Integrating ecosystem services into environmental decision making

How can institutions and decision makers better work with practitioners to deliver an effective ecosystem services approach in a world of competing priorities? Read the questions posed by Alina Congreve and Iain Cross, and share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Photo by Alina Congreve

The related challenges of climate change and biodiversity conservation require decision makers to develop an effective range of policy solutions. One approach is to frame natural resources as a form of capital which provides services and goods for the benefit of society.

This ecosystem services approach has been highly influential in environmental decision making, and deployed in various different settings including catchment management, land-use planning and forestry.  Yet it has attracted criticism from many ecologists, as an ecosystem services approach can lead to ascribing a specific financial value to the natural world.

Critics argue that valuing ecosystem services financially further exposes the natural world to the peaks and troughs of the global economy and will not protect species that are unconnected to the provision of services. There is widespread debate at ecological conferences and in the correspondence pages of academic journals among academics, policy makers and practitioners about the relative merits and limitations of an ecosystem services approach.

Given the heated nature of these arguments, much work needs to be done to move the debate forward in the interests of addressing both biodiversity loss and climate change. What role could ecological research play in this debate in future? And how can researchers in universities and institutes work collaboratively with practitioner colleagues on addressing issues of shared concern?

Financial valuations or risk-based approaches

A key disagreement is financial valuation and the ethical implications and ecological consequences of taking this approach. Valuation studies are time consuming to conduct accurately and the publication of results may not align to key decision-making processes.

The approach adopted by the Environment Agency in England is of interest here. Rather than calculate precise monetary value, instead a ‘traffic light’ system is used to, for example, highlight the high importance of an area of land for flood protection. This approach to decision making will function most effectively when it is underpinned by expertise from ecologists, contributing knowledge to help develop a common framework to understand risk.

Lessons can also be drawn from schemes in many countries that pay farmers to deliver biodiversity and recreational outcomes. Schemes do not need to pay farmers for the precise value of the ecosystem service they deliver, but enough for them to change their land management practices in the desired way.

Tal-y-Llyn Lake to Minffordd A487 B4406 12 June 2013
Photo by Alina Congreve.

Effective monitoring of interventions

The uptake of an ecosystem services approach is hindered by the lack of robust evidence about how effective interventions are. This is not unique to ecosystem services and reflects a much wider lack of time and resources directed towards monitoring and evaluating interventions.

How can ecologists’ knowledge and understanding best be utilized in designing effective and efficient monitoring approaches? Improved monitoring of interventions is needed in pilot projects, with greater academic input to support the design of robust experimental approaches. More emphasis could also be placed on systematic reviews of ecosystem services projects. This could also contribute to a stronger evidence base, and help practitioners design more effective interventions.

Innovation has taken place in the water sector, with some water companies working with conservation NGOs to provide financial incentives for farmers to manage land to slow runoff and retain upland peat bogs. Doing so enhances a number of ecosystem services: flood protection, improved drinking water quality, recreational amenity and carbon sequestration.

Large-scale ecosystem services projects, such as SCaMP and Upstream Thinking, have not been adopted by other water companies, suggesting the need for more robust data for uptake to widen. The Environment Agency has also take forward projects, including the catchment scale Weardale Natural Flood Management Pilot. The Environment Agency’s work to test an ecosystems services approach to flood management is hampered by public sector funding cycles, which limit even medium-term follow-up monitoring. These large scale pilots have not yet taken place in lowland catchments, with uptake held back by more fragmented land ownership, guidance manuals for landowners biased towards upland environments, and an even greater lack of evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of interventions.

Urban collaborative opportunities

In urban areas there will be the need for greater collaboration between ecologists, landscape architects and horticulturalists to help deliver green roofs and the restoration of urban river channels. These interventions are necessary for climate change adaptation.

Urban rivers can provide flood protection services, as well as many cultural and recreational benefits. Some of the ecological assessment and surveying tools that have been developed for habitats dominated by natural processes, may need to be changed to make them more applicable for urban environment.

To be useful, monitoring tools need to be sensitive enough to detect how changes in environmental management practice lead to meaningful changes in ecological communities. For example, monitoring of urban rivers commonly uses the Riverfly Monitoring Initiative but, in typical urban areas, water quality and geomorphological conditions lead to a smaller species pools than in environments dominated by natural processes, so the tool may not detect positive management changes effectively.

Competing priorities

An ecosystem services approach will not remove conflicts between competing priorities. There are cases where multiple benefits can be delivered effectively – flood risk mitigation, biodiversity enhancement, carbon sequestration, recreation etc. However, this will not be possible in every case and decision makers will sometimes need to sacrifice some services in specific locations, as part of a network and mix of local and regional provision.

How can professional societies better support their members take ethically informed decisions when making these trade offs? If professional bodies could provide more support and direction, it would help decision makers when making difficult choices between competing priorities.

Developing answers to the questions we pose would take us a step closer to robust mechanisms that place ecosystem services at the heart of environmental decision making. The authors are keen hear the views of ecologists working in universities and research institutes on where they see opportunities to work with practitioners and seek solutions to the shared challenges of taking forward and ecosystem services approach.

The full Practitioner’s Perspective, Integrating ecosystem services into environmental decision-making is free to read in issue 56:3 of Journal of Applied Ecology.

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