Category Archives: Ecosystem services

Resilience meets architecture and urban planning

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by Matteo Giusti [contact: matteo.giusti [at] gmail.com]
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Does resilience thinking and architecture really mix? The answer is a clear “yes” if you ask urban planner Marco Miglioranzi, and Matteo Giusti, Master student at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Together with the German based firm of architects N2M, they have developed two projects led by resilience concepts. Their first work, based on social-ecological systems, was preselected in the EuroPan10 competition. The second one, “A Resilient Social-Ecological Urbanity: A Case Study of Henna, Finland” with an emphasis on urban resilience, has been published by the German Academy for Urban and Regional Spatial Planning (DASL) and also featured by HOK –  a renowned global architectural firm.
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The project proposes a wide range of theoretical solutions based on urban resilience which find practical application in Henna’s (Finland) urban area. Governance networks, social dynamics, metabolic flows and built environment are separately analyzed to ultimately restore, and maintain over time, the equilibrium between human demands and ecological lifecycles.
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But the project also challenges current urban planning practices as it states the city’s  future requirements to be unknown. As a result, it identifies “the development-process as a dynamic flow instead of a static state”. Time scale for urban planning is therefore included within an evolving spatial design.
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Diagram of the parametric cell structure: reversible space layer (upper left) and reversible building layer (right)The project description elaborates: “As a result, the planning is not static anymore. It is not a blueprint, not a collection of architectural elements to create an hypothetic Henna out of the current mindsets and needs, but a multitude of tools, methods, opportunities, options, to define a sustainable developing strategy to meet future’s demands. We keep an eye on time, its complexity and we humbly admit we cannot foresee future; we can only provide guiding principles from current scientific understanding to define a social ecological urbanity capable of sustainably moving on with unique identity.”
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All these theoretical premises ends up in Henna’s planning. This includes an energetic smart grid based primarily on Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS); community-managed greenhouse areas to enhance food local self- reliance; low-diluted sewage system to reduce water consumption; efficient reuse of municipal solid waste to reach the Zero waste goal; and a problem solving centre to analyze ever-changing social ecological demands. Time is included in space, people in their natural environment, urban services in ecological processes. An harmonious cycle of growth and decays.

Environmental externalities and institutional investors

The UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative is a collaboration of between UNEP and the financial sector that aims to improve the understanding of the connections between environmental and financial performance.

A new report Environmental externalities for institutional investors from UNEPFI and the UN endorsed Principles for Responsible Investing group estimates the costs to the global economy from environmental damage, in terms of consequences for investors and company profits, by synthesizing current estimates of the consequences of climate change, resource depletion, biodiversity loss and water use.

The report proposes that:

Large institutional investors are, in effect, “Universal Owners”, as they often have highly-diversified and long-term portfolios that are representative of global capital markets. Their portfolios are inevitably exposed to growing and widespread costs from environmental damage caused by companies. They can positively influence the way business is conducted in order to reduce externalities and minimise their overall exposure to these costs. Long-term economic wellbeing and the interests of beneficiaries are at stake. Institutional investors can, and should, act collectively to reduce financial risk from environmental impacts.

And concludes that:

  • US$ 6.6 trillion was the estimated annual environmental costs from global human activity equating to 11% of global GDP in 2008.
  • The most environmentally damaging business sectors are: utilities; oil and gas producers; and industrial metals and mining. Those three accounted for almost a trillion dollars worth of environmental harm in 2008. The top 3,000 companies by market capitalisation, which represent a large proportion of global equity markets, were responsible for $ 2.15 trillion worth of environmental damage in 2008.
  • 50% of company earnings that could be at risk from environmental costs in an equity portfolio weighted according to the MSCI All Country World Index.
  • Environmental damage costs are generally higher than the cost of preventing or limiting pollution and resource depletion. The costs of addressing environmental damage after it has occurred are usually higher than the costs of preventing pollution or using natural resources in a more sustainable way.

Positive and negative externatilities of Bt corn

Evolution of resistance to Bt pesticides is a negative externality of Bt crops, but a recent paper in Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1190242) has found that immediate pest control on non-Bt crops is a large positive externality.  The Bt corn growers also benefit from having non-Bt corn around to slow the evolution of resistance.

The New York Times reports Modified Corn Benefits Nearby Farmers, and Vice Versa:

A long-term study of corn production in the Midwest has found that the widespread use of varieties engineered with a bacterial gene that kills insect pests has had big benefits in adjacent fields of conventional corn — cutting infestations there and boosting farmers’ income by billions of dollars. The paper, “Areawide Suppression of European Corn Borer with Bt Maize Reaps Savings to Non-Bt Maize Growers,” is being published in the Oct. 8 edition of the journal Science.

According to the paper, maintaining “refuges” of conventional corn varieties helps prevent the corn borer from developing resistance to the engineered variety, and the yields in such areas — because of a combination of reduced insect damage and lower costs of the non-engineered seed — ensure that such plantings are profitable.

Last year, Andrew Pollack reported in The Times that a growing number of corn farmers were violating federal requirements to maintain 20 percent of fields in conventional corn varieties. The new study says that any shift to wall-to-wall Bt corn is bound to backfire and makes little economic sense, Hutchison said.

A separate analysis of the new research in Science, written by Bruce E. Tabashnik, an entomologist at the University of Arizona, describes another approach to fighting insect resistance, in which farmers — instead of setting aside certain areas as refuges — buy a seed mix blending both engineered and conventional corn varieties. He said this could be the ideal way to maximize corn production in developing countries where small farm plots still predominate.

Software development job with Natural Capital Project

The Natural Capital Project an exciting international collaboration that aims to improve ecosystem service decision making by developing new spatial modelling tools is looking for a lead software developer.  They write:

Are you a software whiz looking for responsibility, independence, and the opportunity to solve our biggest environmental problems? Do you want to work in the vibrant Stanford campus with internal access to the intellectual and entrepreneurial heartbeat of its community?

We are a highly collaborative group of researchers who need expertise to translate our biophysical and economic models into easy, useful tools for policy makers.  We seek a lead software developer to help us make a global impact on major decisions about human well-being, sustainability, and the use of our lands and waters.

We are a partnership among The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, and Stanford University developing tools to model and map the distribution of biodiversity and the flow of multiple ecosystem services across land- and seascapes. Our core team is based in Seattle, Washington, DC and at Stanford, and we have active partners around the globe.

We seek a talented and experienced software developer with strong leadership and communication skills to lead the development of the InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs) family of software tools.

Details of the position are here.

Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox

My colleagues are I recently published a paper in BioScience, Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing As Ecosystem Services Degrade?

The paper originated from the involvement of the first four authors, my former PhD student Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, my colleague at McGill Elena Bennett, and my former post-doc Maria Tengö and I, in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.  While we were all happy with our work on the MA, we felt that the MA had not had enough time to digest its findings.  I was particularly interested in the apparent contradiction between the MA’s assumption that ecosystem services are essential to human wellbeing and the observation that human wellbeing has been increasing as ecosystem services decline.

Our paper compares four alternative explanations of this apparent contradiction.  Our abstract outlines the paper:

Environmentalists have argued that ecological degradation will lead to declines in the well-being of people dependent on ecosystem services. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment paradoxically found that human well-being has increased despite large global declines in most ecosystem services. We assess four explanations of these divergent trends: (1) We have measured well-being incorrectly; (2) well-being is dependent on food services, which are increasing, and not on other services that are declining; (3) technology has decoupled well-being from nature; (4) time lags may lead to future declines in well-being. Our findings discount the first hypothesis, but elements of the remaining three appear plausible. Although ecologists have convincingly documented ecological decline, science does not adequately understand the implications of this decline for human well-being. Untangling how human well-being has increased as ecosystem conditions decline is critical to guiding future management of ecosystem services; we propose four research areas to help achieve this goal.

BioScience has highlighted the article by writing a press releaseproviding a set of teaching resources, and featuring the article in the issue’s editorial.  BioScience’s editor-in-chief Timothy M. Beardsley writes:

BioScience will publish commentary on aspects of their analysis in a future issue. Yet the article clearly strengthens the case for research that integrates human well-being, agriculture, technology, and time lags affecting ecosystem services. Raudsepp-Hearne and her colleagues urge more attention to how ecosystem services affect multiple aspects of well-being, ecosystem service synergies and trade-offs, technology for enhancing ecosystem services, and better forecasting of the provision of and demand for ecosystem services.

The recent oil calamity in the Gulf of Mexico, the biological impacts of which will take years to fully manifest and will persist for decades, should be reminder enough that although technology can insulate us from degrading ecosystem services locally, it often does so by creating problems elsewhere. As the human population grows, fewer places remain where the impacts can be absorbed without adversely affecting somebody. Aggregate global human well-being is, apparently, growing—though it is obviously declining in some places. Extending and defending the gains, particularly as the quest for energy becomes more intense, will require policymakers to understand the complicated relationship between ecosystem services and the humans who use them.

I’ll summarize our paper and respond to some of the media coverage of our paper in followup posts.

The paper is:

  • Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, Garry D. Peterson, Maria Tengö, Elena M. Bennett, Tim Holland, Karina Benessaiah, Graham K. MacDonald, and Laura Pfeifer.  2010. Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing As Ecosystem Services Degrade? BioScience. 60(8) 576-589.

Thanks to BioScience an open access version is temporarily available here.

Brazilian agriculture

1)The Economist writes about the success of large scale Brazil agriculture in Brazilian agriculture: The miracle of the cerrado. The article concludes:

The bigger question for them is: can the miracle of the cerrado be exported, especially to Africa, where the good intentions of outsiders have so often shrivelled and died?

There are several reasons to think it can. Brazilian land is like Africa’s: tropical and nutrient-poor. The big difference is that the cerrado gets a decent amount of rain and most of Africa’s savannah does not (the exception is the swathe of southern Africa between Angola and Mozambique).

Brazil imported some of its raw material from other tropical countries in the first place. Brachiaria grass came from Africa. The zebu that formed the basis of Brazil’s nelore cattle herd came from India. In both cases Embrapa’s know-how improved them dramatically. Could they be taken back and improved again? Embrapa has started to do that, though it is early days and so far it is unclear whether the technology retransfer will work.

A third reason for hope is that Embrapa has expertise which others in Africa simply do not have. It has research stations for cassava and sorghum, which are African staples. It also has experience not just in the cerrado but in more arid regions (called the sertão), in jungles and in the vast wetlands on the border with Paraguay and Bolivia. Africa also needs to make better use of similar lands. “Scientifically, it is not difficult to transfer the technology,” reckons Dr Crestana. And the technology transfer is happening at a time when African economies are starting to grow and massive Chinese aid is starting to improve the continent’s famously dire transport system.

Still, a word of caution is in order. Brazil’s agricultural miracle did not happen through a simple technological fix. No magic bullet accounts for it—not even the tropical soyabean, which comes closest. Rather, Embrapa’s was a “system approach”, as its scientists call it: all the interventions worked together. Improving the soil and the new tropical soyabeans were both needed for farming the cerrado; the two together also made possible the changes in farm techniques which have boosted yields further.

Systems are much harder to export than a simple fix. “We went to the US and brought back the whole package [of cutting-edge agriculture in the 1970s],” says Dr Crestana. “That didn’t work and it took us 30 years to create our own. Perhaps Africans will come to Brazil and take back the package from us. Africa is changing. Perhaps it won’t take them so long. We’ll see.” If we see anything like what happened in Brazil itself, feeding the world in 2050 will not look like the uphill struggle it appears to be now.

2) On the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog Luigi responds to the Economist article, in a post Is there really no downside to Brazil’s agricultural miracle?.  He praises their coverage of agriculture, but lambasting their blindness to the consideration of social and ecological costs.  He writes:

It points out that the astonishing increase in crop and meat production in Brazil in the past ten to fifteen year — and it is astonishing, more that 300% by value — has come about due to an expansion in the amount of land under the plow, sure, but much more so due to an increase in productivity. It rightly heaps praise on Embrapa, Brazil’s agricultural research corporation, for devising a system that has made the cerrado, Brazil’s hitherto agronomically intractable savannah, so productive. It highlights the fact that a key part of that system is improved germplasm — of Brachiaria, soybean, zebu cattle — originally from other parts of the world, incidentally helping make the case for international interdependence in genetic resources.1 And much more.

What it resolutely does not do is give any sense of the cost of all this. …  I was really thinking of environmental and social costs. The Economist article says that Brazil is “often accused of levelling the rainforest to create its farms, but hardly any of this new land lies in Amazonia; most is cerrado.” So that’s all right then. No problem at all if 50% of one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots has been destroyed.2 After all, it’s not the Amazon. A truly comprehensive overview of Brazil’s undoubted agricultural successes would surely cast at least a cursory look at the downside, if only to say that it’s all been worth it.

3) Holly Gibbs and colleagues have a new paper in PNAS – Tropical forests were the primary sources of new agricultural land in the 1980s and 1990s (doi/10.1073/pnas.0910275107).  They write:

This study confirms that rainforests were the primary source for new agricultural land throughout the tropics during the 1980s and 1990s. More than 80% of new agricultural land came from intact and disturbed forests. Although differences occur across the tropical forest belt, the basic pattern is the same: The majority of the land for agricultural and tree plantation expansion comes from forests, woodlands, and savannas, not from previously cleared lands.

Worldwide demand for agricultural products is expected to increase by ~50% by 2050, and evidence suggests that tropical countries will be called on to meet much of this demand. Consider, for example, that in developed countries the agricultural land area, including pastures and permanent croplands, decreased by more than 412 million ha (34%) between 1995 and 2007, whereas developing countries saw increases of nearly 400 million ha (17.1%) (14, 42). Moreover, developing countries expanded their permanent croplands by 10.1% during the current decade alone, while permanent cropland areas in developed countries remained generally stable (14). If the agricultural expansion trends documented here for 1980 2000 persist, we can expect major clearing of intact and disturbed forest to continue and increase across the tropics to help meet swelling demands for food, fodder, and fuel.

Incorporating Ecosystem Services in International Policy

Researchers from PBL in the Netherlands and IISD in Canada have a released a new report Prospects for Mainstreaming Ecosystem Goods and Services in International Policies, which can be downloaded from the PBL website PDF 2.1 MB.  The report argues that the incorporation of ecosystem services (which they call ecosystem goods and services)  into international policy could reduce poverty.  Some of their findings:

Integrating Ecosystem Goods and Services (EGS) into various international policy domains conveys significant opportunities to contribute to reducing poverty while improving EGS delivery at the local level. Mainstreaming (integration) EGS can become an important element of natural resource and biodiversity policies.

Although most management decisions affecting ecosystem services are made at a local level, these local decisions are conditioned by national and international policies. International policy domains  – including development assistance, trade, climate, and the policies of international financial institutions – provide clear opportunities to mainstream EGS in ways that can support poverty
reduction.

Positive poverty reduction and EGS outcomes cannot be taken for granted; in many cases trade offs between decreasing poverty and EGS delivery will occur. A major challenge is to ensure that loss of EGS at least results in sustainable improvements in social or economic development of the poor.
Consistent policies across scales and policy domains based on analysis of the local situation are necessary to minimize these trade offs and prevent loose-loose situations.

The “Ctrl+Alt+Del” of Global Change Sciences

Twitter|@vgalaz
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This is one of those important things that seldom make the headlines. While climate change science has received considerable public attention, especially since the controversies around the IPCC scientific assessments, another fact is seldom, if ever, acknowledged – that  a number of international global change programmes are reorganizing to better match the increasing need for policy-relevant, integrated sustainability science.

The Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) as an example, has been reorganizing its work the last years, to better integrate the natural and social sciences and acknowledge the non-linear features of global change. This integration is to be developed by a range of ESSP associated research programmes and projects, including (prepare for an alphabet soup….) DIVERSITAS, IGBP, IHDP, WCRP,GCP, GECAFS, GWSP , GECHH, START and MAIRS. This paper lays out the thinking behind the ongoing reorganization.

One important change under the ESSP, and the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, is the reorganization of the previous programme Institutional Dimensions of Global Environmental Change (IDGEC, lead by the international institutions legend Oran Young), into a new initiative: the Earth System Governance Project (ESG). The ESG, lead by Frank Biermann in Amsterdam, aims to study the role of multilevel governance, institutions and actor-networks in dealing with global environmental change, and includes several international research centres.

In addition, the International Council for Science (ICSU), in partnership with UNESCO and the United Nations University, is launching a new international initiative based on the insights and framework provided by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS). PECS ambition is to address the following question: ‘how do policies and practices affect resilience of the portfolio of ecosystem services that support human well-being and allow for adaptation to a changing environment?’. PECS will provide scientific knowledge to the newly launched “IPCC-like” Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). An article published in PNAS in 2009, lays out the thinking behind the PECS programme.

So, if you ever get the question “where are the scientists that will help save the world”, the answer is easy: it’s ESSP, PECS, DIVERSITAS, ICSU, IPBES, ESG, IHDP, IGBP, WCRP,GCP, GECAFS, ….

Aquatic Dead Zones

      I’ve published several links to global maps of coastal hypoxia. Now, NASA has produced a new map of global hypoxic zones, based on Diaz and Rosenberg’s . Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems. in Science, 321(5891), 926-929.  NASA’s EOS Image of the Day writes on  Aquatic Dead Zones.

      Red circles on this map show the location and size of many of our planet’s dead zones. Black dots show where dead zones have been observed, but their size is unknown.

      It’s no coincidence that dead zones occur downriver of places where human population density is high (darkest brown). Some of the fertilizer we apply to crops is washed into streams and rivers. Fertilizer-laden runoff triggers explosive planktonic algae growth in coastal areas. The algae die and rain down into deep waters, where their remains are like fertilizer for microbes. The microbes decompose the organic matter, using up the oxygen. Mass killing of fish and other sea life often results.

      IPBES – a new assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

      Five years after the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the first assessment of the Earth’s ecosystem services, was released the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has been proposed to carry out regular scientific assessments of the what science knows about biodiversity and ecosystem services.

      While there has been substantial agreement that a followup to the MA was needed there has not been agreement on how to do it.  Like the MA, this new panel will be modelled on the IPCC and it will probably meet in 2011.   It is supposed to conduct periodic assessments of biodiversity and ecosystem services at global, regional and sub-regional scales that address policy relevant questions, identify research gaps, and build capacity to address these issues.

      The MA had a huge impact on the research community, changing the questions that many scientists, including myself decided to address.  Hopefully, this new panel will provide a useful focus for ecosystem service research, however I worry a bit about an over focus on biodiversity, and a lack of attention to agriculture, soils, water, and social change all of which are essential to understand ecosystem services.

      Also while there has been ongoing concern about how to create and fund an ecosystem service assessment, and has also been a lot of concern over who would operate it (i.e. that it have a strong scientific foundation), as well as how it will fit with ongoing global change research programs such as IHDP and PECS, as well as DIVERSITAS. These things remain unclear for IPBES.

      Nature reports:

      In Busan, negotiations stretched late into the night as delegates debated the scope of the proposed IPBES, including the specifics of how it will be funded. “There was concern among the developed countries that this not become a huge bureaucracy,” says Nuttall. “Governments wanted to be reassured that it would be lean and mean and streamlined.”

      Another bone of contention was to what extent IPBES would tackle emerging issues or areas of contested science. In the end, it was agreed that the body will draw attention to “new topics” in biodiversity and ecosystem science. “If there had been something like this before, then new results on issues such as ocean acidification, dead zones in the ocean and the biodiversity impacts of biofuels would have been rushed to the inboxes of policymakers, instead of coming to their attention by osmosis,” says Nuttall.

      Among the governments who assented to the IPBES’s creation were the European Union, the United States, and Brazil. The plan will come before the general assembly of the United Nations, slated to meet in September, for official approval. Those involved with the process say that that the UN creation of the new body is a virtual certainty.

      It will be interesting to see how IPBES evolves. I think it is very important that an excellent team of broad thinking scientists with experience in large scientific assessment are chosen to lead this project.