Tag Archives: tradeoffs

Are ecosystem service trade-offs relatively common?

A recent paper by Heather Tallis et al. reports the finding that win-win conservation projects — those that aim to achieve both conservation objectives and economic gains — are relatively rare. In this paper (Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2008 Jul 15 105(28):9457-64), the authors examine World Bank projects with dual objectives of alleviating poverty and protecting biodiversity and find that only 16% made major progress on both objectives.

These results suggest that trade-offs among ecosystem services may be more common than previously thought. (Fairly interesting since other studies have shown that win-wins are common;however, those studies have generally not considered agriculture/food to be an ecosystem service. Since agriculture is one of the key services that has trade-offs with conservation, it is an important one to consider when assessing the conservation potential in an area.)

Nevertheless, the authors point out that there are strategies for improving management of ecosystem services and human well-being. These include better monitoring of conservation projects’ effects on ecosystem services and human well-being and also improving monitoring of multiple ecosystem services, including the flow of services from one region to another and the effects of markets on provision of ecosystem services.

Can Payments to Farmers Expand Agricultural Production and the Supply of other Ecosystem Services

greenhouse gas emissionsAgriculture are argueably is the human activity that has the largest impact on the world, impacting many ecosystem services. However, most farmers have minimal financial incentive to enhance ecosystem services other than crop yield. WRI Earthtrends reviews the evidence that Expanding Agriculture and Protecting Ecosystems: Can Payments to Farmers Accomplish Both?

How can farmers be encouraged to reduce these negative side-effects, while also meeting the growing demand for food and fiber?

Paying Farmers for Ecosystem Services

Farmers constitute the largest group of natural resources managers in the world–agriculture accounts for over 40% of global employment. The concept of paying farmers for the ecosystem services they provide, thereby creating a financial incentive for environmental protection, is an approach generating increasing support worldwide. In fact, the FAO’s State of Food and Agriculture Report 2007 provides an in-depth analysis of this concept, highlighting its great potential as well as existing challenges.

Farmers can generate enhanced environmental services in three main ways:

* Changing methods of production
* Diverting current agricultural land to other uses
* Avoiding future conversion of new land to agriculture

Examples of Payment Systems around the World

The demand for environmental services has been increasing over recent decades, both due to greater awareness of their value and to their increasing scarcity. Consequently, many industrialized countries have already implemented programs providing farmers with payments for environmental services. In the United States, for example, farmers can elect to receive annual rental payments for retiring farmland from crop production for 10 to 15 years, thereby enhancing soil conservation. Similarly, farmers in the United Kingdom can receive compensation payments for adopting less intensive farming practices.

One of the most notable programs in the developing world was established in Costa Rica in 1996. To enhance forest environmental services (i.e. carbon sequestration, watershed protection and biodiversity protection), land and forest owners receive compensation payments for reforestation, sustainable forest management and forest protection. The program is financed via a fossil fuel sales tax and revenues from hydroelectric companies, among other sources. Similarly, China’s “Grain for Green” program pays farmers to plant forests on sloping and degraded lands.

Policy Design Issues and Challenges

Environmental payment schemes have great potential but must overcome several implementation challenges. A successful approach must create a mechanism for measuring and valuing a service, identify how and where to enhance services most cost-effectively, and decide which farmers to compensate and how much to pay them. In some situations, it may make sense to use alternative policy approaches, such as reforms to reduce agricultural market distortions or command-and-control regulations. No matter what strategy is adopted, the FAO emphasizes that poverty implications must be kept in mind. Most of the world’s poor people live in rural areas and are dependent upon agriculture and their natural resource base for survival–any plan to implement payments for environmental services will have both positive and negative impacts for the poor that must be considered.

Biofuel production vs. Aquatic ecosystems

Simon Donner writes about his new paper Corn-based ethanol production compromises goal of reducing nitrogen export by the Mississippi River (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0708300105) on his weblog maribo:

A new paper by my colleague Chris Kucharik and I looks at the new US Energy Policy, will calls for growing more corn to produce ethanol, will affect the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. For a quick summary, see Reuters, the CBC or AFP.

The Mississippi dumps a massive amount of nitrogen, largely in the form of the soluble ion nitrate, into the Gulf each spring. It promotes the growth of a lot of algae, which eventually sinks to the bottom and decomposes. This consumes much of the oxygen in the bottom waters, making life tough for bottom-dwelling fish and creatures like shrimp. The Dead Zone has reached over 20,000 km2 in recent years.

The primary source of all that nitrogen is fertilizer applied to corn grown in the Midwest and Central US. Reducing the Dead Zone to less than 5000 km2 in size, as is suggested in US policy, will require up to a 55% decrease in nitrogen levels in the Mississippi.

The new US Energy Policy calls for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by the year 2022. Of that, 15 billion can be produced from corn starch. Our study found meeting those would cause a 10-34% increase in nitrogen loading to the Gulf of Mexico.

Meeting the hypoxia reduction goal was already a difficult challenge. If the US pursues this biofuels strategy, it will be impossible to shrink the Dead Zone without radically changing the US food production system. The one option would be to dramatically reduce the non-ethanol uses of corn. Since the majority of corn grain is used as animal feed, a trade-off between using corn to fuel animals and using corn to fuel cars could emerge.