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Leon C. Braat
The concept of ecosystem services considers the usefulness of nature for human society. The economic importance of nature was described and analyzed in the 18th century, but the term ecosystem services was introduced only in 1981. Since then it has spurred an increasing number of academic publications, international research projects, and policy studies. Now a subject of intense debate in the global scientific community, from the natural to social science domains, it is also used, developed, and customized in policy arenas and considered, if in a still somewhat skeptical and apprehensive way, in the “practice” domain—by nature management agencies, farmers, foresters, and corporate business. This process of bridging evident gaps between ecology and economics, and between nature conservation and economic development, has also been felt in the political arena, including in the United Nations and the European Union (which have placed it at the center of their nature conservation and sustainable use strategies).
The concept involves the utilitarian framing of those functions of nature that are used by humans and considered beneficial to society as economic and social services. In this light, for example, the disappearance of biodiversity directly affects ecosystem functions that underpin critical services for human well-being. More generally, the concept can be defined in this manner: Ecosystem services are the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems, in interaction with contributions from human society, to human well-being.
The concept underpins four major discussions: (1) Academic: the ecological versus the economic dimensions of the goods and services that flow from ecosystems to the human economy; the challenge of integrating concepts and models across this paradigmatic divide; (2) Social: the risks versus benefits of bringing the utilitarian argument into political debates about nature conservation (Are ecosystem services good or bad for biodiversity and vice versa?); (3) Policy and planning: how to value the benefits from natural capital and ecosystem services (Will this improve decision-making on topics ranging from poverty alleviation via subsidies to farmers to planning of grey with green infrastructure to combining economic growth with nature conservation?); and (4) Practice: Can revenue come from smart management and sustainable use of ecosystems? Are there markets to be discovered and can businesses be created? How do taxes figure in an ecosystem-based economy? The outcomes of these discussions will both help to shape policy and planning of economies at global, national, and regional scales and contribute to the long-term survival and well-being of humanity.
Elisabet Lindgren and Thomas Elmqvist
Ecosystem services refer to benefits for human societies and well-being obtained from ecosystems. Research on health effects of ecosystem services have until recently mostly focused on beneficial effects on physical and mental health from spending time in nature or having access to urban green space. However, nearly all of the different ecosystem services may have impacts on health, either directly or indirectly. Ecosystem services can be divided into provisioning services that provide food and water; regulating services that provide, for example, clean air, moderate extreme events, and regulate the local climate; supporting services that help maintain biodiversity and infectious disease control; and cultural services.
With a rapidly growing global population, the demand for food and water will increase. Knowledge about ecosystems will provide opportunities for sustainable agriculture production in both terrestrial and marine environments. Diarrheal diseases and associated childhood deaths are strongly linked to poor water quality, sanitation, and hygiene. Even though improvements are being made, nearly 750 million people still lack access to reliable water sources. Ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, and lakes capture, filter, and store water used for drinking, irrigation, and other human purposes. Wetlands also store and treat solid waste and wastewater, and such ecosystem services could become of increasing use for sustainable development.
Ecosystems contribute to local climate regulation and are of importance for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Coastal ecosystems, such as mangrove and coral reefs, act as natural barriers against storm surges and flooding. Flooding is associated with increased risk of deaths, epidemic outbreaks, and negative health impacts from destroyed infrastructure. Vegetation reduces the risk of flooding, also in cities, by increasing permeability and reducing surface runoff following precipitation events.
The urban heat island effect will increase city-center temperatures during heatwaves. The elderly, people with chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and outdoor workers in cities where temperatures soar during heatwaves are in particular vulnerable to heat. Vegetation and especially trees help in different ways to reduce temperatures by shading and evapotranspiration. Air pollution increases the mortality and morbidity risks during heatwaves. Vegetation has been shown also to contribute to improved air quality by, depending on plant species, filtering out gases and airborne particulates. Greenery also has a noise-reducing effect, thereby decreasing noise-related illnesses and annoyances. Biological control uses the knowledge of ecosystems and biodiversity to help control human and animal diseases.
Natural surroundings and urban parks and gardens have direct beneficial effects on people’s physical and mental health and well-being. Increased physical activities have well-known health benefits. Spending time in natural environments has also been linked to aesthetic benefits, life enrichments, social cohesion, and spiritual experience. Even living close to or with a view of nature has been shown to reduce stress and increase a sense of well-being.
Giles Jackson and Megan Epler Wood
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Ecotourism is an evolving field that originated in the 1980s, when leading conservationists explored and wrote seminal papers on how tourism could contribute to the conservation of natural areas. Hector Ceballos Lascurain coined the first definition, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and The Nature Conservancy all undertook research and documentation of the benefits and potential risks of ecotourism in the 1990s. The International Ecotourism Society, founded in 1990, brought together conservation organizations and businesses to create the first definition that was globally accepted in short form: Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.
Small group tour operators flourished during the 1990s, bringing travelers to a growing number of natural areas worldwide, together with top guiding, high-caliber interpretation, and strong ethical contributions to local wellbeing. Many important micro, small, and medium sized enterprises were founded in high biodiversity regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and throughout the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean, offering life-changing experiences while helping build conservation economies and inspiring positive action.
In 2015, nature-based tourism was estimated to have an economic value worldwide of hundreds of billions of dollars annually in protected areas alone, driven by the growing need of a rapidly urbanizing world to experience and reconnect with wild nature. However, this growth has not resulted in growing budgets to safeguard and manage natural areas, which are increasingly under threat. Scientific concerns that poor business practices under the guise of ecotourism might irreversibly damage fragile natural areas have led the conservation community to de-emphasize ecotourism as a conservation tool in favor of business certification. But these efforts have reached only a small percentage of the corporate sector of the eight trillion dollar global tourism industry.
Although the net economic, social, and environmental contributions of ecotourism have not been fully accounted for, the research to date has confirmed the conservation value of ecotourism—among the first examples of social enterprise. One well-documented case is Wilderness Safaris, an $89 million company operating in 58 destinations in Southern Africa in 2015, which reinvests at least 5% of its gross profit (before taxation and depreciation) to help protect the natural assets and support local communities on which the business depends. This example suggests that ecotourism can yield benefits for the conservation of biodiversity and can benefit local communities on a large scale. To increase ecotourism’s role in sustainable development, more businesses will need to scale up, and government management of tourism will require improved impact measurements, updated regulatory strategies, and effective policy mechanisms to garner a greater portion of tourism revenue.
Soil erosion by water is a natural process that cannot be avoided. Soil erosion depends on many factors, and a distinction should be made between humanly unchangeable (e.g., rainfall) and modifiable (e.g., length of the field) soil erosion factors. Soil erosion has both on-site and off-site effects. Soil conservation tries to combine modifiable factors so as to maintain erosion in an area of interest to an acceptable level. Strategies to control soil erosion have to be adapted to the desired land use. Knowledge of soil loss tolerance, T, i.e., the maximum admissible erosion from a given field, allows technicians or farmers to establish whether soil conservation practices need to be applied to a certain area or not. Accurate evaluation of the tolerable soil erosion level for an area of interest is crucial for choosing effective practices to mitigate this phenomenon. Excessively stringent standards for T would imply over expenditure of natural, financial, and labor resources. Excessively high T values may lead to excessive soil erosion and hence decline of soil fertility and productivity and to soil degradation. In this last case, less money is probably spent for soil conservation, but ineffectively. Basic principles to control erosion for different land uses include maintaining vegetative and ground cover, incorporating biomass into the soil, minimizing soil disturbance, increasing infiltration, and avoiding long field lengths. Preference is generally given to agronomic measures as compared with mechanical measures since the former ones reduce raindrop impact, increase infiltration, and reduce runoff volumes and water velocities. Agronomic measures for soil erosion control include choice of crops and crop rotation, applied tillage practices, and use of fertilizers and amendments. Mechanical measures include contour, ridging, and terracing. These measures cannot prevent detachment of soil particles, but they counter sediment transport downhill and can be unavoidable in certain circumstances, at least to supplement agronomic measures. Simple methods can be applied to approximately predict the effect of a given soil conservation measure on soil loss for an area of interest. In particular, the simplest way to quantitatively predict mitigation of soil erosion due to a particular conservation method makes use of the Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE). Despite its empirical nature, this model still appears to represent the best compromise between reliability of the predictions and simplicity in terms of input data, which are generally very difficult to obtain for other soil erosion prediction models. Soil erosion must be controlled soon after burning.
The emergence of environment as a security imperative is something that could have been avoided. Early indications showed that if governments did not pay attention to critical environmental issues, these would move up the security agenda. As far back as the Club of Rome 1972 report, Limits to Growth, variables highlighted for policy makers included world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion, all of which impact how we live on this planet.
The term environmental security didn’t come into general use until the 2000s. It had its first substantive framing in 1977, with the Lester Brown Worldwatch Paper 14, “Redefining Security.” Brown argued that the traditional view of national security was based on the “assumption that the principal threat to security comes from other nations.” He went on to argue that future security “may now arise less from the relationship of nation to nation and more from the relationship between man to nature.”
Of the major documents to come out of the Earth Summit in 1992, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development is probably the first time governments have tried to frame environmental security. Principle 2 says: “States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national.”
In 1994, the UN Development Program defined Human Security into distinct categories, including:
• Economic security (assured and adequate basic incomes).
• Food security (physical and affordable access to food).
• Health security.
• Environmental security (access to safe water, clean air and non-degraded land).
By the time of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, in 2002, water had begun to be identified as a security issue, first at the Rio+5 conference, and as a food security issue at the 1996 FAO Summit. In 2003, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan set up a High-Level Panel on “Threats, Challenges, and Change,” to help the UN prevent and remove threats to peace. It started to lay down new concepts on collective security, identifying six clusters for member states to consider. These included economic and social threats, such as poverty, infectious disease, and environmental degradation.
By 2007, health was being recognized as a part of the environmental security discourse, with World Health Day celebrating “International Health Security (IHS).” In particular, it looked at emerging diseases, economic stability, international crises, humanitarian emergencies, and chemical, radioactive, and biological terror threats. Environmental and climate changes have a growing impact on health. The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified climate security as a key challenge for the 21st century. This was followed up in 2009 by the UCL-Lancet Commission on Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change—linking health and climate change.
In the run-up to Rio+20 and the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals, the issue of the climate-food-water-energy nexus, or rather, inter-linkages, between these issues was highlighted. The dialogue on environmental security has moved from a fringe discussion to being central to our political discourse—this is because of the lack of implementation of previous international agreements.
Jean Louis Weber
Environmental accounting is an attempt to broaden the scope of the accounting frameworks used to assess economic performance, to take stock of elements that are not recorded in public or private accounting books. These gaps occur because the various costs of using nature are not captured, being considered, in many cases, as externalities that can be forwarded to others or postponed. Positive externalities—the natural resource—are depleted with no recording in National Accounts (while companies do record them as depreciation elements). Depletion of renewable resource results in degradation of the environment, which adds to negative externalities resulting from pollution and fragmentation of cyclic and living systems. Degradation, or its financial counterpart in depreciation, is not recorded at all. Therefore, the indicators of production, income, consumption, saving, investment, and debts on which many economic decisions are taken are flawed, or at least incomplete and sometimes misleading, when immediate benefits are in fact losses in the long run, when we consume the reproductive functions of our capital. Although national accounting has been an important driving force in change, environmental accounting encompasses all accounting frameworks including national accounts, financial accounting standards, and accounts established to assess the costs and benefits of plans and projects.
There are several approaches to economic environmental accounting at the national level. Of these approaches, one purpose is the calculation of genuine economic welfare by taking into account losses from environmental damage caused by economic activity and gains from unrecorded services provided by Nature. Here, particular attention is given to the calculation of a “Green GDP” or “Adjusted National Income” and/or “Genuine Savings” as well as natural assets value and depletion. A different view considers the damages caused to renewable natural capital and the resulting maintenance and restoration costs. Besides approaches based on benefits and costs, more descriptive accounts in physical units are produced with the purpose of assessing resource use efficiency. With regard to natural assets, the focus can be on assets directly used by the economy, or more broadly, on ecosystem capacity to deliver services, ecosystem resilience, and its possible degradation. These different approaches are not necessarily contradictory, although controversies can be noted in the literature.
The discussion focuses on issues such as the legitimacy of combining values obtained with shadow prices (needed to value the elements that are not priced by the market) with the transaction values recorded in the national accounts, the relative importance of accounts in monetary vs. physical units, and ultimately, the goals for environmental accounting. These goals include assessing the sustainability of the economy in terms of conservation (or increase) of the net income flow and total economic wealth (the weak sustainability paradigm), in relation to the sustainability of the ecosystem, which supports livelihoods and well-being in the broader sense (strong sustainability).
In 2012, the UN Statistical Commission adopted an international statistical standard called, the “System of Environmental-Economic Accounting Central Framework” (SEEA CF). The SEEA CF covers only items for which enough experience exists to be proposed for implementation by national statistical offices. A second volume on SEEA-Experimental Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA-EEA) was added in 2013 to supplement the SEEA CF with a research agenda and the development of tests. Experiments of the SEEA-EEA are developing at the initiative of the World Bank (WAVES), UN Environment Programme (VANTAGE, ProEcoServ), or the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (SEEA-Ecosystem Natural Capital Accounts-Quick Start Package [ENCA-QSP]).
Beside the SEEA and in relation to it, other environmental accounting frameworks have been developed for specific purposes, including material flow accounting (MFA), which is now a regular framework at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to report on the Green Growth strategy, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), reporting greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration. Can be considered as well the Ecological Footprint accounts, which aim at raising awareness that our resource use is above what the planet can deliver, or the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, which presents tables and an overall assessment in an accounting style. Environmental accounting is also a subject of interest for business, both as a way to assess impacts—costs and benefits of projects—and to define new accounting standards to assess their long term performance and risks.
Leonor Rodriguez Sinobas
Center-pivot irrigation systems started in the United States in the mid-20th century as an irrigation method which surpassed the traditional surface irrigation methods. At that time, they had the potential to bring about higher irrigation efficiencies with less water consumption although their requirements in energy were higher too. Among their benefits, it is highlighted the feasibility to control water management as well as the application of agro-chemicals dissolved in the irrigation water and thus, center-pivot irrigation systems have spread worldwide. Nevertheless, since the last decade of the 20th century, they are facing actual concerns regarding ecosystem sustainability and water and energy efficiencies. Likewise, the 21st century has brought about the cutting edge issue “precision irrigation” which has made feasible the application of water, fertilizers, and chemicals as the plant demands taking into account variables such as: sprinkler´s pressure, terrain topography, soil variability, and climatic conditions. Likewise, it could be adopted to deal with the current key issues regarding the sustainability and efficiency of the center-pivot irrigation to maintain the agro-ecosystems but still, other issues such as the organic matter incorporation are far to be understood and they will need further studies.
Global environmental change amplifies and creates pressures that shape human migration. In the 21st century, there has been increasing focus on the complexities of migration and environmental change, including forecasts of the potential scale and pace of so-called environmental migration, identification of geographic sites of vulnerability, policy implications, and the intersections of environmental change with other drivers of human migration. Migration is increasingly viewed as an adaptive response to climatic and environmental change, particularly in terms of livelihood vulnerability and risk diversification. Yet the adaptive potential of migration will be defined in part by health outcomes for migrating populations. There has been limited examination, however, of the health consequences of migration related to environmental change.
Migration related to environmental change includes diverse types of mobility, including internal migration to urban areas, cross-border migration, forced displacement following environmental disaster, and planned relocation—migration into sites of environmental vulnerability; much-debated links between environmental change, conflict, and migration; immobile or “trapped” populations; and displacement due to climate change mitigation and decarbonization action. Although health benefits of migration may accrue, such as increased access to health services or migration away from sites of physical risk, migration—particularly irregular (undocumented) migration and forced displacement—can amplify vulnerabilities and present risks to health and well-being. For diverse migratory pathways, there is the need to anticipate, respond to, and ameliorate population health burdens among migrants.
Marisol Rivera-Planter, Carlos Muñoz-Piña, and Mariza Montes de Oca
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.
While most attention on the use of economic instruments for environmental protection has centered on their applications in industrialized countries, middle-income countries have made important inroads as well. Among them, Mexico stands out for its application to the agenda of a wide array of green and brown issues. Starting in 2001, with the introduction of fees to access natural protected areas, followed in 2003, with the establishment of the Payment for Ecosystems Services program for forests, and then in 2014, the introduction of the environmental tax on pesticides, the use of complementary price signals through the fiscal system has sought to influence, in a decentralized manner, the decisions of both consumers and resource owners towards protecting key elements of Mexico’s natural capital. As the central promise from economic instruments is to reduce compliance costs of reaching a certain goal by providing flexibility on how to meet individual obligations, the use of market-based mechanisms in regulations has also been explored with some success in Mexico. Partial incorporation of such a mechanism was applied to the design of its national Federal Fuel Efficiency standards for automobiles, by redefining compliance as meeting a corporate average standard starting from 2006 onwards. More recently, full use of market mechanisms was introduced, in 2016, into the strategy to reach Mexico’s Clean Energy requirement goals. The demonstration by utilities of compliance with the milestone of the national 2024 goal of 35% share of clean energy in power generation can be done either by holding or purchasing Clean Energy Certificates in their secondary market. This allows utilities to separate the decision to purchase energy at the lowest cost, and to meet environmental requirements, also at their lowest cost.
Both tax and market mechanisms are converging with Mexico’s Climate Change policy. The Fiscal Reform of 2014 introduced Mexico’s first explicit carbon tax in the form of an excise tax applied to fossil fuels, just as its G20 commitments to phase-out negative carbon pricing (i.e., fossil fuel subsidies) were being fulfilled. With price signals pushing towards more energy efficiency and a lower carbon footprint for the economy, Mexico is on the right track for carbon pricing and is showing leadership at a global scale. It will be interesting to observe how this will mix with a proposed cap-and-trade carbon mechanism, obviously touted as a complementary instrument. The establishment of such a mechanism to meet the emission reduction goals of Mexico’s Climate Change legislation and international commitments is the subject of intense debate and analysis. It represents an interesting decision point for a middle-income country such as Mexico, where all costs are local in nature, the emissions per capita are at the world’s average, and indirect benefits of the energy transition are only partial. In the political economy debate, the linkage to international markets, such as California and Quebec, is not only an option but a central motivation to launch the market, as gains from trade are the driving force.
V. Kerry Smith
Geologists’ reframing of the global changes arising from human impacts can be used to consider how the insights from environmental economics inform policy under this new perspective. They ask a rhetorical question. How would a future generation looking back at the records in the sediments and ice cores from today’s activities judge mankind’s impact? They conclude that the globe has entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene. Now mankind is the driving force altering the Earth’s natural systems. This conclusion, linking a physical record to a temporal one, represents an assessment of the extent of current human impact on global systems in a way that provides a warning that all policy design and evaluation must acknowledge that the impacts of human activity are taking place on a planetary scale. As a result, it is argued that national and international environmental policies need to be reconsidered. Environmental economics considers the interaction between people and natural systems. So it comes squarely into conflict with conventional practices in both economics and ecology. Each discipline marginalizes the role of the other in the outcomes it describes. Market and natural systems are not separate. This conclusion is important to the evaluation of how (a) economic analysis avoided recognition of natural systems, (b) the separation of these systems affects past assessments of natural resource adequacy, and (c) policy needs to be redesigned in ways that help direct technological innovation that is responsive to the importance of nonmarket environmental services to the global economy and to sustaining the Earth’s living systems.