Mainstreaming natural capital into decision-making

ID-10033243On the 31st October 2013, Gretchen Daily, Professor of Environmental Science, Stanford Woods, presented her experiences and research on how we can harmonise agriculture and biodiversity conservation through quantifying the value of ecosystem services and developing policy and finance mechanisms that enable the integration of human needs and environmental protection.

Undertaking the Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Sustainability Studies, the seminar was the first in a series of talks by Prof. Daily at the University of Cambridge.

Prof Daily began by showing a picture of a tea plantation in Uganda surrounded by cloud forest. Her work encompasses the ways in which we can value the natural habitats surrounding human-modified landscapes so that they can become part of decision-making processes. Achieving global food security while protecting natural systems is crucial both for human well-being and to help us avoid the catastrophic changes in the Earth’s systems that are predicted.

In a small-scale study in Costa Rica, Prof. Daily and colleagues investigated the value of biodiversity-driven benefits for coffee production to illuminate how important biodiversity is for agriculture. Coffee is competing with petroleum for the biggest export from developing countries. The forests surrounding the small-scale coffee plantations the team investigated were found to harbour some 700 bee species, 150 bird species and 70 bat species. The pollination boost these species provided was valued at $60,000 per year, 10% of the annual income from one farm while the pest control services were worth some $10,000 per year. Pest control services were particularly important in controlling a rapidly spreading pest of coffee, the coffee berry borer, which can wipe out up to 75% of yield and to which there are no pesticide or other chemical interventions available yet. To date there has been no awareness of these dimensions of the value of surrounding biodiversity and more needs to be done to quantify them at a scale relevant to human activities.

Prof. Daily also introduced The Natural Capital Project, a partnership between Stanford University, the University of Minnesota, WWF and the Nature Conservancy along with other partners, that aims to integrate current knowledge on the value and location of ecosystem services into a useable platform. The programme, Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Trade-Offs (InVEST) is a downloadable software that allows users to identify where ecosystem services are co-located and to see how these services would change under different scenarios of governance, climate or demography. For example, how would the restoration of habitats affect water supply, erosion control, agricultural production etc. This then allows users to quantify the options, including cost, and determine trade-offs in terms of outputs of levels of demanded and supplied ecosystem services.

Such a tool was put to use in Hawaii where food, energy and economic security are particular concerns. Natives of Hawaii, and in particular the board of the Kamehameha School, which owns land across the islands, were tasked with deciding what to do with 10,000 hectares of land on Oahu previously used for sugar cane production (now ceased due to the pulling of price support for sugar by the US) as well as for the filming of the TV series ‘Lost’. In particular the board wanted to find a balance between economic, environmental, cultural, educational and community values in planning the use of the land for the next 100 years. Options included the growing of biofuels, the building of low density housing for the local community or reforestation with koa, a slow growing acacia tree highly valued on international markets, and the planting of crops for local markets.

These scenarios were modelled resulting in the amounts of ecosystem services, including income, each would provide as well as the cost of each development pathway. Surprisingly the option that resulted in the lowest income was picked due to its higher levels of ecosystem service provision. Consultation with local people illuminated the sense of identity and spiritual values some people obtained from the land.

Analyses such as these are incredibly important and are beginning to be used in wider national and regional policies, for example the Water Funds in Latin America, which facilitate downstream users of water resources to pay upstream residents to conserve watersheds. Given the size of these watersheds and the range of activities that could be undertaken to conserve them, such as shifting agricultural practices or reforestation, the use of biophysical and financial data and stakeholder preferences are combined to play out different scenarios and combinations of activities to create an investment portfolio to direct investment. This targeted approach is likely to result in a return double that of the initial investment.

These and other projects highlight the pioneering work Prof. Daily is conducting in the valuation of ecosystem services and of their integration into policy and decision-making. She ended her talk with some of the lessons she has learned:

1)      There needs to be a process for the co-development of knowledge, a task which is hard to impose and takes time but which we will need a lot more of in the future.

2)      The utility of simple production function models, which can be much easier for stakeholders from different backgrounds to work with as opposed to complex models, which are difficult in terms of data collection and validation against real world events.

3)      Capacity, ownership, trust and success are necessary for projects and policies to be durable and sustainable.

4)      The types of values and metrics of values are not always monetary. Often people want data in terms of biophysical metrics such as yield before integrating measures of cost.

5)      There is a huge knowledge gap in terms of linking biodiversity and ecosystem services with human well-being and we need much more investment in this type of research.

6)      We need to learn how to communicate uncertainty in useful ways, often being guided by how stakeholders want to receive this information and tailoring models to decision makers.

But ultimately we need a revolution in the way we think about managing land for multiple purposes.




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