Archive for the ‘Nature conservation’ 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…

    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…