The Looking Glass World of PES

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The Walrus and the Carpenter, Through the Looking Glass

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Land on Earth is finite. The homeostatic mechanisms of the Earth’s systems have functional limits. We’ve come to the point in our population and industrial systems where companies and governments are carving up the last of Earth’s wild spaces. We’ve also come to the point where we are overwhelming some of the Earth’s biogeochemical systems. Long term global government initiatives to mitigate and sequester greenhouse gases, protect biodiversity, and conserve water are not meeting their targets. So what’s a girl to do?

Red Queen, White Queen, and Alice and All

Red Queen, White Queen, and Alice and All

International organizations and governments are usually well intentioned, but they move slowly. They need to take the time to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s with utmost scientific and ethical process. If they do not they would be taken to the wringer. In comparison, market forces are very efficient at growth and development. Furthermore, lobby groups (often funded by market actors) can stall government initiatives, and politics can become mired in national and international debate.  But in this case that debate is stalling taking action on a process that is going on regardless. Market forces will carve up the remainder of the resources on this planet as efficiently as they can. They have money behind them, and money makes things happen. But what if those market forces could be turned in a new direction?

“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first…”

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Payments for Ecosystem (or Environmental) Services, or PES, refer to the payments to land owners or users for preserving the ecosystem function/integrity of their land rather than engaging in other forms of ecologically degrading economic activity. The brilliance of putting a price on nature, as well a cost on its degradation, is that those efficient market forces mentioned above are then turned up on their head towards protective, rather than exploitative behaviours on natural systems.

So, for example, if there is more profit in protecting a forest for carbon, then market forces will tend to protect more forests.  If there is a competitive edge in restoring mangroves, then mangroves will be restored.

The issue arises in that business men are not ecologists. Sometimes, the rush for the economic incentive overrides the initial intent of ES protection. There have been cases where virgin forests are clear cut in order to plant “carbon forests”, or situations where land users say they will not cut down a forest in one place–thereby obtaining carbon offsets for them–only to go and cut down forest elsewhere. This is termed “leakage” in the industry.  For these, and other reasons, ecologists and conservation managers often mistrust those from business and industry, but these barriers can be overcome through transparent dialogue and setting up of robust standards. The work being done on REDD and REDD+ is a prime example.

In the last several years people from public, private and NGO circles are starting to realize they have shared goals in the ES arena, forge partnerships and engage in collaborative projects. Although their backgrounds, perspectives and language may be different, I firmly believe that through such multidisciplinary efforts the theory behind ecosystems services can effectively be translated into action.  Putting a value on ecosystem services that are attached to these resources, is a way in which market forces can still happen, research budgets can be met, profits can still be shared, quarterly reports to shareholders still look good, AND Earth systems can be protected, and even replenished, in the process.

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About Maria Lavis
Exploring questions on how well (or not) humans and nature are getting along.

4 Responses to The Looking Glass World of PES

  1. Pingback: ES for Future Generations « iES

  2. Pingback: Why put a price on nature? « iES

  3. Pingback: The Thorny Issue of Stacking « iES

  4. Hi there everyone, it’s my first visit at this website, and paragraph is actually
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