Countdown - 14, ecosystem services

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I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!

Countdown - 14, ecosystem services

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The whole concept of ecosystem services has become much-chattered about in policy circles over the last decade even though the person on the Clapham omnibus would probably glaze over at the mention of it.

Ecosystem services are those useful things that are provided by the natural world that benefit us and that therefore have a value even if that value is often not taken into account in our financial transacations. At one extreme, the pleasure you get from seeing a blue tit come to your bird feeder is an ecosystem service but we are more often talking  about things like carbon storage in peat bogs or ordinary soils, water being cleansed as it passes through a reedbed or flood alleviation provided by wetlands.

So a peat bog on top of a Welsh hill may be a poor place to practise agriculture, only good for a few sheep to graze, but it may be storing significant amounts of carbon (which, if released, would slightly worsen climate change all over the world) and it may act as a slow-release sponge thus reducing the flood risk for someone living in far-away Shrewsbury.  The Welsh hill farmer gets paid for the sheep but gains no reward from the world for storing carbon, nor from the inhabitants of Shrewsbury for helping to keep their living rooms flood-free.  And that means that if he (or she) were able to drain that peat bog they might increase their income from lamb sales even if it reduced those non-market, non-paid for, ecosystem services.  You can see that the 'free' services that might be lost may be greater than the finacial gain to the sheep farmer but that won't 'count' in the way that individual economic decisions are made unless we put some sort of a value on the services.  That might mean paying the hill farmer for the carbon benefits and flood-reduction benefits so that 'we' don't lose them.

If that peat bog is the home to Wales's last breeding dunlin then we could see that taking account of the carbon storage and water services would be a good way to save some wildlife too.  If we valued the carbon and water then we don't need to persuade people to value the dunlin too - the dunlin get a free ride.  So that's what makes this way of thinking attractive to nature conservationists, on a good day.  Because, many natural habitats provide significant ecosystem services to humanity that we don't currently value properly we treat destroying nature as being without cost.  If only we valued it better then we would have less destruction.  It's absolutely true, and on a good day, well worth promoting.

On a bad day, this approach doesn't necessarily deliver quite what we would like.  The Welsh hill farmer may find that he (or she) could drain the peatbog (bye, bye dunlin), plant it with conifers (replacing the carbon storage elements lost from the peat) and have a lake and a dam downstream to control water flows (thus replacing the flood mitigation services of the peat too).  Stock the lake with fish and open the forest up to a car rally every year and you may be in clover even if not in peat.

I think that the ecosystem services approach is a good one - but best if I am in charge of it.  In the wrong hands it can lead to almost as much ecological damage as not taking these services into account.  Well, maybe that is overstating things, but I hope you can see that whilst there is great overlap between nature conservation and ecosystem service conservation, the overlap is not total.

Many of the species we love - and I use that word deliberately - are just the icing on the ecosystem services cake and therefore may not count for much even when ecosystem services do.  You can save the rainforest without saving the tiger and the disappearance of the corncrake, and now the drastic reduction of many other farmland birds, insects and plants, is not prejudicing food production.

The ecosystem services weapon is a two-edged sword.  In the right hands, valuing carbon may help to protect ancient woodlands, in the wrong hands it may lead to the planting of wildlife deserts of conifers in the wrong places. 

Clearly, the right hands would be mine, or yours, or other right-thinking people's hands.  But when we get into putting a price on things we are potentially walking into HM Treasury's territory.  Just as focussing on money can lead to a poorer world, so in the wrong hands might focussing on the value of ecosystem services.  Beware the blunt policy instrument.

Having said that, I see there being big potential advantages for nature if we value it more.  So rather than shrink away, nature conservationists must get involved in the discussions.  There are opportunities to save a bit more of the natural world around us by valuing it properly.

Comments
  • All - many thanks for great comments

    Sooty - well said indeed.

    Tiger - Welcome to the RSPB Community and to this (soon to end) blog.  Those are great comments and you appear very well informed on this subject.  And you put your fingeron one of the issues - is nature conservation for us or for nature?  

  • Sooty - well said

  • Unless we all live a more simple lifestyle it is inevitable things will go from worse to even worse and all this talk is just hot air unless you can convince the majority of the population to do something about it.Those of you with big aspirations are a credit but sadly you are ahead of your time but you do have my admiration.

  • Hi Mark,

    Glad you seem to like the "ecosystem service" approach, and see the value of valuation. I'd tentatively suggest you could like it even more...!?

    The issue about the dunlin versus the carbon, and conservation suffering at the hands of more marketable environmental goods, is not a problem for the ES approach in general, but rather a problem with being able to adequately and accurately value different types of services.

    "Regulating" services, such as water purification and carbon sequestration, are becoming more and more measurable, and therefore easier to value. So even though they have been left out in the cold by the short-sighted and market-based approach to public policy that we have seen dominate in the UK in past years, they have a fair chance of being better represented in decision making processes in the future. So-called "cultural" services, including the joy we get from blue-tits coming to our feeders, are a different story in terms of being able to measure the service, or quantify the benefits we receive.

    If we had secure and comprehensive ways of measuring and comparing all types of ESs, and the benefits people receive, then I dont think it would matter whose hands these tools were in. We would be blessed with a sure-fire way to assess how the environment contributes to our wellbeing, and set policy based on that wondrous well of information.

    This is a pretty monumental IF, but with advances in envrionmental economics, and perhaps better metrics for biodiversity and cultural services (to supplement the rather blunt common metric of cold hard cash), who knows.

    One broader query about this though, because I think this is the real issue many conservationists have with the ES approach. Are we doing conservation for the benefit of humans at all? If not, and species and habitats should be preserved for their own sake, or because humans have a moral responsibility to be environmental stewards, then the ES (and economic) framework can only ever go so far in making the case.

    Either way there are plenty of win wins to be had yet, and the ES approach can help find common ground around sustainability and environmental measures between people with a broad range of over-arching morals and principles, so go Ecosystem Services!

  • Hi Nyati

    "Question how can the farmer make a mixed system pay?"

    It ain't gonna happen!

    RSPB members? Get used to it!  It ain't gomna happen?

    Why should it?

    You want bitterns?  Forget it!

    You want skylarks?  What's it worth?

  • The biodynamic system referred to above benefits as much from the mixed nature of the system - livestock/arable, grass/break crops.  The benefits of such a mixed system are usually overlooked. The modern consultants espouse focus, single discipline, less people.  Mixed systems create patchwork habitat disturbance at different times of year, very different crops and rotations and more importantly livestock.  Question how can the farmer make a mixed system pay?

  • Thanks to being distracted by the usual Badger propaganda I forgot to make a relevant comment to this blog that I have been given the pleasure of surveying a Biodynamic Farm this year. Seems to me that here is a way of farming that is predicated on valuing (even treasuring) 'eco services' and wildlife but goes beyond this and even takes into account phases of the moon. I am looking forward to learning more and finding out the status of the bird populations. Looks very promising so far.

  • Going on from Gerts comment above the areas that have in the past and will in future be most sustainable because they are kept most fertile and nothing does very well without soil fertility are the areas grazed by animals with four stomachs of which the humble cow is a very good example and all this bullshit about them being polluters by gases is just a awful lot of hot air by a few crackpot scientists,do they ever consider how those vast herds of wilderbeest in Africa keep the eco system working.

  • That's a very kind offer Gert - with an annual budget of £125 M and the renamed RSPC paying the £100 M that bTB costs the nation you'd have £25 M left - now we are all in it together ...

  • Maybe the RSPB should re name itself the Royal Society for the Protection of Cows.

  • As placed in the local paper when farmers were crying for more sheep on the fells. 'Can you not see the soil creep down nearly every hill side in the Lake District?. Did that draining you did have an effect on the Keswick floods? Did that nitrate on your lambing field kill the Vendace? Simple words and easy to understand if you feel that your farm does have an effect on every thing else. Yes, many will want to ignore it but sadly every thing we do has an effect on some thing else. And the real value of the right management often can not be seen if that flood down stream never happens. You only see it when it does and then it is often too late to reverse the management. Acidification of rivers and streams by Red Grouse moor management. Now there is one for you to work out the cost!

  • Knock!  Knock!

    Well I had an excellent lunch re-reading ‘Structure & Contingency’ – Evolutionary Processes in Life & Human Society - Edited by John Blintoff and introduced by Stephen Jay Gould (SJG) and published by Leicester University Press (1999).

    In this publication SJG states:

    “Three predominant themes linking contingency with the punctuational model recur throughout the papers in this volume:-

    1. The normal state of systems tends to be active stability, not continuous change in a predictable progressive and adaptive direction

    2. Change tends to occupy in rapid events of perturbation leading to branches in lineages, not by directed transformation of entire systems.

    3. Large-scale trends occur by a complex pattern of differential success of certain branches (species) within a bush of possibilities, not by slow and steady transformation of global systems

    I G Simmons – in the same publication – under History Ecology Contingency & Sustainability sums it up by saying;

    “The lesson for those minded to take an interest in the fluctuations of time, nature and humanity, seem to be that change is unpredictable and contingent but has so far been towards the creation of dissipative structures producing ever higher amounts of entropy from the oxidation of fossil fuels to the loss of species.

    Environmentalists say that stasi or even a reversal must take place: my money would be on some set of structures we have not dreamed of and the raw materials of which come from humans and not nature.   This means that the present – like the past – is one of radical uncertainty: environmentalist Utopias are subject to the same problems as all the others.  

    One of the texts of the Talmud says that there were 26 previous attempts to create the Universe and all of them failed.  God accompanied the most recent attempt with the words – ‘Let’s hope it works”

    Thus one could say “Bring on the GM plants – the sooner Nature gets into them the better it will be for Mankind!  Likewise we know why the ‘grouse’ will last longer than the ‘bittern’ – because it is hunted!

    As to Gert’s ‘’loony’ reference the comment below appeared on the Farmer’s Guardian website:

    “I have written in these columns before and I can only reiterate. We, like the suffagettes and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, took the law into our own hands for the greater good. In our area we have virtually no badger in an area of some 100 sq miles. It took a lot of organising, time, effort and above all, water tight security. We have been, as far as it is possible for us to manage, badger free for over 18 months now and in that time, none of our 'members' have had a single reactor - and we are talking thousands of cattle. Strangley, we actually support the pre-movement testing because it keeps our area 'clean'. So everyone, do everything in your power to make the cull happen, the resuts are a forgone conclusion. Was it Kipling who said 'there is no greater sin than when good men do nothing'. You will notice I have chosen my words very carefully”

    The Appliance of Science - “Everybody laughed at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian – well they’re not laughing now!” – Bob Monkhouse

  • The trouble with putting a price on clean water resources, flood control, carbon storage or wildlife species diversity is that people are then going to demand money for having these resources on their land. Better to put a price on what it will cost to have any of these resources once destroyed replaced and then fine the destructors these amounts. Another way of putting an economic value on our environment is  carbon offsetting. I truly believe that this came about so that politicians can justify carbon heavy air flights and still promote a green environmental policy. Carbon offsetting is the worst thing that could have happened to the environment because basically people can do environmentally harmful things and have a clean conscience.

    When you are putting a value on an environment what criteria do you use? Perhaps biological diversity, biological biomass, geological aspects, presence or absence of rare species and aesthetical considerations. What price would be put on a thriving colony of badgers for example! ? Bees have been valued at £200 million in the UK news.bbc.co.uk/.../8015136.stm

    and yet they are said to pollinate £billions of value in crops and we are told that if bees become extinct then the human population will quickly follow.  So is £200 million a fair price or not?

    What I am saying is that the value of any environment is totally dependant on the view of the  valuer and nothing else. For example I may put quite a high value on a colony of badgers whereas others may not agree.

  • Mark,  Interesting post and can agree.  Unfortunately I am one of those who will yawn when words like 'ecosystem services' are used and tend to switch off.  Perhaps we ought to find a plain english way of describing these issues.

  • Conceptually I whole heartily agree with this Mark - putting a monetary value on services provided by nature is probably the only way some people will appreciate the point of ecosystems (what an indictment on the human race this is!). The loss of the honey bee in parts of America is a case in point - consider the cost of having to manually pollinate fruit trees. The crash of bumble bee and solitary bee numbers could have an equally devastating effect here - and they are plummeting already.

    I agree with Nyati - I suspect such a system of valuing nature services and administering it will be shot down in flames by those who already see wildlife bodies as 'loony lefties' and producers of 'green tape'. I fear these people will only learn the hard way.. when it hits them in the pocket.