Monday, December 9, 2013

Can IPBES Make Ecosystem Service Assessments Useful? Yes (from Nicoya)—with A Few Key Tweaks

by Kai M. A. Chan

I stare mesmerized out the airplane window at the verdant green sharp hills, sinuous rivers, smooth beaches and glimmering oceans of Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula. As I stare, my mind wanders to my friends and colleagues flying into Turkey for the second plenary of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES; which I blogged about here and here). Again and again, my mind returns to a central point: can IPBES help policymakers and practitioners—like those I sat with over the last two days in a sweaty Costa Rican university classroom—make and justify wise decisions to protect this 'pura vida' landscape from the downsides of the pressures that encroach?

Costa Rica’s west coast from the air—so mesmerizing
I almost missed my opportunity for a photo.
One might imagine, as many do, that Costa Rica is a well-protected paradise. It is. But it too is subject to immense pressures from a variety of economic, social, and political forces, and it too is desperately seeking insight about the social-ecological changes that loom on the horizon, and what might be done to steer the nation on a continued trajectory toward sustainable prosperity.
Back to the central question of the promise of IPBES. I vividly replay Ann Bartuska relating her experience of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) as a policymaker. One morning some thousand-plus pages were plopped down on her desk. The next week, a colleague of hers involved in the MA called her and inquired how it was going to change the decisions that federal agencies were going to make. She didn’t have the faintest clue, and while she didn’t quite say this, I got the impression that she’s still wondering.

It’s not that the MA wasn’t tremendously useful—it was. It put some core ideas (like the concept of ecosystem services, ES) on the map, and on the radar screen of countless researchers, policymakers and practitioners. But because it was so pioneering, it was too static and too coarse to inform many particular decisions. If IPBES is to build significantly on that groundwork, it must significantly advance the practice and use of ES research.

New tourist developments in the Nicoya Peninsula may be the
reason we foreigners visit, but they are also sucking water from
other uses, causing saltwater intrusions, and displacing local
people from their customary cultural uses of the shoreline.
With ES research, there is a surprising gap between understanding of nature’s contributions to people, and how that understanding is being applied by policymakers, corporations, and NGOs. To cut to the chase, my argument here is that IPBES can significantly help close that gap in three ways.

In Costa Rica, as in many cases, what's needed is an understanding of how what matters to people would be affected by change. In the case of our brand new project in the Nicoya Peninsula, we are focusing on climate change and associated hydroecological changes, but we’re also considering new tourist developments and changing agricultural practices.

Best practice for ES research gets at this directly. Conceptually, it's actually very simple. The research should involve:
The vast expansion of sugar cane
plantations changes the landscape,
both hydrologically (through irrigation)
and socially.

•    Understanding how the relevant components or processes in nature ('ecological endpoints') are likely to change due to the change in question (call it X).
•    Understanding how social change associated with X might change access and demand for these things. (This is a relatively new point, which I and others have been pushing hard in recent years—e.g., here.)
•    How much the resulting changes in diverse ES (including the above changes in supply, access, demand) matter to people, ‘valuated’ in terms that lend themselves to be integrated into decision-making.

It's puzzling: although the first and third points are well-established best practice from over a decade ago, they are not being taken up in research (as Terre Satterfield and I show in manuscript being revised) or in policy or practice. Instead, ES research is mostly either about the biology (often not the change) or about the value of whole ecosystem components or processes (not the value of how they are likely to change). It’s less surprising that the newer second point is not being taken up.

Policymakers and practitioners are no better. Furthermore, the poor progress in research is connected to the apparent demand for simplistic ES assessments. Environmental assessments, for example, seem to pay lip service (at best) to the idea of ES, and almost never include ES impacts, e.g., to compare with other costs and benefits. From my experience with NGOs of all sizes, citizen groups, and government agencies at all levels (from municipal to international), it seems that the vast majority of demand for ES research does not clearly target ES change. Accordingly, the result is often simple assessments of standing stocks—often ES valuation without underlying basis in social or ecological change.

I never thought I'd say this, but I think there's a golden opportunity for an intergovernmental body (IPBES) to leverage large-scale change through simple interventions.

IPBES is a major new effort that is poised to undertake some extremely important work. And I've seen firsthand the passion, intellect, and savvy of those involved (reported here).

At the moment however, IPBES seems to be fueling the fire of current demand for superficial ES science. How? In three unintended ways. By (1) considering biophysical assessment only separate from valuation assessment; (2) being apparently silent on the need to characterize the social changes in demand and access; and (3) treating non-monetary and monetary valuation options as separate alternatives.
Local people used to use the beaches—for their own purposes,
some key to their cultural identity—where foreign tourists now
have obvious priority. Now the local presence is for the pleasure
of selling beach-side massages.

Regarding (3), non-monetary and monetary valuation metrics are not alternative methods for valuating the same things. Instead, there are some changes (or aspects of changes) that can and should be valuated in monetary terms, such as the material property damage associated with floods. While there are real economic effects, we cannot pretend that the resulting monetary values also capture the emotional upheaval of dislocation or the spiritual losses associated with certain cherished things.

It would take but small changes to the current proposed IPBES docs to provide specific guidance about how to do ES valuation (of biophysical and social changes) as outlined above. It basically involves turning (1)-(3) on their heads, explicitly calling for and guiding the characterization of biophysical and social change and their integration with valuation, and also providing guidance on the integration

I have seen how such guidance from IPBES could make a tremendous difference. Not through the assessments, but rather through the recommendations for how agencies and organizations ought to do assessments for their own purposes is exactly what these agencies and organizations most look to IPBES to provide.

An interdisciplinary group (just a portion of the FuturAgua team
assembled by Tim McDaniels) assembles to strategise. From left
to right, Douw Steyn, Jennifer Romero, Silja Hund, Mark Johnson,
Raffaele Vignola, Cam Webster, and Paige Olmsted.
In my mind’s eye, we fast-forward three years. Paige Olmsted and I, with the rest of our research team, are presenting just such an assessment of ES change in the Nicoya Peninsula to the regional government officials, and representatives of various stakeholder groups with whom we are cultivating budding relationships. It may be wishful thinking, but I can see their bright eyes and excited nods as they imagine a half-dozen ways they can take this information and change policy and practice.

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