Climate Change = Security Risk: Connecting the Dots on the Growing Agenda

The Climate Change Narrative

Some Background

It’s been a while now since I posted this blog post back in 2011 on the security implications of climate change described in the US Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Report (QDR, pdf 2010). My main points back then were to: 1) highlight the discrepancy between the lack of doubt in how the US military portrays this risk compared to many US politicians (the latter swamped in the politics of climate change denial, which has pretty much framed the ongoing climate change debate narrative in the public sphere since then), and 2) note that the security implications of climate change was an important topic and potential public policy driver that wasn’t getting a lot of press at the time.

It looks like that lack of attention is about to change very, very soon.

The links between climate change and politics is a touchy enough subject, let alone the military linkages, so it’s a topic that I usually avoid commenting on. (Other writers, such as Paul Woodward have been covering security and climate change for a while now.) Nevertheless, I’ve been keeping a casual eye out on this topic since that last QDR, that came out on the heels of the 2009  failure of the last UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP 15) in Copenhagen. For those people who have been working towards trying to get meaningful action on climate change, it has often felt like it has been a losing battle, in spite of the scientific agreement, to sway politicians into action; this has led to feelings of depression and despair by many along the way. There was further disappointment at the recent Warsaw conference last December, and a recent opinion in the UK’s The Guardian that the deniers have won.

An Early Prediction on the Shift in the Narrative

In spite of the above, as the adage goes, it is usually darkest before the dawn, and from the looks of reports I’ve stumbled across in my research in the last few weeks, it looks like we are approaching a new day of renewed impetus for action, albeit a rather troubling one.

I would like to share the information on new developments below  that indicate that the topic of climate change and security risk is being elevated at some high levels. Based on the high ranking nature of the departments reporting on their growing priority to address the security risks of climate change, and the influence of their agendas, I’d also venture the following prediction:

The newly reported priority on climate change as an urgent security risk at high levels of government will emerge as a disruptive narrative in the public arena that will change how we will come to perceive the threat of climate change globally, and the need to act on it.

By the Paris talks in 2015, this narrative has the potential to turn the tide on action on climate change in North America, as a driver of public policy and legislation. It can do this through transitioning the emphasis in public discourse from the rhetoric of doubt and denial over to the new rhetoricthat there is a need to respond to climate change not only a real and significant risk, but as a clear and present danger. 

The thing is, there’s not just rhetoric around the narrative on climate change and security. The science (as will come out in the IPCC report on impacts tomorrow) shows that climate change does present real risks that people in the field have known has been there all along. (i.e. See this report on climate change and conflict in Africa from 2010, and this speech by Christiana Figueres in Spain in 2009 addressing a military intelligence audience on the importance of  addressing climate change.)

So, the knowledge on the security risk is nothing that new really. However, it appears that the priority of this factor is now being significantly escalated in the messaging from up top. Enough so that it looks like the security implications of climate change will begin to emerge as a primary driver on action not just at home, but around the world.

But don’t take my word for it.

The “Climate Change = Security Risk” Narrative

Growing Body of Evidence

Below I’ve outlined some lines of recent evidence for how climate change and security is starting to re-frame the messaging on climate change, primarily in the US. I’m pretty sure this list will be growing very soon.

1. US Department of Defense

  • Then. 2010 – Quadrennial Defense Report: As mentioned above, I blogged about this report previously. There was not a lot of public follow up on the security risks of climate change back then. Instead, political will for climate climate change began to evaporate in the west as the climate change debate narrative took over. It’s my suspicion that the ‘climate change = security risk’ narrative didn’t stop at this point. It just quietly went undercover (see the note below about the early pilot program by HLS on Resilence Star for instance).

2. US Department of Homeland Security

  • Then. 2011. DHS announces a Resilience STAR ‘pilot’, a “voluntary certification program that aims to make homes and buildings more secure and resilient to all hazards.” Note that this program had no mention of “climate” back in 2011, and has quietly been built on behind the scenes of the opposition to any kind of climate action under the guise of ‘weather’ disaster planning into the trademarked program in the next bullet (that also doesn’t mention climate). However, in the Senate testimonies linked further below, the actual ties of the Resilience Star initiative to climate change adaptation becomes apparent. This program has been build in collaboration with insurance companies, who are actuarial risk specialists, who are very aware of the difference between weather and climate. Note for instance how the graph by Munich Re from their report on weather risk below shows 30 years of data. 30 years is the time that is typically as the climatological normal, which makes this work on weather, pretty much about climate change adaptation.
  • Now.  November 2013. DHS announces again that it is launching its new Resilience STAR™ Program to help home owners and businesses prepare for climate change in partnership with the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IIBH). The program is to be analogous to the EPA’s popular Energy Star program.
    • The Resilience Star program re-launched a second ‘pilot program’ that closed in January 2014
  • Now. February 12, 2014:  The US Senate Hearing on Extreme Weather Events: The Costs of Not Being Prepared saw two officials from DHS testify along with other witnesses on the need to address risks and mounting costs of extreme weather events in the US. (A related report on Severe Weather in North America, by Munich Re states that, “Nowhere in the world is the rising number of annual catastrophes more evident than in North America.” As shown in the figure below, copied from the Executive Summary, the number of weather catastrophes in North America has more than quadrupled over the last 30 years (the averaging time for climate change trends).)
    • The Honorable David F. Heyman, DHS Assistant Secretary for policy testified testified about the ongoing efforts of DHS and other departments since 2009 on building out resilience and security, including preparing “homes, communities and critical infrastructure” for future extreme weather events and disasters. He also commented on the mounting costs that extreme weather events, exacerbated by climate change in the US, noting that projected losses from the future impacts of climate change are estimated at USD $1.2 trillion by 2050.  Download Testimony (196.1 KB)
    • Caitlin A. Durkovich, Assisstant for Infrastructure Protection testified similarly about the work of about the ongoing efforts of DHS to build resilience and security.  (Note that the language on this resilience work has been historically framed around “weather” rather than “climate”, so it has largely gone along relatively quietly under the radar of the climate change debate the whole time, but now the language of climate change is also being used): Download Testimony (196.1 KB)
Trends in Weather-Related Loss Across Global Continents Over 30 Years. Source (Munich Re)

Trends in Weather-Related Loss Across Global Continents Over 30 Years. The top blue line shows the trend for North America which shows a rise higher than for any of the other continents. Source (Munich Re 2012)

3. US State Department

  • Now. January 2014. The new draft of the Sixth US Climate Change Action Report notes security implications in the very first line of its Executive Summary, “Climate change represents one of the greatest challenges of our time, with profound and wide-ranging implications for development, economic growth,the environment,and international security.”
  • Now. March 7, 2014. The US Department of State blog notes in their We Need to Elevate the Environment in Everything We Do post that Secretary of State, John Kerry issued “instructions to all diplomats around the world on combating climate change.” Kerry explicitly notes a priority of integrating the priority of climate change with the priority of “national security” in guidance point 7 (ha, I did just say priority three times there).

3. Other

  • Then. 2012. The American Security Project (ASP) published, American Security: The Impact of Climate Change. This report outlines implications for homeland security and global security relating to climate change.
  • Now. The Climate, Energy and Security home page of the ASP currently states: “Climate change is a scientific fact; it is real and poses a clear and present danger not only to the United States but to the entire world.”
  • Now. The Center for Climate Change and Security (CCCS, whose review of the 2014 QDR report I linked to previously in this post) has been following the climate change security agenda for some time now. Some of their recent publications are below:
    • January 22, 2014. Briefer, Message to Davos: Climate Change Risk Assessments Need to Go Big which outlines how the World Economic Forum in Davos has climate change as one of its top five priorities, but also how climate change is also linked to three of the other top ten priorities (food, water and extreme weather events). The report emphasized under, “It’s the People, Stupid”, how climate change has been typically lumped under and ‘environmental’ box only; however, it is also fundamentally a social, geopolitical and economic risk.
    • February 26, 2014 Briefer, Climate and Security 101: Why the U.S. National Security Establishment Takes Climate Change Seriously discusses several aspects of climate change and security, including the statement that, Four-star Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, head of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), identified climate change as the biggest security threat facing the Asia-Pacific region. In the Asia-Pacific, U.S. Pacific Command is working with China and India to align military capabilities for “when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations.”
    • Update! (3/31/3014) The CCCS has informed me that I missed that they also keep a record of US Government Intelligence Statements. Their recent one by the Director of National Intelligence, titled “Statement for the Record, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” (January 29, 2014) makes two explicit references to climate. The first is regarding risks to freshwater supplies, particularly in key countries such as North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, but also in several developing nations. The report discusses some of the potential scenarios of what these shortages could lead to. The second reference is with regards to extreme weather events, that the report notes empiracle evidence along (without the help of climate models) suggests that the warming trend is affecting weather leading to more frequent or intense floods, droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, cyclones, coastal high water and heat waves. The outcome of this trend will likely place stress on first responders, NGOs, and militaries called on to provide humanitarian assistance.
  • Now. March 20, 2014. In the United Kingdom, Responding to Climate Change (RTCC), the UNFCCC official observer published an interview with a US Army expert who said of the climate change risk that, “This is like getting embroiled in a war that lasts 100 years. That’s the scariest thing for us. There is no exit strategy that is available for many of the problems.”
  • Now. March 27, 2014. In the United Kingdom, the non-profit Environmental Justice Foundation published The Gathering Storm: Climate Change, Security and Conflict. This 44 p. report “calls for climate change to be recognized as a human rights issue as well as an environmental issue and highlights the need for urgent international action to respond the human and national security challenges that climate change presents.” The report frames the climate change security risk as a human rights issue as well: “The potent significance of the fact that the world’s major military powers and security institutions consistently and increasingly voice their concerns regarding the impacts of climate change jars with the simple fact that there has been a failure to act on the issue. EJF interprets this collective failure as the gravest threat to human and national security: the insecurity wrought by climate change is the defining global human rights issue of the 21st Century.

This EJF image connected to their new report, Gathering Storm, is starting to make appearances on Twitter under #gatheringstorm

 

Connecting the Dots on the New Climate Change Narrative

Connecting the dots on the above evidence outlines a new emphasis on the impacts of climate change to national and global security. This climate change = security risk narrative has emerged in priority agendas of the UN,  and for major US government departments. There are references in the above reports on the emphasis of this agenda in other countries as well. So, it looks like the emerging climate change as security risk platform may have its roots in quieter work that has been ongoing for many years now and is finally ready to emerge as a policy pillar.

Where is this all headed? The climate change security agenda may not unfold as rapidly as my above prediction to be influential on securing a deal at the Paris 2015 talks, as well as in influencing stalling nations to roll out climate change mitigation and adaptatoin action where they have been lagging up to now. What is certain though, is that there is strong talk in high places backing this agenda. And, given that the effects of climate change are predicted to grow in time, the climate change = security risk agenda is one that will not be going away any time soon, and will certainly be one to watch closely over the upcoming year.

What’s Up with the Discrepancy?

I recently read a Tweet by the World Resources Institute linking to an article by my local newspaper, The Vancouver Sun, titled, “A Humanitarian Emergency on a Global Scale“. This article regarding humans pushing the tipping points of planetary natural systems, including climate change, gave me an idea for an analogy.

This is not the first time I’ve read news of leading scientists making such dire claims. (i.e. 1, 2, 3) This is also not the first time that I shake my head thinking how a large section of our controlling political leaders will deny, or at best, delay actions on these warnings.

To me, as with most of those with any training  related to physical Earth systems, watching the recent political denial of these warnings has felt like stepping into a Looking Glass world of double speak where truth and fiction have been so contorted and inverted that it’s hard to know right from left, let alone good from bad.

Most people don’t spend their time studying climate, which is a complicated phenomenon. Why should they? Just like most people aren’t trained oncologists, who study cancer, another complicated phenomenon. However, for some reason, when our oncologist tells us we have cancer, we sit up and listen. We trust what they, as an expert on the subject tell us, and then we act accordingly. We change our life if need be. Quit work. Eat kale. Whatever it takes.

So, when thousands of climate scientists around the world tell us we have a dire climate change problem, that puts the future of the entire Earth at risk? Well then, in that case, we just go back to business as usual.

So, what’s up with the discrepancy?

To illustrate, here is a little story:

I wasn’t feeling very well a few months ago. I was getting internal pains and fever. I thought it was a temporary thing, a bad case of the flu. But it kept persisting, so I went to the doctor. She said she’d run some tests.

A week later she calls me and tells me the tests indicate I have cancer and they’d like to do some more tests. Those tests end up confirming the original results, and adding that my time on Earth as the functional person I have been may be severely limited.

Shaken up by this, I go to my boss to tell him the news. Imagine my shock when he tells me this:

“Cancer? What do you mean cancer? Well you and some doctors might believe in ‘cancer’, but let me tell you, they are a bunch of quacks who are just trying to take your money, fabricating stories of disease and dire predictions like crazy preachers on pulpits. And you? You’re acting like some kind of hypochondriac, feeding into their ridiculous claims.”

I plead my case. I cough up blood and he says it’s inconclusive and probably psychosomatic. I say I’ll show him the tests; they are based on repeatable concrete evidence by trained experts. He says he doubts whether they really know what they are talking about. After all, I look like I can go back to work to him.

Seeing that none of this is getting through to my boss, I say that there is a chance it could kill me, and I need time to be with my family and friends. He then just laughs at me and tells me that I’ve really gone off the deep end, and that I’d better go back to work… or else.

Ok, so I go and take my boss to court. It makes the news even. Politicians start to make statements because it turns out that other people’s bosses are denying their cancer too. And what does our local political leader say about the situation to the media?

“Cancer doesn’t really exist,” she says. “They can’t really prove it. They certainly don’t know how to cure it after soooo many years of research and expense. What a waste of time and tax payer’s dollars!

And, after all, people are dying of natural causes all the time. How can you say it’s caused by cancer? Maybe it’s something else that’s making people feel bad.

This so-called cancer, it’s also bad for the economy. It’s blown out of proportion, and we’ve decided that until we absolutely know what it is and how to cure it that it’s business as usual. People who think they have cancer should just go back to work.”

Ok ok. So I made that up. I do not have cancer. A crass example, not in the best of taste. Cancer is actually a real and very serious problem that millions around the world face. I have several relatives who have passed away from cancer, and it is a disease that disheartens and destroys lives. Yes, it is certainly real.

As real as the Earth going around the sun. As real as anthropogenic climate change. These are all measurable physical phenomena.

Climate change related causes have already been responsible for global mortality. The prognosis is also that climate change has the potential to affect billions, and our children, and our children’s children.

So what’s up with the discrepancy?

Both cancer and climate change are related to phenomena we don’t completely understand, and both have potentially dire results. One has to do with effects on an individual organism, the other has to do with effects on a planetary system.

Ok, I’ll admit, the scale of the latter may be harder to comprehend, and understand, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore warnings regarding its health any less seriously than to our own.

But we do. We take one way more seriously than we do the other. The difference is that we can literally feel it in our bones. We see our friends and relatives suffer directly from it. And so we tend to listen to the advice of the experts in their field about it.

The other? Well, it’s quite the opposite for the other. Well, maybe unless you live in Africa or the Maldives.

So, imagine for a minute, or a good few seconds, the kind of shock you would feel…

… if your boss and political leaders said something to you like the statements in the above cancer analogy. Well, this is somewhere on the scale that scientists who study climate change and earth systems science feel when years of their hard nosed research with concrete results they present on are categorically questioned, denied, and then followed up with disproportional cuts to research budgets. (Not to mention gag orders on federal scientists.)

But somehow, in North America this treatment of the problem of climate change is passed off as normal.

It’s about time we realized that the problem here isn’t with climate science and its prognosis. It’s with our leaders telling us the problem isn’t really there, then telling us to go back to work.

It’s with us.

Accepting the unacceptable, and just carrying on with business as usual.

Yeah, so forget the kale. Forget the radiation treatment.

If you deny it’s there, then it doesn’t exist.

Right?

The Thorny Issue of Stacking

Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) projects are rather like roses. The blossoms are the desired lovely benefits.  At the same time the cliché stands, and every rose has its thorns. In the case of PES projects, the large obvious thorns include things like unintended perverse incentives that lead to issues like leakage.  Then there are those smaller thorns, the kind that break off in your fingers like slivers, and are often far more annoying to contend with. Thorns like stacking.

Stacking PES

How to deal with stacking is currently a hot issue for policy makers to contend with.  But what is stacking to begin with?

The concept of stacking has arisen basically stems from land owners/managers and project developers saying, “Hey, there are many PES programs sprouting up out there. Can I benefit from more than one of them at once for what I’m doing on this land?” Or, they might also be saying something like, “Well, I’d love to be able to conserve my land instead of logging it, but I make way more felling trees on my land than I would with just a, say, carbon project, so can you throw me a better incentive to make it more worth my while to engage in more sustainable options?”

In the first case, stacking would likely bring a higher net gain to the land owners and project developers than one project alone, and in the second case, stacking actually enables some projects to happen that probably wouldn’t otherwise fly. So, we already have complexity here, and a caveat on debates on stacking is that when people talk about stacking they aren’t always talking about the same thing. Many opponents to stacking do so because of the first reason, and the difference between these two examples, brings up a second niggly thorn. Additionality.

Additionality

Additionality is a concept that is integral to developing carbon mitigation projects, but has not been widely applied in the PES world. Additionality is basically a tenet to ensure that GHG mitigation actually takes place in a commodity system, stemming from provisions in the Kyoto Protocol under the Clean Development Mechanism. The central provision for additionality ensures that if developed countries are going to get out of making costly direct GHG reductions themselves, and buy cheaper offsets , that the money from those offsets better go towards causing GHG reductions that would NOT have otherwise happen. i.e. Those offsets have to be additional, otherwise the money is just being spent on activities, providing extra padding to the pockets of those that would have undergone those activities anyhow. So, under Kyoto, it is very important that offset money should go towards making reduction activities happen that couldn’t happen in the absence of the money (and sometimes technology/expertise) of the offsets and offset project developers. Within the carbon world, this provision for additionality has also filtered down into the developing voluntary carbon offsets as well. If you are purchasing offsets that aren’t additional, you might just be wasting your money.

In the PES world, however, there is no international agreement. No potential global compliance system to regulate the various ecosystem services. And, no mandated additionality. And in many cases of PES, this principle of additionality isn’t really necessary. This is because many PES projects are voluntary and many ecosystem services don’t involve something that can be commodified, so offsetting and additionality are harder to define and so haven’t been part of the lexicon. Here are some examples:

Example 1: Biodiveristy

Say someone develops a one-off ecosystem services biodiversity project to protect and endangered species in a tropical jungle. The jungle is obviously disappearing. The animal is obviously threatened. Money is raised to buy rights to land or land itself as well as manage it buy hiring rangers to stop poaching etc. A large company is recruited to voluntarily help invest in the project because it uses this species as part of its brand logo. The cost is willingly incurred by the company to help support the company’s sustainability initiatives, brand and integrity, not because they have to due to legislation. In this case, the money spent to save the species isn’t being spent to offset killing the species somewhere else. And it is relatively obvious that without the money the species would likely go extinct under the status quo.

Example 2: Water

A large company is using up a lot of water in a local watershed. They have been pressured and lobbied by local citizens and environmental groups for drawing down the water table. In order to protect the regional water, the company then invests in protecting another local watershed so that the water there is not depleted. In this case, although the activity of protecting the watershed is done in part to offset water loss in another area, this isn’t necessarily measured unit for unit, the way a commodity like carbon would be, and in all likelihood, the other watershed was not going to be protected anyhow.

Differences with Carbon and PES Worlds

There are several differences between the carbon world and PES world that affect additionality including:

  1. Carbon is a commodity. PES are plural and often not able to be ‘commodified’. They can’t be traded or offset necessarily one for one.
  2. Carbon is legislated under the CDM and regulated under many rigorous voluntary standards, such as VCS, that mandate additionality for projects. PES doesn’t have this history, and because of the diversity of different kinds of ecosystem services, it is more complicated to figure out how additionality applies.
  3. In the carbon world, many projects could be undertaken for reasons besides GHG mitigation. Updating heating boilers, or manufacturing technology happens all the time, because it helps to raise production efficiency as well as lower costs. These activities also happen to lower GHG emissions. So, in this case it is very important to establish that a project is being undertaken not just for the former reasons. In the PES world, conservation projects are relatively rare under the business as usual scenario, so additionality is not such a priority.
  4. Carbon is one thing, and other GHGs can be compared to carbon through the use of global warming potentials GWP (so, methane = 21 carbons). ES are diverse, complex and confusing.

So, why apply additionality to PES projects? As mentioned at the start of this article, the issue mostly arises when a project is going to be undertaken on a piece of land, where there is another project going on. There is a piece of land, lets say, undergoing an activity of avoided deforestation to sequester carbon and generate carbon credits. The potential arises to also create water and biodiversity projects in the park. Should new PES projects be allowed since the land is already conserved for carbon mitigation? This is the question that policy makers are now dealing with, and the question I shall expand on further in a subsequent article, so stay tuned…

News: UN Issues Warning if Private Sector Doesn’t Invest in REDD

“Forests are the natural treasure chests of the world, providing a host of ecosystem services that – and this needs to be said very clearly and up front – are paramount to ensuring economic progress and human well-being, not only locally but globally. What forests give us is fundamental in the strictest sense of the word: they stabilise the global climate system, regulate water cycles, provide habitat for flora, fauna and people, and host genetic resources of unimaginable potential. Forests and their services remain, however, chronically undervalued by today’s economic and political decision makers, resulting in their rapid destruction. One of the many consequences of current deforestation and forest degradation is their contribution of approximately one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.”

UN, REDDy Set Grow

It has been a challenging year for the carbon world, and the related sphere of  applying economic instruments for environmental protection and conservation of other ecosystem services. Variables, such as the economic downturn and the political climate on climate change have downplayed the urgency for dealing with issues like deforestation. What does all this stalling spell out for natural environments?

The UN has put out a recent report, “REDDy Set Grow: Private sector suggestions for international climate change negotiators.” The report clearly states why the forests of the world are important (which I also do in my previous Part I, II, III series on forests), why the private sector needs to get involved in financing saving them, and how they can do it through programs like REDD and REDD+.

The question is, is the involvement of certain actors within the private sector going to be enough to sway the tide of political opinion so that policy makers can put into place the kind of policies needed to take these markets beyond the voluntary scope they operate at now? A recent report by Forest Trends indicated that the last couple of years has shown many firsts for the implementation of economic instruments for forests, including the rise of forest carbon markets, with the EU leading the front for purchasing and many projects in the supply pipeline. However, in spite of the forest carbon sector being poised to take off,  many uncertainties remain as to whether the regulatory drivers that underpin demand will kick into gear in time to take these markets where they need to go. The quote below from State of the Forest Carbon Markets 2011, sums it up:

“Currently, buyers purchase most credits voluntarily, but regulatory drivers hold a critical key to unlock larger climate impacts and market demand. Across the global markets, a number of influential political choices remain to be made, and a host of market drivers remain uncertain. The consensus among dozens of market players interviewed for this report, including leaders of standards organizations and major buyers and project developers, is that the forest carbon market is entering a phase where growth will be fundamentally tied to finding and creating new demand for forest carbon credits

Policymakers are in the midst of developing funding for forest conservation at an unprecedented scale. A number of innovative solutions have evolved to both overcome many of the earlier hurdles facing market-based forest conservation efforts and attract private sector investment, but the scope of these markets is still relatively small in the face of global forest loss and a changing climate. The fate of these markets and projects will in large part rest in the hands of policymakers. 2010 was undoubtedly a critical year in the history of the forest carbon markets, but the most consequential chapters in this story still remain to be written.”

The Giving Trees: Part 3, Forest Services

This post follows Part 1 and Part 2. It is in participation of the “Nature’s Forest Services” blog competition being hosted by UNEP and TreeHugger in honour of World Environment Day on June 5th. This blog post is the last in a three part series to form the background information to my final official post tomorrow.

This series of background posts on nature’s forest services covers the following topics:

  1. A bit of background on where forests come from,
  2. How forests are being degraded and lost,
  3. Valuable forest services, and
  4. How our valuing these ecosystem services can help to protect them.

Part 1 of this series of posts covered Point 1 above, discussing a bit about how forests themselves came to be, and how life as we know it would not be the same if life had taken a different twist and turn and trees had never been. Part 2, The Vanishing Forests, covered an overview the threats and extent of deforestation around the world. Finally, this post will cover forest ecosystem services, and how they can help to protect our world’s remaining forests.

In my enthusiasm for a good excuse to blog and wax poetic about forest ecosystem services, I missed the word limit in the rules for the World Environment Day contest! Hence, officially, this series of posts is to just provide background information (for those who want to know more) for my final official pithy post entry which will follow tomorrow.

Forest Ecosystem Services

Morning forestMost of us live in cities, and do not have the privilege of spending much time in nature. As such, it is easy to become disconnected from the natural world which surrounds and supports us. Nevertheless, we are dependent on nature for our very survival. The very oxygen that we breathe accumulated in the atmosphere due to the action of photosynthesizing life forms. Forests play a key role in helping to locally and globally balance oxygen levels, as well as filter polluting impurities out of the air.

Forests and other wild ecosystems are also the foundation for life on Earth. They are the original source of biodiversity, all the food we have, all the animals, and the biogeochemical cycles that they help regulate. The combination of all the ecosystems in the world makes up the global biosphere, that we are a part of. At the same time, there are so many of us (as pointed out in Part 2) that our actions are starting to have significant impacts on ecosystems, as well as their net structure and function. Climate change is an example of how our cumulative actions of emitting greenhouse gases has led to anthropoenic climate change, which means that we have overwhelmed the capacity of natural systems to buffer CO2 out of the atmosphere.

So, ecosystems are bigger than us, and many aspects of ecosystems are also priceless. Yet, we have left out ecosystem goods and services of ecosystems out of our national GDP accounts and economic systems, and this has led to the externalization of forest goods and services from our balance sheets, policy and planning, and the eventual degradation and loss of forests and other ecosystems around the world. In order to help stop this externalization of forest ecosystem services, what we can do is provide a price to them. In this way, we can better meausre, manage and protect the health of our forests, economies and the people who depend upon them.

So, what kinds of ecosystem services do forests give to us? Using the TEEB definition of Ecosystem Services, here is a quick run down of nature’s forest services to us:

1. Provisioning

Blue forestWhen we think of forests providing for us, usually the thought that comes to mind is wood to build, furnish and warm our homes. Yet, forests provide so much more.  30% of forests globally are used for providing both wood and non-wood products. These products are conventionally part of what is called natural resources. These resources provide us with things we need, and help to drive our national economies, and yet forest natural capital is, as mentioned, often externalized from our national accounts.

In order to provide a better reckoning of forests, so we can better manage our impacts on them, what kinds of goods and services do forests provide us?

  • Softwood and hardwood lumber
  • Wood fibre and pulp products (like paper)
  • Fruits from fruit trees (bananas, apples, pears, mangoes)
  • Mushrooms (some mushrooms are still wild harvested and require very specific conditions to grow)
  • Wild harvested plants
  • Biomass for biofuel
  • Biochemicals, medicines and pharmaceuticals
  • Genetic resources
  • Fresh water purification is provided by forested watersheds
  • Animals that live within forest ecosystems are also a food source (fish and game)

2. Regulating

Forests are also like biological machines that impact and regulate the chemicals and environments around them through their metabolic pathways. Just like a car has an engine and produces CO2, the plants and trees of the forest have metabolisms that not only respire (producing CO2 and using up O2 like us), but photosynthesize. Photosynthesis is part of the magic of life on Earth, which pulls CO2 out of the air, and fixes it in plant tissues, while releasing O2 at the same time. This also makes forests perfected systems for carbon capture and storage. What other regulating functions do forests provide?

  • Fresh water purification is provided by forested watersheds
  • Clean air is provided by trees which help to filter out impurities and pollution
  • As mentioned, oxygen is provided by trees (in cities like Tokyo, oxygen levels can go way down locally, and planting more trees can be a way to help them back up again)
  • Regulating critical to life biogeochemical cycles such as the nitrogen cycle, water cycle, carbon cycle, and oxygen cycle
  • Wind breaks
  • Temperature regulation (from technical matters such as affecting the Earth’s albedo to providing some comforting shade out of the sun, forests have many effects on micro to local to regional climate)
  • Soil erosion prevention and control
  • Storm water control (to prevent excess flooding)
  • Oceanic storm surge protection (such as from mangroves pictured above) is critical along coasts, and can also help buffer against climate change induced sea level rise

3. Habitat

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.” – Charles Darwin

White Stag

White Stag, Rob Ward Photo

Forests provide two basic kinds of habitat related to ecosystem services:  habitat for species and habitat to serve as gene-pool ‘protectors’.  Regarding the first, species live in what we normally think of as habitat, which is basically a space where an organism can live. This habitat can be as large as the vast range of a grizzly bear, the breeding ground of a migratory bird, to a tangled river bank reminiscent of Darwin’s quote above, to a single tree for an insect. Regarding habitat for gene-pool protectors, this refers to the necessity to maintain natural habitat to allow natural selection to take place as it has been since the dawn of life. This process of natural selection is the basis for the diversity of life on Earth, and it is critical to maintain it as best as we can for the genetic health and well being of all species on Earth.

Without maintaining forest habitats at the right size for the creatures that live within them, and providing a means to protect that habitat, both the habitat and the plants and animals within can be lost. Illegal logging and poaching is a pernicious problem that plagues countries all over the world, not only developing nations. For instance, the white stag pictured above was poached from a park in the UK to the chagrin of many.

In order to maintain the habitat of many organisms–as well as genetic diversity that those habitats allow and facilitate–it is important that we preserve the health and integrity of the various ecosystems that make up the many biomes of the world. There are breaking points at which, for example, deforestation leads to enough habitat fragmentation where the health of that ecosystem, its ability to maintain itself, becomes compromised. Hence, protecting large tracts of ecosystems is often important to consider.

The forests are also home to over 300 million people. While these forests may not be pristine, they are still important as intermediary forest habitat, which also support numerous other species. The forest homes of many people around the world are also threatened by fragmentation and deforestation. In particular, indigenous peoples who depend on the forest for their home and livelihood often do not have land rights to the land they occupy and have been expropriated and exiled from their original homes. A striking example of this are the Guaraní peoples of Brazil in Mato Grosso do Sul state. These forest people have been, often violently, turned off their land, and a few tribes now are relegated to living at the sides of roads.

For better news, the Dongria Khond, called the real life Na’vi of Avatar, in India recently won their battle to prevent a bauxite mine on their sacred mountain that contained the forest and agricultural land that they depend on.  Nevertheless, Vendanta Resources, the British company with interests in the bauxite doesn’t seem to have dropped the issue and it looks like they will go back to court to fight it out some more. It is sad to think that it is most likely the party with the most resources and legal assistance in the long run who will win in the war of attrition that the fight for resources can become. And this is why, in part, we need to properly measure and value these forest resources, to give people like the Dongria Khond, a better way to plea their case, and local governments more leverage in effecting protective policies.

One of the challenges of setting aside habitat to preserve wild ecosystems is climate change itself. Human induced climate change has already started to affect temperature and precipitation patterns around the world, and it is precisely these factors that determine what the underlying tree and plant assemblage of an area is, along with sunlight. Due to climate change, forests literally walk the Earth, as their zones move, shrink or expand as their species gradually die of in newly inhospitable conditions, or grow into newly hospitable ones. For an excellent example of how forests move due to climate change, this US Forest Service Atlas database is a great resource. Try clicking for example on the Sugar Maple (Summary All-5) on the Atlas link and see how most predictions indicate that this tree species will move completely north out of the United States due to climate change.

4. Cultural

Buddhists meditating in the forest

Last, but certainly not least, forests provide important cultural services. Cultural ecosystem services include the spiritual, educational, recreational, traditional and aesthetic benefits that forests provide. For instance, the meditation retreat pictured in the image above would not be the same without the forest setting. Other examples of cultural services forests provide are settings for hiking, orienteering, camping, nature retreats, sweat lodges and other First Nations spiritual activities, and scenes for inspiration for art and relaxation.

Often, cultural forest ecosystem services are given cursory attention in the literature compared to the other kinds of services, but nature can exert very strong direct and indirect impacts on human culture and well being.  For instance, many wars can be traced back to the pre-emptive actions of one group to secure access to resources that are perceived to be in more and more limited supply. This has been attributed to the Rwandan genocide, “in which much conflict arose over the struggle to control productive land, and hence to capture and retain the security that access to the ecosystem services that productive land affords.” (Butler and Oluoch-Kosura. 2006)

A sense of cultural heritage and place is also strongly associated with the ecosystems that one grows up in. These systems can be deeply ingrained within the cultures around the world and literature and anthropology is replete with examples. For instance, the mores, traditions, beliefs, legends and stories of desert cultures are different than those of fishing villages, which are also different from those cultures traditionally from tropical jungles. In his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv discusses how the loss of natural systems, including forests, is having an effect on our own modern culture in the form of ‘nature deficit disorder’. In addition, the manner in which modern city dwellers are out of touch with nature, places nature lower on their priority list–out of sight, out of mind so to speak. Cultural methods of putting people, and their children back in touch with nature, is hence important to help people be more aware, and for their own health. This is a new area of expanded study now, with many parent and other groups sprouting up to encourage parents to literally get their children out in the woods and wilds.

Animals Have Culture Tied to Forests Too!

Orangatun Using Spear

Orangatun Using Spear

I have not yet heard of animal social learning/cultural health and evolution being mentioned with reference to ecosystem services, but I feel that this is also an important area to consider. From rats, to parrots, elephants and monkeys, many animals are ‘social’ learners. This means that the animals are not just born with instincts that make them automatically act. Rather, they also learn how to behave in their environments based upon what they learn from their parents and peers. This means, that, to a certain extent, animals too have culture, and this culture has evolved in the context of and in connection with the natural ecosystems that they inhabit. Hence, it is important to preserve habitats as environments for animals to preserve their cultural heritage, as well as for us!

This means that if you take a baby tiger out of its forest habitat, and put it in a zoo to “save” it, or genetically preserve it, it might grow up to be physically healthy, but it will not be mentally or culturally healthy in that it would not be able to reintegrate into a natural habitat and succeed the same way that a wild tiger would. (Imagine a human child placed into an alien zoo similarly, and how ill equipped they would be to reintegrate to human society.) In degrading and losing the wild forests of the Earth, we are also, depriving animals of their ability to learn and evolve with those habitats, compromising their survival, in yet another way. How is animal culture and social learning an ecosystem service? I would argue that it is in a similar way to maintaining genetic diversity. In addition, learning more about animal learning and culture helps us to understand ourselves better. Finally, who knows what benefits may come from learning more from and better connecting with other sentient beings besides ourselves?

It is important to consider this evolutionary culture context in light of what future losses we may be instigating through our systematic deforestation of the world’s forests. What future amazing creatures might have evolved in the now already vanished forests of the world? How are we limiting the capacity of existing organisms to evolve in the forests we have left? We’ve spent much time and money looking for signs of intelligent life in outer space. Perhaps it’s time we more carefully considered fostering the conditions to further advance it here on Earth.

Protecting Forest Ecosystem Services

Sunrise on Swiss ForestTo recap, in this series of blog posts, Part 1 covered where forests come from, and why they are important. Part 2 covered how our global forests are being depleted and vanishing. Today, in Part 3, I have given an overview of forest ecosystem services. But, how can defining, measuring and valuing these ecosystem services help to protect them for us, as well as for future generations?

There are two main ways in which we can value nature. One is in terms of a deterrent system to penalize those who deplete the natural capital which provides valuable ecosystem services. For instance, these would involve penalties such as higher fees, or damage payments for industries which cause deforestation, or who cause pollution which damages forest ecosystem services. The other kind is an incentive system, such as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), which offer new incentives to land owners to use their forests in more sustainable ways. The most known example of PES programs are new carbon markets that reward land owners who do actions on their land that enable it to better sequester carbon. By replanting or protecting forested lands, land owners can obtain money through the sale of carbon offsets, enabling them to find a way to profit off their land through actions other than resource extraction. REDD+ is one of the best examples of such a system, which also enables poor local communities to find ways to reduce poverty, as well as other social and environmental co-benefits. Currently, with the inability of nations to come to international agreements on carbon regulations and targets through COP (we will see if they will do any better at Durban this year), the Verified (previously “Voluntary”) Carbon Standard has risen in quality and robustness such that forest carbon projects under its AFOLU standards are setting the bar for forest projects for other standards world wide.

Some may feel, as I once did, that placing a monetary value on nature has certain issues, such as people using things like carbon markets as perverse incentives to plant things like ‘carbon forests’ which might actually be ecologically damaging, but as discussed in my post, Why Put a Price on Nature?, systems such as REDD+ have come a long way, and it appears that the benefits of valuing nature at this time outweigh the potential risks.

Can Our Protective Efforts be Successful? Yes!

Tree planting in India

Tree Planting in India

Around the world the combination of deterrents and incentives is starting to bear fruit in slowing forest loss in some areas. One of the best examples comes from Costa Rica, where in the last 20 years about a quarter of the country has been reforested or preserved as a result of forestry reform. In addition, last year the FAO reported that globally forest loss rates, for the first time in decades slowed down, and this was in part due to regulatory reform and PES resulting in less deforestation, and more tree planting programs in China and South America.

Finally, it should be mentioned that neither of the two methods mentioned will be as effective as they could be in the absence of robust standards based on science, transparency and  clear land rights. For instance, if indigenous peoples in developing nations are not given rights to their land, they cannot benefit from PES programs properly.

In this way, when we value nature, and work to protect it, we are in essence growing up as a culture, become more aware of what supports it, and in turn, supporting it back. Like children growing up to look after their parents, we can look at the giving trees, and in turn give back to them. Frankly, this is a plot twist that I would like to see some day soon.

Giving Back to Trees

Giving Back to Trees

The Giving Trees: Part 1

This blog post is in participation of the “Nature’s Forest Services” blog competition being hosted by UNEP and TreeHugger in honour of World Environment Day on June 5th. Following this post are Part 2 and Part 3.

"Emily Carr Forest" by Taralee Guild


“I sat staring, staring, staring – half lost, learning a new language or rather the same language in a different dialect. So still were the big woods where I sat, sound might not yet have been born.
Emily Carr

The woods themselves are silent in their giving. They don’t announce, advertise or charge for all that they do and all the beneficial services they provide to us.  It takes observers–artists, scientists, anyone with an eye to see really–to relay their stories to us. Even then, as people are so caught up with the business of their own lives, they often don’t have time to listen. In this, the International Year of Forests, with World Environment Day just around the corner on June 5th, perhaps it is time to sit back for a minute, take a break and consider, what do our forests have to tell us at this time? In honour of our forests, this is the first is a series of blog posts that will touch base on:

  1. A bit of background on where forests come from,
  2. How forests are being degraded and lost,
  3. Valuable forest services, and
  4. How our valuing these ecosystem services can help to protect them.

Where do forests come from?

Teman Negara National Park, Gerald S. Cubitt photo WWF

They say that if you walk in someone else’s shoes that you can understand better where they are coming from. What about forests? Where did they come from? They seem like they have been here forever, and in human terms, this is the case as they evolved long before we did. However, forests are also relatively fragile, depending on the balance of sun, rain and soil to survive and thrive. When these factors change significantly, forests can recede and vanish.

For example, as the Earth has gone through various glacial cycles over the last few hundred million years, forests that have grown up in the more northern regions have been razed by glaciers, leaving tropical rainforests as the oldest forests in the world. These rainforests, being so old, have had the most time to evolve many kinds of plants and animals, and that is why they are hotspots of biodiversity.

The most ancient of all known rainforests is the about 130,000 year old Teman Negara Forest in Malaysia. Home to the endangered Malayan tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Asian Elephant, Malayan Peacock-pheasant, amongst many other animals, this park exemplifies the amazing diversity and web of life that has evolved around forests. Forests that are now threatened by deforestation.

The Evolution of Trees



The trees that make up forests evolved between about 299-385 million years ago as shown in the image above. Remains of the world’s oldest rainforest have been found in Illinois in the United States. This rainforest existed about 300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous, when most of the world’s fossil fuel deposits were put down.

“It is interesting to think about what would have happened if trees had not evolved…”

Endangered Resplendent Quetzal

It is interesting to think about what would have happened if trees had not evolved.

For starters, we likely wouldn’t have the coal and oil deposits that we are so dependent upon now for most of the world’s energy needs. We also know that some species of animals co-evolved with tree species–developing fascinating and symbiotic relationships–such as acacias and ants, fruit trees and bats. What about other creatures?  Many birds and insects are literally dependent on trees for their survival, such as the endangered Resplendent Quetzal, pictured at right. They live in the trees, eat parts of the trees, and hide in the trees to escape predation.

How about mammals, who diversified shortly after the spread of forests on Earth? Without trees we would not have squirrels, racoons, lemurs, bush babies, sloths, certain species of great cats like pumas and tigers, many deer species, gorillas, koalas, giraffes (that long neck, designed to reach the leaves in tall trees), and many other forest dwelling mammals.

Tarsiers, Philppines. Per-Andre Hoffman photo.

And, finally, how about us?  With our own tree dwelling primate ancestors, there is a good chance we would not even be here today if it were not for those giving trees.

Just ask the tarsiers, pictured at left. Having originated about 45 million years ago, and only still surviving in the forests of South East Asia, these living fossils are perhaps our oldest living primate ancestors. For whatever reason, they seem to have been happy to not evolve much from their ancestral form, maintaining many of the good ol’ ways, including their still very obvious attachment to trees.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series of blog posts tomorrow…

Ecological Economics

What


Eco- from the Greek, οἶκος, oikos, meaning “house”.

Economics. Ecology. Both words start with the same etymological root, but historically, that’s about where the similarity between the two fields of study ends.

Ecology is the study of the relation of living organisms with each other and their surroundings.  Or, one could say the study of the larger “house” and the creatures–including us–in it.

Economics is the study of the management the production and consumption of goods and services, or the management of the “house”.

So when you get back to basic definitions, it’s odd to think that these two fields have been so disparate, and often in conflict, over most of the last century. This is where the new field of Ecological Economics comes in.

Unlike ecological economics, which is transdisciplinary, the traditional field of environmental economics is a subfield of classical economics that looks at human systems as largely apart from environmental ones, and also looks at the nature of exchanges (such as natural resource extraction and pollution) between them. In this classical view, nature is taken to be an infinite source of natural capital (which has led to externalization of this natural capital), supplemented with the the theoretical addendum that when nature does run out, it can be substituted with human capital.

Ecological economics takes some of the assumptions of environmental economics to task. It differs from environmental economics in that it views human economic systems as being embedded and interdependent with ecological ones, such that human capital cannot substitute for degraded or lost natural capital, especially when it comes to externalities impacting essential ecosystem services or functions. Ecological economics also acknowledges the limits of natural capital, and seeks to reduce its externalization.

Why

What is the Ecological Economics Problem?

“Tools, insatiable wants and the potential danger of ignorance place humans in a unique position of being able to alter their ecosystems in ways that jeopardize their own social and economic structures and processes. While any species could exceed its own natural ecosystem’s carrying capacity or diminish that capacity to the point of self-extinction, only the human species has both the will and capacity to jeopardize itself, as well as the will and capacity to avoid it.”

Farber & Bradley

What do you think? Have humans reached, or are they reaching the carrying capacity of the Earth? Is there a problem? Could ecological economics tools lead to a practical way to fix it? I’d love to hear your thoughts via the comments.

Who

If you want to dig deeper, main theorists in this area to check out include:

The field has been influenced on the work of several theorists (whose works have largely since been critiqued and updated) including:

Where

The Gund Institute for Ecological Economics

Where can you go to learn more about ecological economics? A good an easy start would be to check out this handy online e-book “An Introduction to Ecological Economics“.

In addition, there are some organizations that specialize in the study of ecological economics:

  • Gund Institute for Ecological Economics: Located at the University of Vermont, “The Gund Institute is a transdisciplinary research, teaching, and service organization focused on developing integrative solutions to society’s most pressing problems…”
  • The International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE): “Ecological economics exists because a hundred years of disciplinary specialization in scientific inquiry has left us unable to understand or to manage the interactions between the human and environmental components of our world…Ecological economics is based on the assumption that the economy is a subsystem of a larger ecological life support system. Understanding this relationship is central to meeting humanity’s current environmental challenges, as well as building a sustainable future. Ecological economists strive for an ecologically sustainable, socially equitable, and economically efficient future.”
  • The Canadian Society for Ecological Economics (CANSEE): “We recognize that economies of communities, regions, and countries are imbedded in and dependent upon nature’s capacity to sustain ecological goods and services for present and future generations. The CANSEE mandate is to promote an understanding of this reality through research, education and practice, and to inform policy development and decision-making in government, communities, businesses and other organizations.”
  • Ecolgical Economics (Journal): “The journal is concerned with extending and integrating the study and management of “nature’s household” (ecology) and “humankind’s household” (economics). This integration is necessary because conceptual and professional isolation have led to economic and environmental policies which are mutually destructive rather than reinforcing…”

Leaders in the Field – Partha Dasgupta

Partha Dasgupta

Partha Dasgupta

Taking the “start anywhere” approach, this is the first in a series of posts on leaders in the field of ecosystem services and natural capital.

I’ve chosen Professor Emeritus of Cambridge University, Sir Partha Dasgupta, to start because his work has been on my mind lately, and because of his outstanding contributions to the field of economics in valuing natural capital, or ecological economics. His recent CV, bio and some publications can be found on the link attached to his name above.

In particular, I found that his recent paper, “Nature’s role in sustaining economic development“, makes a compelling case for not only why, but how natural capital could be incorporated into economic valuation schemes. The paper is free and open to the public to read and covers some basics on economics, GDP, HDI, shadow prices, and a pathway to valuing the true wealth of nations.

Here is a list of some of my favourite quotes from the paper (my comments are in orange):

Some identify environmental problems with population growth, while others identify them with wrong sorts of economic growth. There are those who identify environmental problems with urban pollution in emerging economies, while others view them through the spectacle of poverty. Each of those visions is correct. There is not just one environmental problem.


In the quantitative models that appear in leading economics journals and textbooks, nature is taken to be a fixed, indestructible factor of production. The problem with the assumption is that it is wrong: nature consists of degradable resources. (This is one of my all time fav natcap quotes.)


Judging by the profession’s writings, we economists see nature, when we see it at all, as a backdrop from which resources and services can be drawn in isolation. Macroeconomic forecasts routinely exclude natural capital. Accounting for nature, if it comes into the calculus at all, is usually an afterthought to the real business of ‘doing economics’. We economists have been so successful in this enterprise, that if someone exclaims, ‘Economic growth!’, no one needs to ask, ‘Growth in what?’—we all know they mean growth in gross domestic product (GDP).


Why do not market prices reflect nature’s scarcity value? If natural capital really is becoming scarcer, would not their prices have risen, signalling that all is not well…The problem is that if prices are to reveal social scarcities, markets must function well. For many types of natural capital, though, most especially ecological resources, markets not only do not function well, often they do not even exist.


We can state the problem thus: ill-specified or unprotected property rights prevent markets from forming or make markets function wrongly when they do form. (See paper for a great exploration on property rights issues.)


Being underpriced, nature is overexploited. So, an economy could enjoy growth in real GDP and improvements in HDI for a long spell even while its overall productive base shrinks. (This was the case for Grand Banks until the cod collapsed.)


As proposals for estimating the social scarcity prices of natural resources remain contentious, economic accountants ignore them and governments remain wary of doing anything about them. (Time to change this.)


The ethics underlying PES are seemingly attractive. If decision makers in Brazil believe that decimating the Amazon forests is the true path to economic progress there, should not the rest of the world pay Brazil not to raze them to the ground? If the lake on my farm is a sanctuary for migratory birds, should not bird lovers pay me not to drain it for conversion into farm land? Never mind that the market for ecosystem services could be hard to institute, if a system involving PES were put in place, owners of ecological capital and beneficiaries of ecological services would be forced to negotiate. The former group would then have an incentive to conserve their assets.


Sustainable development demands that, relative to population numbers, future generations have no less of the means to meet their needs than we do ourselves; it demands nothing more. But how is a generation to judge whether it is leaving behind an adequate productive base for its successor? (One of the pressing questions of our time.)


The values to be imputed to assets are known as their shadow prices. Formally, by an asset’s shadow price, we mean the net increase in societal well-being that would be enjoyed if an additional unit of that asset were made available, other things being equal. As shadow prices reflect the social scarcities of capital assets, it is only in exceptional circumstances that they equal market prices. (This sounds important but I’m going to have to do more reading on economic theory to understand it!)


The value of an economy’s entire stock of capital assets measured in terms of their shadow prices is its wealth…It can be shown that an economy’s wealth measures its overall productive base…So, if we wish to determine whether a country’s economic development has been sustainable over a period of time, we have to estimate the changes that took place over that period in its wealth relative to growth in population. The theoretical result I am alluding to gives meaning to the title of perhaps the most famous book ever written on economics, namely, An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. Observe that Adam Smith did not write about the GDP of nations, nor of the HDI of nations; he wrote about the wealth of nations. It would seem we have come full circle, by identifying sustainable development with the accumulation of (comprehensive) wealth. (I’m seeing many similar references in other literature on what Adam Smith really mean lately.)


It should not surprise you that estimating shadow prices is a formidable problem. (I was relieved in reading this that I’m not the only one struggling with this concept.)


The figures we have just studied are all very rough and ready, but they show how accounting for natural capital can make a substantial difference to our conception of the development process.


So long as we rely on GDP and HDI and the many other ad hoc measures of human well-being, we will continue to paint a misleading picture of economic performance.  


The figures we have just studied are all very rough and ready, but they show how accounting for natural capital can make a substantial difference to our conception of the development process.


Development policies that ignore our reliance on natural capital are seriously harmful—they do not pass the mildest test for equity among contemporaries, nor among people separated by time and uncertain contingencies.

ES Players 1 – TEEB

This is the first of a series of blog posts to cover some of the major organizations that are working to value and protect Ecosystem Services. TEEB is one of the central sources of information that I refer to on this blog.

TEEB stands for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (@TEEB4Me on Twitter). It is a an international initiative study to “draw attention to the global economic benefits of biodiversity, to highlight the growing costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, and to draw together expertise from the fields of science, economics and policy to enable practical actions moving forward.”

The study that was initiated in 2007 and is hosted by UNEP and funded by the European Commission, Germany, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Japan. The study is led by Pavan Sukhdev (@pavansukdev on Twitter).

TEEB has already produced numerous publications via several reports on Ecosystem Services, in particular biodiversity, valuation and protection. These free reports can be found throughout their site, including the Synthesis Report of the study published in 2010, with applicable information tailored for various audiences including policy makers, local and regional policy makers, business, and citizens. Their compiled reports are also being published by Earthscan, with several books on the way.

Why put a price on nature?

“Should we put a price on nature?”

I’ve heard this question come up a fair amount recently in discussions here and there, so it seems like it is a topical one to cover. There are many tricky hidden barriers embedded in this question. So, if not addressed, this little point of inquiry can become a major stumbling block that prevents well meaning people from moving forward with integrating valuing Ecosystems Services (ES) into the way we do things. While we’ve piloted market mechanisms to lower carbon and put in other Payments for Ecosystems Services (PES), there has been a lag in mainstream uptake, and this little question just might be a major stumbling block in this uptake (well, aside from certain industry lobbying, disinformation campaigns, ignorance and climate change denialism).  I should know, because I stumbled over this one myself for a few years. (I can be a slow learner.) So, I think it’s worth unpacking and giving my two bits on. Hopefully this will open up some discussion on it, so please feel free to make comments below.

So, what are the embedded thought barriers in the question “why put a price on nature?” They go a little something like this:

  1. “Nature is priceless”: Nature has intrinsic value which makes it priceless, so it is at best trite and at worst ethically wrong to put a price on it.
  2. “Nature is bigger than us”: We are a part of nature, not the other way around. So we shouldn’t put a price on it because it isn’t ethical as it would be wrongly self-centered of us to do so, and because it just doesn’t make sense. Nature is bigger than us and our economic systems, so there is something wrong in doing this.
  3. “It will lead to abuse”: It is wrong to put a price on nature because it will be exploited by those with perverse incentives, like rich corporations did with water in Bolivia. They monopolized and put a price on what should be a free resource. People should have a right to fresh air and potable water. They, should not have to pay for it, especially not beyond their means.

Can you think of any other embedded barriers behind this question? Let me know if you do.

As far as addressing the above thought barriers, here are some answers that I have come up with for myself:

1. “Nature is priceless” argument

Now one could go all deep and philosophical on this question, but one can also address it by sticking to some reasonable basics. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is one of the activities that has launched much of the current work to value Ecosystem Services, hence advocating for ‘putting a price on nature’. As they have stated, we can value nature BOTH intrinsically and economically through some sort of  valuation system, such as the one below by the FAO.

larson-fig03_007

So, just because I deeply value the mountains and forested watersheds in my region, doesn’t mean that I cannot also condone putting a reasonable economic value on them to serve as a barrier to protect them from being externalized, and thereby depleted or lost.

Finally, let’s get real here. Let’s get to the point.

Humans HAVE ALREADY put an economic price on nature. We’ve done this for millennia as part of the very growth of our economic trade systems. What is the value of lumber, of fuel, of fish, of other wild harvested items? These prices exist, have existed, and will continue to exist unless one advocates for anarchy.

The whole point here it to put a value on the Ecosystem Services that have NOT yet been priced, and hence have been externalized from our ledger books. Economists made assumptions about these ES, thinking that they couldn’t be depleted. But they were wrong, and so we have not had appropriate market checks and balances to subside and stop extraction when critical thresholds of take either overwhelm a flow or reach the capacity of a natural resource to replenish itself.

In the quantitative models that appear in leading economics journals and textbooks, nature is taken to be a fixed, indestructible factor of production. The problem with the assumption is that it is wrong: nature consists of degradable resources. Agricultural land, forests, watersheds, fisheries, fresh water sources, river estuaries and the atmosphere are capital assets that are self-regenerative, but suffer from depletion or deterioration when they are over-used. (I am excluding oil and natural gas, which are at the limiting end of self-regenerative resources.) To assume away the physical depreciation of capital assets is to draw a wrong picture of future production and consumption possibilities that are open to a society. – Partha Dasgupta, 2010

So this isn’t really about the question of putting a price on nature or not. We’ve already done that. It’s about making better assumptions about how we do it. It’s about not being negligent on what we are factoring into the equation. We need to price the right things the right way so that we do not erode critical ecosystem services, deplete natural capital beyond the point of replenishment, and erode the future productive base of society.

2. ‘Nature is bigger than us’ argument

Yes, we are a part of nature. Nature’s systems are bigger than us. In fact, the history of scientific thought in the area shows that we used to also believe that nature was SO big and powerful that there was no way that puny humans could impact Earth’s systems. However, although scale is an important factor to consider, it’s not just about scale but impact.

So, we need to ask the question, “Regardless of scale, do humans impact Earth’s systems, and is our impact significant enough that we might deplete or destroy those systems?”

And the answer to that, unfortunately, is ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ and ‘yes’. Research over the last thirty or forty years has shown that biotic systems, and especially those biological creatures called humans, impact physical Earth systems in ways we just didn’t fathom possible before. Part of this knowledge has built up as a result of things like James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis feeding into the development of Earth Systems Science as a discipline. But mostly it has been supported by the incontrovertible evidence of the impacts that humans have made on the natural resources and systems of this planet. There is no denying that we have changed the face of the planet with our development, our agriculture, our cities, our mines, our natural resource extraction, our travel and on and on. And, in so doing, we have sometimes caused some serious impacts, including causing previously very strong natural resource systems to collapse, such as the cod on the east coast of Canada.

And then we have the additional things that add up in our global commons. Things like acid rain, the ozone hole, ocean acidification and eutrophication and, finally anthropogenic climate change. All, proof of principle that humans not only impact local to regional ecological systems, but that collectively we impact the large scale global systems on this planet–like climate. From local to regional to global scales, from boundary layers over cities, to recycling of rain over forest systems, to global warming due to mounting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we have and continue to change Earth’s climate.

And because humans have these impacts, we need to take time to understand them better, but we also need to take the necessary steps–with the information at hand–to be better stewards of the systems that we impact. We need to manage risk by preventing ecosystem services from depleted or destroyed. We did this with successfully implementing market mechanisms to mitigate acid rain. I believe we can also do it with tigers, with wild fisheries, with water resources and finally, and perhaps especially with climate. (And it’s about time our North American governments stepped up to the plate to put in regulations to do so.)

In not implementing market mechanisms (has anyone found any more efficient and implementable solutions than market mechanisms?) to address this significant risk, in operating as we have been, what are we left with? We are left with still externalizing from our economic books these losses, and jeopardizing what we once thought were unshakable and untouchable foundations of not only our future economic and social growth, but potentially life on this planet.

That’s just not a gamble I’m willing to take.

3. “It will lead to abuse” argument

It is a well established fact of history that we can be abusive. Many humans have, do and will continue to behave in selfish and destructive ways. We have to expect that with anything humans do, that some of them will cheat. But, we can also be creative, constructive and cooperative, and most of us fall into the latter category.  Society would fall apart if most of us didn’t follow the rules.

The key here is that while humans are being constructive or destructive, they use the tools at their disposal. I can use a hammer to build something, protect something, or restore something. But, I can also use it to destroy something or hurt someone.

So, we have to be careful here.

If we develop new tools to price Ecosystem Services, and those tools are used improperly and unjustly, then we need to ensure that we blame the humans that wielded the tool–not the tool itself. And we also have to adjust our systems to safeguard that the tool gets used appropriately and constructively, as it was intended. We need to adjust our regulations, put in legislation, have adequate enforcement and put in watchdogs.

So, what is putting a price on nature? It is just another tool. That’s all. A mechanism. And even if there have been cases of people using it inappropriately, its proper function is to restore and protect natural ecosystems while also working with and protecting local vulnerable communities, particularly indigenous peoples. So, we need to devise policies, including enforcement mechanisms, to ensure that the tool is used as it was intended.

So, I would argue to keep the tool, stop preventing its use because of abuse and take care of the perpetrators the way we do in other cases. And we need to do this soon because the business as usual scenario, with our previous tool kit… Well, it just hasn’t been good enough.

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