UN BOOSTS RESEARCH ON ECOSYSTEM SERVICES
(Forbes) - By Steve Zwick
The island of Hispaniola is split between two countries – Haiti and the Dominican Republic – each with more than its share of problems. Haiti’s are worse, and for myriad reasons, but one thing is clear: over its tumultuous history, Haiti has lost more of the living ecosystems that support its economy than its neighbor has, and this continues to cost them dearly.
The mangrove forests that once protected its coast, for example, are long-gone, leaving Haiti’s half of the island susceptible to erosion and tidal waves, as Alice Kenny points out in Haiti: The Slippery Slope of Ecosystem Degradation.
“Haiti offers a heartbreaking illustration of the devastating consequences of narrowly valuing forests for only the commodities they provide, food and fuel, while ignoring the wealth of environmental services and protection forests offer,” she writes. “Now as markets for ecosystem services – carbon, wetlands, and biodiversity – expand their reach, investors are exploring their potential to rescue a tree-starved Haiti.”
Trees, bees, bugs, and birds – they’re not just part of nature – they are part of our economy. Healthy forests and wetlands, for example, filter the water on which everything depends, and bees support agriculture – even as other bugs undermine it, and birds do a little of both. As Jared Diamond pointed out in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, countries that lose their ecosystem services usually end up losing their lifeblood as well. Over the past four decades, scientists from disciplines as diverse as botany, economics, and hydrology have come to understand the value of these ecosystem services and their impact on society and the economy. More recently, the TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) project has identified scores of situations where the short-term benefits of environmental destruction – such as the conversion of mangroves to crab farms – were more than erased by the longer-term consequences – such as the loss of breeding grounds for fish, which impacted both fisheries and coral reefs, and loss of protection against erosion.
Policymakers, however, need a more structured, methodological approach if they’re to incorporate the economic value of living ecosystems into their governance objectives, and the United Nations hopes to deliver just that with the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The platform was formally launched last week in Panama City, and will be housed in Bonn, Germany.
Details are still sketchy, but many have described the project as an IPCC for biodiversity – a reference to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which aims to distill the best research on climate change into periodic assessment reports and occasional updates.
The IPCC has become a lightening rod for activists on both sides of the political spectrum – with some claiming its assessments are too conservative, and others claiming they are too aggressive. IBPES will likely find itself in the same situation when it begins coming to unpopular conclusions — as it inevitably will.
I also suspect that IPBES will face a more daunting task than does the IPCC – for even though the global climate is complex and unwieldy, it has a degree of cohesion that fragmented but interconnected ecosystems do not. In some cases, IPBES may find clear connections between degradation and cost, but that connection will not always be apparent.
For now, IPBES has neither a boss nor a budget – although former IPCC boss Robert Watson has taken a leading role in its development. It hasn’t even set a date for its next plenary — other than to say it will take place early in 2013.
There’s plenty of reason to be excited about this project, but also plenty of reason to be skeptical. As Frank Forhies points out in The Launch of Yet Another Intergovernmental Biodiversity Platform, several other platforms have also been launched, and few have generated the kind of results we can get excited about.