Friday, April 6, 2012

Sustainable development: Ecosystem Services

Ecosystem Services Value

Nowadays, we talk a lot about endangered species, chemical pollution, climate change... More and more people feel concerned about the environment, many of those who read this blog love Nature.

But is love enough to deal with our current problems?

People generally agree that we should protect nature, but in practice, nothing is done. This explains why we've been talking for so long about environmental issues, they are problems that we want to solve, but we don't really know how to tackle them.

Today, I want to talk about ecosystems and how we manage our land. Biodiversity is threatened in most places on the globe, we destroy natural habitats (rain forests, wetlands, mangroves, rivers...) to convert them into something that we consider valuable for our societies, which means something that brings us money: crops, tree plantations, tea gardens, dams on the rivers. We regard natural habitats as useless because nobody can make a direct profit out of it: nowadays, people rarely hunt or pick berries for a living. Yet, many people want to protect nature...

Therefore, we must find ways to put value on Nature. As we put a value on a garbage collector for the service he provide by giving him a salary every month, we should put a value on a wetland to clean our waste water, on a beautiful valley for the aesthetic service it provides and so on.

Natural processes represent a huge amount of work that could never be achieved by the human race alone: pollination, water purification, irrigation, flood control, genetic diversity, air purification, fuel production, recreation services and much more.

Ecosystem services value is a very recent concept, not even ten years old. This new approach aims at classifying every kind of environments, natural and handmade, and for each of them, calculate a value per hectare per year, exactly like a salary. Of course, we will not have to give banknotes to the bees for the pollination service they provide, but having in mind a money equivalent helps society to make decisions, whether to conserve nature as it is, or modify it to make it more valuable.

Here are two examples of decision making:

First case: The drinking water quality of New York City was not complying with the US standards, building new water treatment facilities would initially cost $6 billion plus $300 million per year. Thanks to an ecosystem services assessment, they found out it would be worth investing $1.5 billion in improving the agricultural techniques of the farms upland to avoid chemicals run off, they restored the watershed natural environment to get a better water purification. Thanks to this tool, the city saved a lot of money.

Second situation: The Nakivubo swamp, in Uganda, is situated between the capital city and the lake Victoria. Pressures were made to use the swamp for crop irrigation and human settlements, this would bring the people some hard cash. This swamp clean the waste water that flow into Lake Victoria, an ecosystem service estimation was made and it showed that the swamp was worth $1 million to $1.75 million per year for its water treatment service. A waste water treatment plant would cost $2 million per year to the city. This study helped the decision makers save money.

Applied to the tea industry, this tool could be a good way to put the right value on ancient tea gardens and encourage even more the conversion of intensive terrace plantations into natural tea gardens. I have not found any estimation of the ecosystem service value for tea fields and I would be grateful if someone could give me any information about it.

As a conclusion to this article and to introduce even better this brand new concept, you can listen to this TED talk by Pavan Sukhdev: click here to see the video

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