Category Archives: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

Crop per Drop vs. Water for Ecosystem Services

Colin Chartres the International Water Management Institute‘s director general writes Invest in water for farming, or the world will go hungry.  In he writes:

The world’s population is projected to grow from 6 billion to 8.5 billion by 2030 and unless we change the way we use water and increase water productivity — ie. produce more ‘crop per drop’ — we will not be able to feed them. That is the conclusion of the IWMI’s recent Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture and its book, Water for Food, Water for Life, which drew on the work of 700 scientists.

While I agree that increasing agricultural water productivity is important, I think an underappreciated message of the CA (which is available online) is that globally we need to increase ecological water productivity.

A focus solely on agricultural production is likely to continue to cause declines in other valuable ecosystem services, sometimes to the extent that they outweigh any benefits gained from increases in agricultural production (See Millennium Ecosystem Assessment for many examples).  Agriculture provides benefits, but it also imposes costs.  Agriculture that ignores its ecological context has lead to coastal hypoxia, dryland salinization, and land degradation.  These problems reduce other ecosystems services, such as fisheries, while also decreasing the ecosystem support for agriculture.  These problems are increasing and overall are expected to worsen due to climate and other human caused global environmental change.

The quality, quantity and reliability of water flows connect agricultural and non-agricultural ecosystems. Water is also essential to the production of agricultural and most non-agricultural ecosystem services. Where these connections are strong requires an integrated approach to the management of water across landscapes and regions to ensure the reliable production of multiple ecosystem services.  However, in many cases we currently lack the practical knowledge to effectively manage agricultural and non-agricultural ecosystems for the multiple ecosystem services that depend upon water.  This research area is relatively underdeveloped and it is critical for ensuring human well-being in an increasingly unpredictable and resource intensive world.

Society and Environment (ENVR 201) reading list

This semester I am co-teaching the first year course Society and the Environment in the McGill School of Environment. I teach a diverse set of lectures that are mainly focussed on commons, urban ecosystems, and resilience, but also include cost-benefit analysis and ecological futures. My colleagues cover a whack of other topics. Below are the assinged readings for my sections of the course.

Making environmental decisions: Assessing costs & benefits (1)

  • Leung, B., Lodge, D.M., Finnoff, D., Shogren, J.F., Lewis, M, Lamberti, G. 2002. An ounce of prevention or a pound of cure: bioeconomic risk analysis of invasive species. Proceedings: Biological Sciences 269:2407-2413

Managing the Commons (3)

  • Hardin, G. 1968. Tragedy of the commons.. Science, 162(1968): 1243-1248.
  • Feeny, D, 1990. The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited: Twenty Years Later. Human Ecology. 18:1-19
  • Dietz, Thomas., Elinor Ostrom, Paul C. Stern. 2003. “The Struggle to Govern the Commons.” Science. 302(5652): 1907-1912.

Urban Ecosystems (3)

  • Davis, M.. 2004. Planet of slums. New Left Review 26, March-April.
  • Lee, K. N. 2006. Urban sustainability and the limits of classical environmentalism. Environment and Urbanization; 18(1) 9-22
  • Jannson et al 1999 Linking Freshwater Flows and Ecosystem Services Appropriated by People: The Case of the Baltic Sea Drainage Basin. Ecosystems 2(4) 351-366.
  • Colding, Johan, Jakob Lundberg, and Carl Folke. 2006 Incorporating Green-area User Groups in Urban Ecosystem Management AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment: 35(5) 237–244.

Resilience and Surprise (4)

Ecological Futures (1)

Enhancing ecosystem services in agricultural lands

Farmers are the stewards of a third of the world’s terrestrial surface, the amount of land covered by croplands and grazing areas. Although the land use in these areas might be the dominant driver behind loss of ecosystem services globally a change in focus and management here can provide enormous opportunity it terms of restoring some of the ecosystem services that have already been degraded (see e.g. The Science review by Foley et al. 2005, or the results from the MA 2005). Beside being economically very important for food production, agricultural systems like all other ecosystems, can also provide other services, including carbon sequestration, erosion control, habitat for pests or pollinators and water modification.

Peter Karieva and collaborators provide an argument in a review paper in this weeks Science for refocusing ecosystem management, from preserving natural areas to shaping the ecological processes in domesticated land for enhancing human well-being. The figure illustrate the human footprint on Earth. Human impact is expressed as the percentage of human influence relative to the maximum influence recorded for each biome.

The human footprint on Earth. Human impact is expressed as the percentage of human influence relative to the maximum influence recorded for each biome.

They argue that:

if one accepts that virtually all of nature is now domesticated, the key scientific and social questions concern future options for the type of domesticated nature humans impose upon the world

Last week, there was a different policy forum paper in the same journal by N. Jordan and colleagues called Sustainable Development of the Agricultural Bio-Economy. They argue that major gains may result from a “working landscape” approach in ecosystem management. This approach focuses on improving ecosystem processes of farmlands by rewarding farmers for delivering environmental benefits, as well as food and biomass. They particularly stress the potential of multifunctional agriculture to enhance the many synergies that actually can take place in systems that are managed for multiple services rather than optimized production of one thing. For example, inclusion of more perennial species in agricultural production have been found to reduce soil and nitrogen losses, to have greater capacity to sequester greenhouse gases than annual based systems; to increase species of concern for conservation.

Multifunctional production systems can be highly valuable. The 34-million-acre Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has been estimated to produce $500 million/year in benefits from reduced erosion and $737 million/year in wildlife viewing and hunting benefits at a cost of ~$1.8 billion. If benefits such as carbon sequestration are added, CRP likely produces a net gain in many areas, if not for the entire nation.

Karivera et al. caution against the romantic glorification of natural, or wild, ecosystems by stressing that

some paths of domestication will result in improved ecosystems both for people and for other species; other paths of domestication will result in ecosystems that are clearly better for humans but not for other species; and some paths of domestication will result in ecosystems that are too degraded to benefit people or other species. The key scientific goals for the study of domesticated nature are to understand what tradeoffs exist between the promotion or selection of different ecosystem services and to determine to what extent we can change a negative tradeoff to a positive one by altering the details of our domestication process

To be better at managing agriculture for multiple ecosystem services, they therefore argue that we need to become better at assessing trade-offs in these human dominated lands. The need for improving tools of trade-off analysis have also been emphasized by Elena Bennett and Patricia Balvanera in their recent paper in Frontiers in Ecology, as well as by Carpenter et al. in their analysis of research gaps from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Bennett, Balvanera and Carpenter et al. argue that while we are relatively good at assessing trade-offs between two or a few ecosystem services we need to develop tools to assess how whole sets of bundles of ecosystem services relates to one another. While this might seem relatively straight forward it is actually very complicated.

Figure shows a conceptual framework for analysing trade-offs among bundles of ecosystem services, from Foley et al. 2005.

One of the problems that Jordan et al. points to is that we need better experimental experience at scales that are of interest for the relevant ecosystem processes:

Multifunctional systems have been tested only at relatively small scales. We propose creation of a network of research and demonstration projects to establish and evaluate economic enterprises based on multifunctional production systems. … These projects must be sufficiently scaled to address the complexity inherent in landscape-scale multifunctionality and in the feedback loops connecting natural, human, and social resources. They should be established in medium-sized watersheds (~5000 km 2) and should be managed by groups that encompass multiple stakeholders and levels of government.

Additional aspects to the need for analysing trade-offs, some highlighted Bennett and Balvanera include:
• Increased understanding of how trade-offs are altered across spatial and temporal scales.
• Improved capacity to evaluate uncertainty in dealing with trade-offs. Several of the uncertainties are linked to non-linear ecological processes, thresholds and resilience of ecosystems.
• Just developing tools for trade-off analysis will not be enough, but is just when the hard part starts. We need better processes for, and understanding of multilevel negotiations among stakeholders, power plays, multi-stakeholder processes of learning, deliberation, negotiation, and experimentation.
• How do we deal with preferences for some of the ecosystem services that people have not yet developed preferences for, simply because we don’t understand how these contribute to enhancing our well-being? Here is a need for strongly emphasizing the ‘pre-analytic vision’ of assessments to ensure that we at least try to address issues that are important although we might not yet have realized that they are

Scenarios for Ecosystem Services a Special Feature in Ecology and Society

Steve Carpenter, Elena Bennett and I, edited a Special Feature on Scenarios for Ecosystem Services in Ecology and Society. The special feature is a open-access collection of seven papers that provides an overview of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Scenarios.


The Scenarios Working Group of the MA was a multi-disciplinary team of 95 ecologists, global modellers, economists, and development researchers from 25 countries. The goal of the scenarios group was to asses the possible futures of ecosystem services to improve ecological policy and management today.

To ensure that these scenarios addressed issues that policymakers face, the MA scenarios team interviewed global leaders from civil society, business and government on what they regarded as critical determinants of the world’s future. These people identified factors including: the role of governments in local, national, and global governance; security; the ability to cope with surprise; learning; and technology. However, while leaders identified similar issues as problems and expressed similar goals, they had substantial disagreement on how to address problems and meet goals.

The scenarios were designed to anticipate what ecological problems and opportunities different policies could create. Consequently, the MA scenarios were designed to incorporate more realistic and detailed ecological dynamics than previous global scenario exercises. Although people modify ecosystems, there are also significant feedbacks from ecosystem change to livelihoods, health, economies, and societies that lead to changes in human systems, engendering further ecosystem change. The ability of societies to manage social–ecological feedbacks is an important aspect of their ability to enhance human well-being. Therefore, the MA scenarios included social–ecological feedbacks, however we have only preliminary scientific understanding of the possible behaviour, extent and consequences of these feedbacks.

The Special Feature begins with an overview paper Carpenter et al (2006) Scenarios for Ecosystem Services: An Overview that explains some of the problems of addressing social-ecological feedbacks and ecosystem services as well as cross-cutting findings that emerged from the scenarios project.

The MA scenarios are described in Cork et al. (2006) Synthesis of the Storylines. This paper also includes a set of illustrations that tries to capture some of the differences among the scenarios for urban and rural locations in the rich and poor regions of the world.

There are no integrated global social-ecological models, therefore the MA analysis cross-checked quantitative and qualitative approaches that were tested against one another. These quantitative and qualitative analyses of the scenarios are found in the remaining five papers, of which the first three are quantitative and final two qualitative.

Nelson et al. (2006) Anthropogenic Drivers of Ecosystem Change: an Overview

Alcamo et al. (2006) Changes in Nature’s Balance Sheet: Model-based Estimates of Future Worldwide Ecosystem Services

van Vuuren et al. (2006) The Future of Vascular Plant Diversity Under Four Global Scenarios.

Rodriguez et al. (2006) Trade-offs across Space, Time, and Ecosystem Services address ecosystem service tradeoffs

Butler and Oluoch-Kosura (2006) Linking Future Ecosystem Services and Future Human Well-being

Great Transition Papers

gsg global trajectoriesGlobal Scenario Group developed a pioneering set of global environmental scenarios, which presented six global scenarios. There were three main scenario types, which each had two variants, producing: Conventional Worlds (Policy Reform and Market Forces), Barbarization (Fortress world and Breakdown), and Great Transitions (Eco-communalism and New sustainability paradigm).

These scenarios have some similarities to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) Scenarios. The GSG scenarios – Policy Reform, Fortress World, and Eco-communalism – are similar, but less ecologically oriented than the MA scenarios – Global Orchestration, Order from Strength, and Adaptive Mosaic. The fourth MA scenario TechnoGarden – market oriented ecological efficiency – does not correspond any of the GSG scenarios.

The Great Transition Initiative continues the GSG project by promoting a global transition to a sustainable society via a fundamental enhancement of global democracy and citizenship. It has prepared a set of papers Frontiers of a Great Transition that explore the challenges, opportunities, and strategies that a transition to sustainability requires. The paper are available as freely downloadable PDF files on the Great Transition Initiative website.

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Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: Research Needs

In an enhanced Policy Forum in Science 314 (5797): 257, Steve Carpenter and several other senior participants from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) that outlines the Research Needs identified by the MA. They highlight the need for:

  • Theory Linking Ecological Diversity & Dyanmics
  • Briding Scales; Monitoring
  • Research that Assesses Policy Success;
  • Improved understanding of Social-Ecological Change
  • Improved methods of Ecological Valuation.

Their comments on Ecological theory, learning from policies, and Social-Ecological theory are of particular interest to resilience research. They write:

We lack a robust theoretical basis for linking ecological diversity to ecosystem dynamics and, in turn, to ecosystem services underlying human well-being. We all need this information to understand the limits and consequences of biodiversity loss and the actions needed to maintain or restore ecosystem functions.

The most catastrophic changes in ecosystem services identified in the MA involved nonlinear or abrupt shifts. We lack the ability to predict thresholds for such changes, whether or not a change may be reversible, and how individuals and societies will respond. Thus, the risks of ecosystem catastrophes are poorly quantified. Major ecosystem degradation tends to occur as syndromes of simultaneous failure in multiple services. For example, the populous dry lands of the world are facing a combination of failing crops and grazing, declining quality and quantity of fresh water, and loss of tree cover. Similarly, many rivers and lakes have experienced increases in nutrient pollution (eutrophication), toxicity, and biodiversity loss.

Relations between ecosystem services and human well-being are poorly understood. One gap relates to the consequences of changes in ecosystem services for poverty reduction. The poor are most dependent on ecosystem services and vulnerable to their degradation. Empirical studies are needed.

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Biodiversity Loss Threatens Human Well-Being

Sandra Díaz, Joseph Fargione, Terry Chapin and David Tilman have nice a Millennium Ecosystem Assessment based review essay Biodiversity Loss Threatens Human Well-Being in PLOS Biology. The article summarizes current understanding of how biodiversity influences human wellbeing.

fig 1 plos biolHuman societies have been built on biodiversity. Many activities indispensable for human subsistence lead to biodiversity loss, and this trend is likely to continue in the future. We clearly benefit from the diversity of organisms that we have learned to use for medicines, food, fibers, and other renewable resources. In addition, biodiversity has always been an integral part of the human experience, and there are many moral reasons to preserve it for its own sake. What has been less recognized is that biodiversity also influences human well-being, including the access to water and basic materials for a satisfactory life, and security in the face of environmental change, through its effects on the ecosystem processes that lie at the core of the Earth’s most vital life support systems.

By affecting the magnitude, pace, and temporal continuity by which energy and materials are circulated through ecosystems, biodiversity in the broad sense influences the provision of ecosystem services. The most dramatic changes in ecosystem services are likely to come from altered functional compositions of communities and from the loss, within the same trophic level, of locally abundant species rather than from the loss of already rare species. Based on the available evidence, we cannot define a level of biodiversity loss that is safe, and we still do not have satisfactory models to account for ecological surprises. Direct effects of drivers of biodiversity loss (eutrophication, burning, soil erosion and flooding, etc.) on ecosystem processes and services are often more dramatic than those mediated by biodiversity change. Nevertheless, there is compelling evidence that the tapestry of life, rather than responding passively to global environmental change, actively mediates changes in the Earth’s life-support systems. Its degradation is threatening the fulfillment of basic needs and aspiration of humanity as a whole, but especially, and most immediately, those of the most disadvantaged segments of society.

Ecology and Development: the MA & MDGs

Strategy for Sust Dev - Sachs & Reid Science 2006 The economist Jeffrey Sachs, the director the development oriented Millennium Project, and the ecologist Walt Reid, former director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment have written a joint policy forum in Science (May 19, 2006) Investments Toward Sustainable Development. They note that both projects have broad agreement about the need to integrate ecology and poverty alleviation.  They recommend that the world invest in ecological infrastructure in poor countries and establish a periodic assessment of the benefits that people obtains from ecosystems. They write:

The United Nations (U.N.) Millennium Project and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment highlighted the centrality of environmental management for poverty reduction and general well-being. Each report emphasized the unsustainability of our current trajectory. Millions of people die each year because of their poverty and extreme vulnerability to droughts, crop failure, lack of safe drinking water, and other environmentally related ills. The desperation of the poor and heedlessness of the rich also exact a toll on future well-being in terms of habitat destruction, species extinction, and climate change.

The goal of the Millennium Project is to develop and to promote practical plans for achieving the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for ending poverty, eradicating hunger, achieving universal primary education, improving health, and restoring a healthy environment. The MA, in turn, examined the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and analyzed options for conserving ecosystems while enhancing their contributions to people. The MA and the Millennium Project reached strikingly parallel conclusions:

  1. Environmental degradation is a major barrier to the achievement of the MDGs. The MA examined 24 ecosystem services (the benefits people obtain from ecosystems) and found that productivity of only 4 had been enhanced over the last 50 years, whereas 15 (including capture fisheries, water purification, natural hazard regulation, and regional climate regulation) had been degraded. More than 70% of the 1.1 billion poor people surviving on less than $1 per day live in rural areas, where they are directly dependent on ecosystem services.
  2. Investing in environmental assets and management are vital to cost-effective and equitable strategies to achieve national goals for relief from poverty, hunger, and disease. For example, investments in improved agricultural practices to reduce water pollution can boost coastal fishing industry. Wetlands protection can meet needs of rural communities while avoiding costs of expensive flood control infrastructure. Yet these investments are often overlooked.
  3. Reaching environmental goals requires progress in eradicating poverty. More coherent and bolder poverty reduction strategies could ease environmental stresses by slowing population growth and enabling the poor to invest long term in their environment.

We recommend the following measures in 2006. First, we call on the rich donor countries to establish a Millennium Ecosystem Fund to give poor countries the wherewithal to incorporate environmental sustainability into national development strategies. The fund would support work that focuses on how poverty reduction can enhance environmental conservation (e.g., by giving farmers alternatives to slash and burn) and how environmental sustainability can support poverty reduction (e.g., watershed management to maintain clean water supplies). It would also support national ecosystem service assessments to help decision-makers factor the economic and health consequences of changes in ecosystem services into their planning choices.

The fund would initially need roughly $200 million over 5 years. It would enable universities and scientists in dozens of the poorest countries to incorporate the science of environmental sustainability into poverty reduction strategies. The programs would generate evidence for countries to use in setting priorities for national development and environmental investments.

Second, the United Nations should establish a cycle of global assessments modeled on the MA and similar to the climate change reports produced at 4- to 5-year intervals by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The MA and IPCC cost roughly $20 million, and each mobilized in-kind contributions of that magnitude. A global network of respected ecologists, economists, and social scientists working to bring scientific knowledge to decision-makers and to the public can clarify the state of scientific knowledge, help to mobilize needed research, and defeat the obfuscation led by vested interests.

MA: Putting a Price Tag on the Planet

Putting a Price Tag on the Planet is a long article by Lila Guterman on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in the April 7, 2006 The Chronicle of Higher Education. The article describes the history, funding, and operation of the MA as well as its findings.

As the 20th century drew to a close, leaders in the field of ecology decided they were failing at one of their primary goals. They had presented sign after sign that people were harming the environment — killing off species, destroying rain forests, polluting the air and water — but the warnings had little effect. So, to encourage conservation, they decided to appeal to humanity’s baser instincts.

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Survey of Initial Impacts of Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment‘s general synthesis report was released about a year ago. On March 21 2006, the MA released an assessment of the initial impact of the MA. The report is written by Walt Reid, the director of the MA, based upon a survey of (report pdf). The survey found that some organizations and countries have been significantly influenced by the MA while others have not been minimally if at all. In the report’s executive summary Walt Reid assess the impact of the MA on its multiple target audiences:

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