Habitat banking on trial in France

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!

    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

    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?

    Biodiversity offsets and more in the UK’s white paper on the value of nature

    June 9th, 2011

    The UK government’s white paper on the “value of nature” has been published (pdf here).

    Biodiversity offsets are mentioned as a good idea to be tested on a voluntary basis by local governments and developers. For the time being, there is thus no expansion of the mitigation hierarchy (of avoiding, reducing and offsetting impacts) beyond that required under the EU “birds” and “habitats” directives.

    We will establish a new, voluntary approach to biodiversity offsets and test our approach in pilot areas

    As well as testing offsets, the white paper also mentions the designation of nature improvement areas to be restored. This must be set against the goals mentioned in the recent European biodiversity strategy (also discussed here). The government also plans to set up an (ecological network.

    The UK national ecosystem assessment is out!

    June 8th, 2011

    The UK National Ecosystem Assessment was finalized and is being published on-line.

    Started mid 2009, the assessment led by Robert Watson and Steve Albon, it is the first analysis of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to society and continuing economic prosperity.

    The key findings of the assessment were made available on June 2nd (pdf here) while specific technical chapters will be made available through June.

    Until then the 87 pages of the synthesis report should keep you busy! Below are some of the main points raised by the assessment:

    The authors mention the need to increase food production while at the same time decreasing its negative effects on ecosystem services. In fact, the idea is to harness ecosystem services to actually increase production. This “sustainable intensification” is what the French call “ecological intensification”.

    Reversing declines in ecosystem services will require the adoption of more resilient ways of managing ecosystems, and a better balance between production and other ecosystem services – one of the major challenges is to increase food production, but with a smaller environmental footprint through sustainable intensification.

    Not surprisingly, the assessment also raises the issue of ecosystem services being undervalued in decision making and the suggested solution is to take into account the monetary and non monetary values of ecosystems in every-day decision making.

    Contemporary economic and participatory techniques allow us to take into account the monetary and non-monetary values of a wide range of ecosystem services.

    The assessment use six contrasting scenarios to explore alternative futures for ecosystem services in the UK.

    The six scenarios used in the UK national ecosystem assessment

    Choose yours!

    It is also worth noticing that the assessment’s conceptual framework seems to focus on the “goods” that depend (at least in part) on ecosystem services as the linkage between ecosystems and human well-being. A more in-depth look into the figure below shows that in fact, the authors have grouped under the label “goods” all use and non-use, material and non-material benefits from ecosystems that have value for people.

    The conceptual framework of the UK national ecosystem assessment

    The ecosystem valuation debate

    June 7th, 2011

    The Lancaster Environment Centre recently organized an on-line debate on ecosystem valuation. You can check out a summary of the debate on this page. Participants plan to produce a policy guidance document for future UK policy concerning market based instruments for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services.

    The same debate on ecosystem valuation will take place tomorrow in Paris (France), under the auspices of the IDDRI, a think-tank. In preparation to the symposium, Emma Broughton and Romain Pirard wrote a short piece on market-based instruments for biodiversity (pdf).

    Their article proposes a typology of instruments which distinguishes:

  • Regulations changing relative prices
  • Coasean type agreements
  • Reverse auctions
  • Tradable permits
  • Specific markets for environmental products
  • Premium capture on existing markets
  • The authors discuss the pros and cons of each one of these instruments.

    Learn more in the paper and participate in the on-going debate!

    Overestimating biodiversity loss?

    June 2nd, 2011

    Earlier this May, Fangliang He and Stephen Hubbell made headline news by publishing, in Nature, a study that demonstrates that usual estimates of species extinction rates are actually overestimates. Their argument is basically as follows:

    Estimates of biodiversity loss from habitat loss are generally based on a relationship between the number of species in an area and that area’s surface. This relationship is known as the species-area curve. It is based on surveys that count species inside a survey area. The bigger the area, the more species there are. Of course, it makes sense to say that the bigger the area lost, the more species are lost.

    What He and Hubbell explain is that in establishing the species – area curves, species are added to the count as they are encountered. The survey area necessary for a first encounter with a species is necessarily smaller than the area that encompasses 100% of that species (except in the trivial case of there being only one single individual of the species).

    This larger area, which harbours 100% of the species, is the one which should be used for calculating species extinction from habitat loss. As a result, the species – area relationship gives less species going extinct for a given area of habitat loss… Makes sense doesn’t it?

    The authors insist that their point does not mean that biodiversity is not being lost at an alarming rate. That also makes sense of course.

    Ecosystem services and offsets in the EU biodiversity strategy

    May 25th, 2011

    Earlier this month, the European Commission published the European Union’s Biodiversity Strategy to 2020. It has received considerable comment in the press and on-line, in particular regarding the place taken by ecosystem services and the value of nature. BusinessGreen, EurActiv, the Ecosystem Marketplace and others have rejoiced in finding that the strategy explicitly mentions the incorporation of biodiversity and ecosystem services into decision-making through valuation, monitoring and reporting. While this is true, it must be made clear that most of the strategy actually focuses on setting biodiversity targets and developing (incl. funding) the corresponding monitoring and reporting schemes. Valuation issues are only mentioned in the strategy’s introductory section.

    The document only makes a passing mention of offsets and PES schemes as mechanisms for involving the private sector in funding biodiversity conservation. As such, it is a bit of a stretch to say that the strategy endorses “species banking” (as did the Ecosystem Marketplace). In fact, it is strange that the key role of offsets in the Habitats directive (article 6.4) did not get mentioned in this context. The strategy does not mention the 2004 environmental liability directive which also includes offsets.

    Targets set by the strategy include (1) the full implementation of the Birds (1979) and Habitats (1992) directives (i.e. improving the conservation status of twice the number of habitat types as are currently and 50% more for species), (2) maintaining and enhancing ecosystem services through the development of “green infrastructure” and the restoration of >15% of currently degraded ecosystems (no definition provided), (3) developing a adequate policy response to invasive species and (4) “stepping-up” the EU’s contribution averting global biodiversity loss (whatever that means apart from forking out aid…).

    Interesting chapters in the document discuss interactions with existing policies and in particular the Common Agricultural Policy which will have to contribute to the first two targets : improving the conservation status of habitats and species and restoring degraded ecosystems. The forthcoming CAP will have considerable impact on biodiversity and Europe and a lot is certainly at play there. The document states that discussions are in progress for a framework directive aimed at preserving soil resources in the EU. That’s a lot of news to come…

    Species banking goes global!

    March 21st, 2011

    Dont’ worry! I don’t mean that you can now trade species like you would apples and oranges.

    As well as an up-and-coming approach (maybe) to limiting our impacts on wild plants and animals, Species Banking is also a dedicated website managed by Forest Trends that aims to be the entry point for all those interested in the issue or that actually need to sell or buy species credits.

    This month, the website extended its focus beyond US Conservation Banking. It went global! You can now find a list of biodiversity offset programs across the globe. Although the list is still incomplete, it contains a wealth of information.

    Enjoy it!

    The ideals of ecosystem service research

    March 3rd, 2011

    Ralf Seppelt and his co-authors from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig (Germany) recently published an interesting inquiry into how ecosystem service research is actually conducted (pdf available here). They draw conclusions on how it should be done.

    They focused on ecosystem service studies at the regional scale, looking at 153 publications. Most studies focused on single ecosystem services (usually provisioning), using proxy-data (such as land-use or land-cover maps). Interestingly, the authors conclude that less than one third of the studies they reviewed provided a sound basis for their conclusions…

    From their review, R. Seppelt and his co-authors suggest four key components for high quality ecosystem service research:

  • Establishing the biophysical basis for ecosystem service delivery
  • Analysing trade-offs between multiple ecosystem services, in a context of environmental change and ecosystem management decisions
  • Analysing off-site effects of ecosystem management decisions on ecosystem services
  • Involving stakeholders in identifying ecosystem services, ground-truthing conclusions and management options
  • They list key criteria on which to assess whether a particular ecosystem service study actually follows their suggested guidelines. Table 1 below is taken from their paper.

    Table 1 from Seppelt et al. (2011) in Journal of Applied Ecology

    The authors mention biophysical realism as a necessary criteria for ecosystem services studies to provide a sound basis for decision making. It could be argued that the same could apply to “socio-political” or “socio-economic” realism. Stakeholder involvement does not necessarily guarantee such realism, especially when stakeholders have very heterogeneous needs and preferences and/or where there are important power asymmetries between stakeholders.