desired future/restored ecosystem condition.
    Step 3: Define and agree on actions needed to reach desired condition (taking into account feasibility, reliability and costs of the proposed actions).
    Step 4: Take bold but safe-to-fail actions (i.e. taking a “what-if” approach).

    Put adaptive management in place
    Step 5: Monitor and evaluate results from desired ecosystem condition perspective.
    Step 6: Modify actions and/or expectations in light of results.
    Step 7: Continue with revised actions and monitoring.

    Note that conditions to be evaluated should include processes (population fluctuations, properly functioning soil microbial communities, forest succession) as well as the components (species present, habitat types and proportions). This prevents a project site from being considered “restored” the second the last native grass has been planted.

    Defining desired ecosystem condition may be the most challenging step: Do we want a pristine, zero human disturbance condition? E.g., a mature mixed conifer-deciduous woodland cycled with infrequent wildfires and no management of invasive species. Do we want a slightly human-controlled condition? E.g., a mature mixed conifer-deciduous woodland preserved through fire prevention and some management of invasives. Do we want a slightly more human-managed condition? E.g., oak savannahs maintained by periodic controlled burns, conifer removals and intensive invasive species removals.

    Ecological business needs: mitigation guidelines and risk profiling

    Sunday, October 17th, 2010

    In a paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, Paul Armsworth and his co-authors present the conclusions of a (mainly) workshop based study on the ecological research needs of business, in the UK. Workshop participants were from the mining and quarrying, insurance and manufacturing, engineering and technology sectors.

    They identified questions related to the following:

  • Reducing costs from business impacts on the environment
  • Exploiting new opportunities
  • Informing long term planning
  • Developing immediate commercial applications
  • Streamlining environmental policies that affect businesses
  • Among the more specific suggestions made by workshop participants, mining ans quarrying underlined the importance of informing the location of their operations in order to minimize on- and off-site impacts and well as having guidelines for offsetting their residual impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems. Concerning the latter, there was strong interest in the ecosystem service concept as a useful tool for strengthening the links between business interests and obligations and the ecological research community.

    Risk profiling techniques could contribute to environmental offset design and sizing

    Another interesting suggestions include the development of risk profiles for “environmental investments”, including carbon and biodiversity offsets. Standardized methods for risk profiling of offset actions (that aim to create, restore or manage biodiversity and ecosystem services) could be very useful for assessing their likely contribution to no-net-loss of biodiversity. As such, risk profiling would also assist in the complicated task of sizing offsets on the basis of the uncertainty or reliability of the ecological engineering techniques involved.

    Workshop participants from the manufacturing, engineering and technology sectors also mentioned the need to develop low-cost rapid assessment methods for businesses to seize opportunities provided by ecosystem services and to manage environmental risks and opportunities (see wikipedia for an introduction to risk management).

    Reference: Armsworth, P., Armsworth, A., Compton, N., Cottle, P., Davies, I., Emmett, B., Fandrich, V., Foote, M., Gaston, K., Gardiner, P., Hess, T., Hopkins, J., Horsley, N., Leaver, N., Maynard, T., & Shannon, D. (2010). The ecological research needs of business Journal of Applied Ecology, 47 (2), 235-243 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01792.x

    Biodiversity offsets and habitat banking as priority nature conservation policy options in the UK

    Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

    In a recent paper* published in the October 2010 issue of the Journal of Applied Ecology, William Sutherland and his co-authors examined more than a hundred policy options for conserving nature in the United Kingdom. Together with representatives from several stakeholders groups, they selected a final list of 25 propositions.

    Among these, biodiversity offsets are mentioned several times as useful tools. They are mentioned in the context of measures to develop and maintain ecologically coherent networks (i.e. banks and offset sites should contribute to these networks) and in the goal of streamlining conservation action for European protected species (within existing legislation). Concerning the latter, the authors suggest that impact assessments and offset schemes should focus on the status of entire populations (or meta-populations) rather than on individuals or sites. Biodiversity offsets are also mentioned as part of setting up a specific policy for no-net-loss of biodiversity.

    A specific section of the paper deals with the development of habitat banking in the UK. The authors suggest two levels of compensation: one for specifically targeted species or habitat types (i.e. those that have priority status) and one for more “common” biodiversity for which more generic “habitat” banking could be appropriate. The paper also mentions ecosystem services as a useful concept for nature conservation in the UK but there is no suggestion that the concept could or should be used in the context of generic habitat banking.

    The paper’s abstract:

    1. The conservation of biodiversity depends upon both policy and regulatory frameworks. Here, we identify priority policy developments that would support conservation in the UK in the light of technological developments, changes in knowledge or environmental change.

    2. A team of seven representatives from governmental organizations, 17 from non-governmental organizations and six academics provided an assessment of the priority issues. The representatives consulted widely and identified a long-list of 117 issues.

    3.  Following voting and discussion during a 2-day meeting, these were reduced to a final list of 25 issues and their potential policy options and research needs were identified. Many of the policies related to recent changes in approaches to conservation, such as increased interest in ecosystem services, adaptation to climate change and landscape ecology.

    4. We anticipate that this paper will be useful for policy makers, nature conservation delivery agencies, the research community and conservation policy advocates.

    5.  Although many of the options have global significance, we suggest that other countries consider an equivalent exercise. We recommend that such an exercise be carried out in the UK at regular intervals, say every 5 years, to explore how biodiversity conservation can best be supported by linked policy development and research in a changing world.

    6. Synthesis and applications. Opportunities for policy development were prioritized and for each of the top 25 we identified the current context, policy options and research questions. These largely addressed new issues relating to developing topics such as ecosystem services, landscape planning and nanotechnology. We envisage that this will largely be used by researchers wishing to make a contribution to potential policy debates.

    *: Sutherland et al. (2010): The identification of priority policy options for UK nature conservation. Journal of Applied Ecology, 47: 955–965 (doi:10.1111/j.1365-2664.2010.01863.x)

    13 important isssues for developing practical conservation goals

    Monday, March 1st, 2010

    In a review published in 2008 in Ecology Letters, David Lindenmayer and a long list of co-authors discuss some of the most important concepts used in describing, understanding and managing biodiversity and ecological processes at the landscape scale. These include classifying landscapes into habitats, describing and assessing their internal structure and condition, describing their disposition in space and time as well as their connections and hedge-effects.

    Their review of these concepts is relatively broad but difficult to follow. It does not offer a very satisfying conclusion, except a worthwhile attempt to synthesize how these concepts relate to each other in a box-and-arrow diagram.

    The more interesting part of their review is their suggestion of 13 important issues to be considered in developing practical goals for conservation. These are the following:

  • Develop long-term shared visions and quantifiable objectives
  • Manage the entire mosaic, not just the pieces
  • Consider both the amount and configuration of habitat and particular land cover types
  • Identify disproportionately important species, processes and landscape elements
  • Integrate aquatic and terrestrial environments
  • Use landscape classification and conceptual models appropriate to objectives
  • Maintain the capability of landscapes to recover from disturbances
  • Manage for change
  • Time lags between events and consequences are inevitable
  • Manage in a experimental framework
  • Manage both species and ecosystems
  • Manage at multiple scales
  • Allow for contingency
  • Each one of these issues is discussed in the paper and although they might seem trivial to some, lack of time or expertise often means they are not appropriately accounted for in the design of conservation policies. This situation makes the paper a useful reminder! The authors conclude by listing some key research topics including the challenge of making the enormous mass of ecological knowledge relevant to on-the-ground management of ecosystems and biodiversity. That’s a hard one!