Overstory #253 - The value of biodiversity and ecosystem services
Biodiversity and ecosystems deliver crucial services to humankind – from food security to keeping our waters clean, buffering against extreme weather, providing medicines to recreation and adding to the foundation of human culture. Together these services have been estimated to be worth over 21–72 trillion USD every year – comparable to the World Gross National Income of 58 trillion USD in 2008.
Human society is however living well beyond the carrying capacity of the planet and currently over 60% of ecosystem services and their biodiversity are degrading, compromising sustainability, well being, health and security. Environmental degradation is augmenting the impact of natural disasters such as floods, droughts and flash floods affecting 270 million people annually and killing some 124,000 people worldwide every year, 85% in Asia, and is, in some cases, even a primary cause of disasters. Degrading and polluted ecosystems are also a chief component in over 900 million lacking access to safe water. Poor management of activities on land and sea is further exacerbated by changing climatic conditions. In some scenarios loss of ecosystem services are depicted to result in up to 25% loss in the world’s food production by 2050 along with hunger and spread of poverty in many regions.
Restoring degraded ecosystems is a key challenge. Ecological restoration is a critical component in the application of an ecosystem approach to management. It is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed. It involves attempting to re-establish the ecosystem itself as well as targeting restoration of its services, such as clean water, to humankind.
Effective conservation is the cheapest and most optimal option for securing services, costing only from tens to a few hundred USD per hectare. However, protected areas cover only 13%, 6% and <1% of the planets land, coastal, and ocean area, respectively, and many are not under effective management. Of the remaining 80–90% of the planet, almost one-third of the world’s ecosystems are already directly converted for human activities such as for agriculture and cities, and another one-third have been degraded to some extent. With such levels of degradation, it is apparent that major improvements and efforts are needed to restore and manage ecosystems also outside protected areas at a much greater scale than today. Indeed, restoration costs range from hundreds to thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of USD for every hectare restored, or over 10 fold that of effectively managed protected areas. These numbers, however, are dwarfed compared to the long-term estimated costs of loosing these ecosystem services.
Well planned, appropriate restoration, compared to loss of ecosystem services, may provide benefit/cost ratios of 3–75 in return of investments and an internal rate of return of 7–79%, depending on the ecosystem restored and its economic context, thus providing in many cases some of the most profitable public investments including generation of jobs directly and indirectly related to an improved environment and health. Ecological restoration can further act as an engine of economy and a source of green employment.
A world wide survey of studies looking at restoration and conservation of ecosystem services shows us that conservation and restoration provides a highly profitable, low-cost investment for maintaining ecosystem services. Increases in biodiversity and ecosystem service measures after restoration are positively related. Restoration actions focused on enhancing biodiversity should support increased provision of ecosystem services, particularly in tropical terrestrial biomes. Conversely, these results suggest that ecosystem restoration focused mainly on improving services should also have a primary aim at restoring biodiversity.
Challenges of waste water management in rural areas, which produce over half of the organic contamination of waste water, can best be met by restoring ecosystem catchments, riparian zones and wetlands, the latter providing services of an estimated 6.62 trillion USD annually. Challenges of disaster mitigation and prevention from floods and storms are most effectively met by reducing deforestation of catchments, restoring wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs. Coastal wetlands in the US which currently provide storm protection services have been valued at 23 billion USD annually. In India, mangroves serving as storm barriers have been noted to reduce individual household damages from 153 USD/household to an average of 33 USD/household in areas with intact mangroves.
Challenges of land degradation, erosion, overgrazing and loss of soil fertility, pollination and natural pest control can be met through more sustainable land use practices and restoration. Exotic species infestations can in many case be addressed by restoration, including re-establishing more organic based farming systems. Organic farming systems have been estimated to provide at least 25% higher ecosystems services than conventional.
Improving the health and subsequent labor productivity of people suffering from water related diseases, currently filling nearly half of the Worlds hospital beds, can in part be met through restoration of catchments and improved waste water management. Restoration of wetlands to help filter certain types of wastewater can be a highly viable solution to wastewater management challenges. Forested wetlands treat more wastewater per unit of energy and have a 6–22 fold higher benefit-cost ratio than traditional sand filtration in treatment plants. Indeed, in New York, payments to maintain water purification services in the Catskills watershed (USD 1–1.5 billion) were assessed at significantly less than the estimated cost of a filtration plant (USD 6–8 billion plus USD 300–500 million/year operating costs).
Climate change mitigation and carbon sequestration can partially be met through conservation and restoration of carbon sinks such as forests, more sustainable agriculture and marine ecosystems. The proposed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) could lead to an estimated halving of deforestation rates by 2030, cutting emissions by 1.5–2.7 Gt CO2 per year at a cost of USD 17.2 billion to USD 33 billion/year, but with a long term benefits estimated at USD 3.7 trillion in present value terms. At a global scale, CO2 emission from peatland drainage in Southeast Asia is contributing the equivalent of 1.3% to 3.1% of current global CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuel. Conservation, restoration and reforestation of peatlands drained and logged for palmoil, timber or cropland are, along with restoration of mangroves and seagrass communities, important climate mitigation measures.
A set of guidelines are recommended to avoid pitfalls of restoration projects. These pitfalls include among others 1) Unrealistic goals or changes in restoration targets in the process; 2) Improper and partial restoration which creates monocultures with little ecosystem service capacity compared to reference sites; 3) Un-intended transplant of non-native invasive pests or species; 4) Lack of monitoring to ensure that restoration results in rising biodiversity and services in restored ecosystems; 5) Lack of reduction in the pressures that lead to the loss of ecosystems in the first place; 6) Lack of adequate integration of stakeholders and socio-economic issues.
However, as long as these pitfalls are given adequate attention, evidence from a diversity of ecosystem restoration projects across the world reveal positive results, typically restoring 25–44% of the original services and biodiversity provided in comparable ecosystems. Restoration can therefore together with conservation clearly improve damaged or previously lost ecosystem services with major positive effects on primary development goals in nations worldwide.
Surveys of user and public attitudes also reveal high payment willingness and public support to restoration projects. Restoration should therefore be considered an important component and in some cases partial solution to major societal challenges of development including poverty alleviation, labor productivity, generation of jobs and prosperity, health and disaster mitigation and prevention.
- Prioritize to protect biodiversity and ecosystem service hotspots, even when partially degraded, to halt further degradation and allow for restoration planning to commence. Conservation, within the context of spatial planning, provides by far the most cost efficient way to secure ecosystem services. This is particularly critical for areas with high degree of land pressures and development.
- Ensure that investments in restoration are combined with long-term ecosystem management in both restored and in surrounding areas to ensure gradual recovery. Overseas Development Agencies, International finance agencies and other funders including regional development banks and bilateral agencies should factor ecosystem restoration into development support; job generation and poverty alleviation funding.
- Infrastructure projects that damage an ecosystem should set aside funds to restore a similar degraded ecosystem elsewhere in a country or community. Payments for Ecosystem Services should include a proportion of the payment for the restoration and rehabilitation of damaged and degraded ecosystems. One percent of GDP should be considered a target for investments in conservation and restoration.
- Apply a multidisciplinary approach across stakeholders in order to make restoration investments successful. Wise investments reduce future costs and future public expenses, but it is imperative that the driving forces and pressures behind the initial degradation are addressed in order to secure progressive recovery and that local stakeholders become involved and benefit from the restoration process.
- Ensure that restoration projects take into account the changing world: Ecosystem restoration should be implemented in consideration of scenarios for change in a continually changing world, including climate change and land pressures. Changes in surrounding areas or in the prevailing environmental conditions will influence both the rate of recovery and ultimate restoration success.
- Restoration needs to address a range of scales from intense hotspot restoration to large-scale restoration to meet regional changes in land degradation. Degree of biodiversity restored is often linked to quality of services obtained and is intrinsically linked to successful outcome.
- Ensure that ecosystem restoration is implemented, guided by experiences learned to date, to ensure that this tool is used appropriately and without unexpected consequences, such as the unintended introduction of invasive species and pests and sudden abandonment of restoration targets in the process.
- Apply ecosystem restoration as an active policy option for addressing challenges of health, water supply and quality and wastewater management by improving watersheds and wetlands, enhancing natural filtration.
- Apply ecosystem restoration as an active policy option for disaster prevention and mitigation from floods, tsunamis, storms or drought. Coral reefs, mangroves, wetlands, catchment forests and vegetation, marshes and natural riparian vegetation provide some of the most efficient flood and storm mitigation systems available and restoration of these ecosystems should be a primary incentive in flood risk and disaster mitigation planning.
- Enhance further use of ecosystem restoration as a mean for carbon sequestration, adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. The restoration targets for sequestration includes among other forests, wetlands, marine ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes, and other land use practices.
- Improve food security through ecosystem restoration. Given the significance of food production and its relations to biodiversity and ecosystems loss, expanded recommendations are presented:
- Strengthen natural pest control: Restoration of field edges, crop diversity and wild crop relatives, forests and wetlands is a tool for improving natural weed, pest and disease control in agricultural production. This should be combined with biological control including establishment and facilitation of natural predator host plants and insects, enzymes, mites or natural pathogens.
- Improve and restore soil fertility: Research and Development funds into agriculture should become a primary investment source for financing restoration of lost and degraded soils, improve soil fertility and water catchment capacity, by investing in small-scale eco-agricultural, agro-forestry- and intercropping systems.
- Support more diversified and resilient agricultural systems that provide critical ecosystem services (water supply and regulation, habitat for wild plants and animals, genetic diversity, pollination, pest control, climate regulation), as well as adequate food to meet local and consumer needs. This includes managing extreme rainfall and using inter-cropping to minimize dependency on external inputs like artificial fertilizers, pesticides and blue irrigation water. Support should also be provided for the development and implementation of green technology for small-scale farmers.
- Improve irrigation systems and reduce evapotranspiration in intercropping and green technology irrigation or rainfall capture systems.
- Improve water supply and quality and wastewater management in rural, peri-urban, and urban areas through restoration of field edges, riparian zones, forest cover in catchments, extent of green areas and wetland restoration.
This article was excerpted from the original with the kind permission of the publisher and editor from:
Nellemann, C., E. Corcoran (eds). 2010. Dead Planet, Living Planet – Biodiversity and Ecosystem Restoration for Sustainable Development. A Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme, GRID-Arendal. http://www.grida.no
GRID-Arendal a centre collaborating with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), supporting informed decision making and awareness-raising through:
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