Though it is easy to forget in the city-centered 21st century, human well-being is utterly dependent on the natural world. To state the obvious, we cannot survive without fresh water, food, and fuel. Yet every day, countless decisions are made whose ripple effects will degrade or destroy the vital goods and services that nature provides to people.
Asian forests are cleared to boost timber exports leading to erosion and landslides and the release of stored carbon that fuels climate change. Over-grazing by goats reared to meet overseas demand for cashmere clothing degrades grasslands in Mongolia. Intensification of farming practices in northeastern France has led to reduction of pastures and forests that had filtered water, threatening the purity of the mineral water which supplies Vittel's global business.
Unlike the impacts of climate change, biodiversity and the ecosystem services it harbors disappear in a mostly silent, local and anonymous fashion. This may explain, in part, why the devastation of nature has triggered fewer alarm bells than a warming planet. Once felled, dug up, polluted or filled in, however, such complex systems as rainforests, wetlands, coastal estuaries and mangroves are very difficult to restore.
If the true value of ecosystems services - economic, social and spiritual - were factored into decision-making, wetlands, forests, and reefs would be viewed and treated very differently. For there is mounting evidence to show that the value of preserving ecosystems can far outweigh that of destroying them. Some companies - although too few - are also becoming aware that factoring biodiversity into their policies is important to their survival. The above-mentioned Vittel, for example, has launched a project to preserve water quality through the management of ecosystems and farmlands.
The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB), part of the UN Environment Programme's (UNEP) Green Economy Initiative, has compiled a database of more than 1000 examples showing a high ratio of economic benefits to the costs of conserving ecosystems and biodiversity. In Vietnam, to give just one illustration, planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of coastal mangroves cost US$1.1 million but saved the government $7.3 million annually on dike maintenance. Environmental NGOs including the World Resources Institute are also developing information and tools to make nature's services visible for decision-makers, including business risk assessment, valuation, mapping, and indicators.
Unfortunately, government officials, local planning authorities, international development banks, corporations and a myriad other decision makers rarely have access to such data and tools. As a result, they lack the necessary information to weigh accurately either the trade-offs among ecosystem services that stem from development choices, or the resulting consequences for people. And every day the world's ecosystems, and the essential life support services they provide us, are further degraded by human activity.
If we are to preserve the world's dwindling natural assets, accounting for ecosystem services must become second nature for decision makers. Just as they now weigh up economic and social factors, decision makers at every level of government and business should be able to answer the following three questions:
This may sound like a tall order given that the phrase "ecosystem services' is not even part of most decision makers' lexicon. But urgently needed help may be on the way.
A proposal for a new body, modeled on the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, is in the making. This week, governments from all regions of the world will meet in Busan, Republic of Korea, to decide on whether to establish a new Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The effort is championed by France and Japan - whose leaders have made it a personal priority - and strongly supported by environmental and conservation groups, including the World Resources Institute.
The new panel would provide a long overdue forum in which scientists engaged in research on biodiversity and ecosystem services and their links to economics and human well-being can provide policy makers and other stakeholders with the independent, authoritative, peer-reviewed scientific information needed to promote more sustainable, nature-friendly development. The panel would provide regular assessments of the condition of, and trends in, biodiversity and ecosystem services, and develop a common terminology and indicators. It could also organize information by biome, enabling research and exchange between scientists and policymakers for ecosystems such as grasslands, mangroves, woodlands, or deserts. Such a panel could also improve knowledge on the links between climate change and ecosystem change, and facilitate sharing of ecosystem management and climate change adaptation strategies.
To be truly effective, however, the panel must bridge the institutionally divided worlds of environment and development. Rather than just preaching to the converted (environment ministries), the information it generates must serve the decision making needs of national ministries of finance, planning, agriculture, forests, fisheries and energy. In France, the ministry of environment is also that of energy, transport, and the sea. But in times of economic crisis, issues such as biodiversity conservation may be put aside, even where environmental ministries have a broader scope. The fate of ecosystems, therefore, does not lie primarily in the hands of the environmental ministries who will be at the table in Busan. Rather it is the world's finance and development ministries who must learn, and act on, the lesson that mounting devastation of ecosystem services jeopardizes economic development goals.
How to ensure cross-governmental participation and buy-in is therefore the key question for countries gathering at Busan. The future health of the natural world, and humanity's well-being, may depend upon it.