Underestimating infinity: environmental value and ecosystem services – Part 1

Image by SAIF DAHLAH/AFP/Getty Images

Image by SAIF DAHLAH/AFP/Getty Images

On 19 February 2013 I and some other EcoPost contributors attended a half-day symposium entitled “A serious underestimate of infinity?”, where four speakers delivered short presentations on the concept of ecosystem services and how it influences the communication of environmental value, approaching the question from ecological, political and socio-economic perspectives. Symposium was organised by the Ecosystem Services MSc programme (the University of Edinburgh) and held at Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation.

Symposium had a dedicated hashtag on Twitter #ecosysconf, so I will incorporate some of my tweets (sent from @ecopostblog account) and those of others into this review.

First speaker was Jessica Boucher, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and an environmental consultant. Though her talk was brief, Jessica introduced some very interesting ideas about the use of ecosystem services concept by the private sector. She mentioned how some institutions have a greater influence and thus more likely to induce changes:

She then moved onto more practical solutions and discussed specific tools available for the use of private sector to measure and evaluate ecosystem services as well as the impact of their business activities within the area they are working in. Many of these tools are still at early development stages and are quite expensive to use, but they allow to pinpoint the risk areas, which then can be addressed with the help of environmental consultancies and similar bodies. Some of the tools mentioned included LEFT (Local Ecological Footprinting Tool) developed by Oxford University and IBAT (Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool), a product of collaboration between BirdLife International, Conservation International, International Union for Conservation of Nature and UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

This tidbit together with the tools in use as discussed above demonstrate that there is a clear movement towards consideration of the ecosystems as a whole rather than highlighting one or the other specific species when making business decisions among other things.

Next speaker, Alistair McVittie of SRUC, talked about the valuation of the ecosystem services and how it affects the development of the  policies in Scotland. Environmental valuation was defined as a number of techniques used to place a money value on environmental and public goods. It was also described as a useful metric to compare these values of the different goods. While approach was introduced in 1950’s, it took awhile for its importance to be recognised. An example of this were the initial versions of CAP (EU Common Agricultural Policy), where payments were issued directly for goods thus leading to overproduction and great environmental damage. Shifts to per area payments and proposed introduction of greening measures again clearly shows changes in attitudes and increased understanding of environmental values.

Alistair also introduced the paramount issue of ecosystem service valuation which is the difficulty of recognising the value of the services other than provisioning services. That is, while it is easy to put a price tag on timber, food produce and other goods we obtain from ecosystems, there are many services that are not as tangible and thus hard to measure and adequately value. TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) initiative has been credited with increased understanding of these values of ecosystems and biodiversity (check out this TED talk for more on TEEB). The talk then moved more towards biodiversity and its loss, and how different regions fare in this respect. Here a measure of Mean Species Abundance (MSA) is used with the scale between 1 and 0, where the former represents undisturbed areas (though admittedly what can be classified as ‘undisturbed’ is debatable). MSA is not perfect as, for example, areas such as Sahara and Canadian Arctic have the highest values, while obviously both biodiversity and direct human impact here are limited. However, the models show significant decline in MSA in most parts of the world by 2030. These models also predict that if the protected areas were increased to cover at least 20 per cent of each eco-region, MSA would actually increase by 2030.

Finally, issues of equity and environmental justice were touched upon briefly using City of Edinburgh as an example, where there seems to be a clear positive relationship between green infrastructure and income level and mental health. As a consequence, need of bringing green infrastructure and associated ecosystem services to the deprived areas was highlighted.

Next Underestimating infinity: environmental value and ecosystem services – Part 2

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One response to “Underestimating infinity: environmental value and ecosystem services – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Underestimating infinity: environmental value and ecosystem services – Part 2 |·

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