Tag Archives: Terra preta

Ecosystem services and poverty alleviation

Ecosystem services for poverty alleviation (ESPA) is an exciting new research programme funded by a consortium of development and science agencies in the UK. I’m on ESPA’s international advisory board and they asked me for some thoughts on the ecosystem service science. Below is what I wrote:

The concept of “Ecosystem services” is a powerful idea that bridges the conceptual separation of the ecological and the social, to connect ecosystems to human well-being. The success of this idea has lead to many “payment for ecosystem service” schemes, which are now being implemented or are being discussed. These plans have the potential to channel substantial amounts of money into the enhancement of the natural capital, which produces ecosystem services, in ways that improve the livelihoods of the world’s poorest.

The challenge of ecosystem service research is that the policy success of the idea of ecosystem services has rapidly outstripped its scientific basis. This situation presents many risks that efforts may be wasted on activities that actively damage natural capital or reduce the livelihoods of the poor. More specifically in terms of poverty alleviation, ecosystem service research has sometimes merely  biological research coated with a veneer of social relevance, rather than using social needs to focus ecological research. Achieving positive outcomes, and avoiding negative ones requires a much richer understanding of ecosystem services than now exists. Below I suggest some ecosystem service research challenges that it would be useful for ESPA research to address.

Research Challenges
Effective ecosystem services assessment: Scientists and practitioners need to develop faster, cheaper ways of assessing the state of multiple ecosystem services, especially in data sparse regions. A better understanding of the following points would help design more effective assessments.
Bundles of ecosystem services: We need to better understand how multiple ecosystem services interact with one another over time. Are they tightly or weakly integrated? Over what scales? What are the social and ecological processes that connect them? In particular what are the trade-offs or synergisms between multiple ecosystem services? This issue is particularly import if we are to avoid situations where investment in specific ecosystem services (e.g. food production or carbon sequestration) results in reducing in other ecosystem services whose losses outweighs the benefits obtained for the increases. This is particularly important to ensure that increases in agricultural production actually increase human well-being.

Dynamics of ecosystem services: Most analyses of ecosystems services have been static, and there has been too much focus on species role in producing ecosystem services and too little on either social or spatial processes shape the supply of ecosystem services. We need to develop better ways to assess how multiple ecosystem services vary and change over time, and understand what are the key social, ecological and geographic factors that drive these changes. In particular it is important to understand what internal and external social and ecological dynamics can produce abrupt changes in ecosystem services (or alternatively what processes can produce resilience). Understanding these factors is important to know when are where abrupt changes are likely to occur, what can be done to avoid unwanted abrupt changes, or alternatively what can be done to promote desired abrupt changes.

Enhancing ecosystem services: Poverty reduction requires enhancing the supply of ecosystem services in degraded ecosystems, but other than agricultural research on provisioning services there has been relatively little work on how to effectively increase ecosystem services. Much environmental research assumes people have a negative impact on ecosystems, but people can improve ecosystem functioning (e.g. Terra Preta – the high productivity soil produced by pre-Columbian Amazonian civilizations). Social, ecological and technological processes can be used separately or in combination to improve ecosystem services, but while there has been a lot of research on the built environment, there has been little research on how ecological infrastructures can be built, enhanced and maintained. We need to better understand how to do enhance ecosystem services, especially how poor people can do it in degraded ecosystems, in wild and human dominated ecosystems, as well as in rural and urban locations.

Governing ecosystem services: It is currently unclear what are effective ways to govern ecosystem services. Today there is often a haphazard assignment of property rights to ecosystem services without analysis or research on the ecological and social consequences, or resilience of these strategies. Ecosystem services present multiple challenges in that their consumption, production and management occur at different scales making it difficult to connect ecosystem system services to existing property or land management. Furthermore, research has shown that not only can payment for ecosystem service schemes have negative impacts on other ecosystem services, but also that payments can erode the social norms and practices that are producing ecosystem services. These problems suggest that institutional innovation and experimentation is needed to develop effective institutions to govern ecosystem services – especially to enhance the wellbeing of the poor, and that the design of such programmes should not be done from a narrow economic perspective.

Human well-being and ecosystem services: How do changes in the supply of ecosystem services alter human wellbeing? People depend on ecosystem services, but we know little about how much benefit different people receive from different ecosystem services. What we do know is largely about either multiple benefits of food production or the economic benefits of tourism. We know little about how either regulating ecosystem services relate to human wellbeing, or how ecosystem services contribute to multiple aspects of human wellbeing. Addressing this issue in multiple ways is critical to understanding the connection between ecosystem services and poverty reduction. In particular better understanding how to develop agricultural landscapes that provide a diverse set of ecosystem services to the poor. Contributing to clarifying these relationships would be a major benefit of ESPA. In particular a richer understanding of how ecosystem services contribute to diverse aspects of human wellbeing, such as health, security, and good social relations, is important to be able to accurately value ecosystem services.

The above research challenges are written in a telegraphic form that is relatively unsupported. Some of these issues are raised and discussed in greater length in three recent papers I co-authored:

Terra preta the only way to save our civilization?

James Lovelock appears to be marginally more positive about our civilization’s capacity to avoid collapse, because of terra preta in a New Scientist interview One last chance to save mankind.  He says:

There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste – which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering – into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.

Would it make enough of a difference?

Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won’t do it.

Do you think we will survive?

I’m an optimistic pessimist. I think it’s wrong to assume we’ll survive 2 °C of warming: there are already too many people on Earth. At 4 °C we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population. The reason is we would not find enough food, unless we synthesised it. Because of this, the cull during this century is going to be huge, up to 90 per cent. The number of people remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. It has happened before: between the ice ages there were bottlenecks when there were only 2000 people left. It’s happening again.

I don’t think humans react fast enough or are clever enough to handle what’s coming up. Kyoto was 11 years ago. Virtually nothing’s been done except endless talk and meetings.