Posts Tagged ‘Ecosystem services’

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!

    TEEB on TED

    Friday, December 30th, 2011

    On TED, Pavan Sukhdev – who lead the TEEB initiative – explains why we need to “value nature” in order to manage it sustainably.

    He ends his talk on the suggestion to focus efforts on “green” and “blue” carbon as part of climate change mitigation. Green and blue carbon is the carbon stored in terrestrial and marine ecosystems respectively.

    Pavan Sukhdev tells us that he strongly supports the REDD+ mechanisms, whereby emitting countries fund projects in forested countries that avoid deforestation and/or forest degradation. There is a lot of potential there for synergies between carbon sequestration goals and the continued provision of other ecosystem services (and biodiversity).

    Concerning blue carbon, it is interesting to note how he explains that we, collectively, have made the ethical choice to lose coral reefs through unmitigated climate change. It was probably an implicit choice, but it is quite revealing that Pavan Sukhdev and TEEB recognize that there are critical thresholds of biodiversity and ecosystem service loss. Those thresholds can be ecological (to avoid extinction or complete loss) or social but they certainly define the boundaries of our future life support system. Good debates to be had there…

    The ecosystem valuation debate

    Tuesday, 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!

    The ideals of ecosystem service research

    Thursday, 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.

    Vulnerability, resilience and sustainability

    Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

    In an interesting review paper published in Global Environmental Change, Billie L. Turner outlines the separate trajectories of vulnerability and resilience research and argues that both could “join forces” and contribute to the wider goals of sustainability science. One of his main claims is that this can be done if both fields of enquiry explicitly address trade-offs in ecosystem services.

    According to Billie Turner, vulnerability has mainly focused on the effects of abrupt, external changes, on human societies and communities. In doing so, it has generated a strong literature on human adaptation and adaptive capacity (one of the three pillars of vulnerability with exposure and sensitivity). Multiple ecosystem services, and their inherent trade-offs, are however rarely addressed.

    On the contrary, while they also investigate the capacity of socio-ecological systems to self-organize and to learn and adapt, most studies of resilience have focused more strongly on the response of ecosystem-level properties to external shocks. In doing so, trade-offs between multiple ecosystem processes and functions are investigated but rarely linked to human well-fare (security, health, material well-being, social relations etc.).

    Billie Turner tells us that because decision making actually compares alternatives in terms of human well-fare (in a broad sense), the multiple pathways between it and ecosystem properties – which operate at multiple spatial scales and with multiple underlying values – must be investigated. Trade-off analysis enables us to track such pathways.

    Within sustainability science and assisted by researchers working at the interface of research-application and open to multiple explanatory perspectives, efforts have begun that point to improved integration of vulnerability and resilience research.

    He concludes that both vulnerability and resilience research would usefully contribute to furthering our understanding of trade-offs between multiple ecosystem services in a manner conductive to decision-making and sustainability.

    Ecosystem services and the greening of the CAP

    Friday, December 31st, 2010

    The European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will soon be reformed. The European Commission has already made several propositions, summarized here and explained here (pdf).

    In a general context of decreasing subsidies, the EU commission has outlined three contrasting scenarios for the post 2013 CAP. These scenarios variously mix direct payments, market-instruments and rural development schemes. Whichever scenario finally unfolds, direct payments will be (totally or in part) justified on the basis of environmental public goods (together with stronger eco-conditionality). This is the greening of the CAP!

    Christian Deverre and Christine de Sainte Marie analysed this greening in a very interesting article (which is unfortunately only available in French). Although they refer a lot to current agricultural policy in Switzerland, their insight is very relevant to the EU.

    C. Deverre and C. de Sainte Marie recognize that the greening of the CAP is only nascent and that the institutions that govern the farming sector are still built around 1960s modernization goals. They also anticipate two important consequences to further greening of the CAP:

  • The increasing need for a detailed assessment of the environmental public goods that farmers provide. The ecosystem service concept is well suited to framing these assessments and will no doubt be strengthened by the coming reform
  • The risk of further “off shoring” of environmental degradations caused by producing food for the European market in other countries (because greening production in Europe implies reducing production levels)
  • In Nagoya, Europe agreed to end, reduce or reform economic incentives that negatively impact biodiversity (including farming subsidies). The CAP reform is an important tool for facing up to this challenge. In this context, it appears clearly necessary to better characterize the effects of farming practices on ecosystem services, at different scales of analysis: from the parcel to the landscape, both in Europe and beyond.

    I’ll never use anything but New Mexico piñon in my candy!

    Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

    David D. Breshears, Laura López-Hoffman and Lisa J. Graumlich published an interesting paper in the journal AMBIO on adaptation to sudden ecosystem crashes that strongly affect the delivery of ecosystem services.

    They argue that climate change might lead to increasingly frequent events of sudden, large and patchy ecosystem crashes were ecosystems undergo important changes in their structure and functioning. Because the particular timing, location and intensity of ecosystem crashes are generally unpredictable, and that ecosystems can rarely be made resistant to crashes (by definition), stakeholders will have to adapt to the consequences of ecosystem crashe if, when and where they occur.

    The authors explore how a recent drought-induced tree die-off of piñon – juniper woodlands across the SW United States has altered the capacity of these woodlands to support human well-being. They relate scientific studies of drought impacts on the ecology of these woodlands and accounts in the media of how stakeholders are being impacted and are responding to these impacts.

    The authors suggest that increasing stakeholder resilience to sudden losses of ecosystem services varies according to how strictly the particular ecosystem services are tied to particular location. They introduce the concept of “portability” to describe the degree to which an ecosystem service is tied to a particular location.

    It is crucial to understand how dependency on certain types of ecosystem services may shape stakeholder flexibility in choice of location and in turn their adaptive capacity

    As an example, piñon nuts are a portable service (with some limits) while the view from someone’s home is not – but this also depends on how flexible people are in terms of home location. Ecosystem service portability must be analyzed in conjunction with stakeholder or beneficiary’s mobility: i.e. how location-flexible rather than location-centric they are.

    A famed Albuquerque candy makers says ‘‘I’ll never use anything but New Mexico piñon in my candy. I won’t go to the Chinese pine nut or the Nevada pine nut because it isn’t right. That would be like selling Native American jewelry that was made in Hong Kong”

    The paper introduces two concepts – ecosystem service portability and stakeholder flexibility – that are interesting to consider in analyses of vulnerability to climate change in general, and of adaptation options to specific changes in ecosystem properties in particular. Stakeholder flexibility must of course be investigated in conjunction with ecosystem service substitutability: can a cactus replace your beloved piñon in your backyard?

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

    Friday, January 29th, 2010

    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…

    Biodiversity indicators: 10 common mistakes

    Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

    In a paper published in 2003 in the Journal of Environmental Management, Lee Failing and Robin Gregory list 10 common mistakes made in designing biodiversity indicators for forest management. The paper is a worthy read for anyone dealing with issues of monitoring or decisions concerning land-use or ecosystem management.

    According to the authors, indicators can have three uses: tracking performance (for results-based management), discriminating alternative hypotheses (for scientific exploration), discriminating alternative policies or management options.

    In their paper, they focus on the latter. They list ten common mistakes made in developing and using biodiversity indicators aimed at providing guidance to policy makers or forest managers who must decide on landscape or forest management policies and plans. Deciding whether or not to allow a specific project to go forward requires a different suite of indicators than assessing whether or not the project was a success.

    They provide a nice example to illustrate their point:

    When we go to the doctors and ask “what is my risk of heart disease”, we do not expect the answer to be framed as a percentage of the target daily donut intake”. (…) Eating fewer donuts may be part of a sensible management strategy but it does not answer the question “am I healthy?” A report of two dozen indicators may be an important part of the the analysis process, but it is also not an acceptable answer to the question (…). Doctors it seems understand the need to take a complex thing, break it down into a relatively small number of indicators, and provide a summary judgement about the status of our health or the probability of recovery associated with alternative treatments.

    The 10 mistakes:

  • 1. Failing to define end-points – Is the aim to preserve ecosystem services or scenic value, to prevent the loss of a particular set of species or the intrinsic values and rights of all species.
  • 2. Mixing means and ends – Appropriate performance indicators should focus on the desired goals, not on whether “actions” were taken. Guideline are no substitute to goals.
  • 3. Ignoring the management context – Outside a specific context, “biodiversity” has no meaning – The context must thus be specified.
  • 4. Making lists instead of indicators
  • 5. Avoiding importance weights for individual indicators – Unfortunately, stating that “everything is important” doesn’t work in practice.
  • 6. Avoiding summary indicators or indices because they are considered overly simple
  • 7. Failing to link indicators to decisions
  • 8. Confusing value judgements with technical judgements
  • 9. Substituting data collection for critical thinking – If no data is available, then the authors suggest using established methods for gathering and synthesizing qualitative expert judgements.
  • 10. Oversimplifying: Ignoring spatial and temporal trade-offs – In giving examples for mistake 10, Failing and Gregory mention the importance of taking into account spatial and temporal trade-offs in designing policies aimed at no-net-loss of biodiversity. Temporary and /or local losses could provide – or be made to – provide gains at a broader scale or on the longer term. The same point is made by Kerry ten Kate in an EM podcast on making biodiversity offsets work (mp3).