Categorized | Paying for Conservation

Biodiversity as an ecosystem service: what to measure, how, and why?

The G8+5 recently released a report titled “Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature” that argues that the current financial system is fundamentally flawed – not because of the recent meltdowns, but because it does not account for the provision, use, or loss of ecosystem services such as clean air and water, flood mitigation, and natural pollination. It predicts that failing to address this problem will continue to harm not only ecological but also economic and social systems. The emerging ideas of ecosystem services and ecosystem markets represent interesting new thinking about the benefits provided by natural systems, how those benefits are represented in economic systems, and what kinds of policies and economic tools might be used to make sure they persist into the future.

One of the first and most significant challenges in this area lies in quantifying the services being provided. The sub-field of environmental economics has produced some innovative approaches to valuing ecological services, but assessing the value conservation land adds to local economies through property values or spending on recreation falls far short of describing what we lose when a natural area is degraded or destroyed. Emerging markets in water quality and carbon have helped to pave the way, but quantifying the value of biodiversity and other unregulated resources lags far behind.

As a result, a small cottage industry has sprung up recently around the creation of environmental metrics, tools for quantifying the ecological values provided by a particular area of land. We have participated in a few of these efforts, including the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, which aims to develop environmental and social metrics for agriculture and food processing and distribution systems. We are also working on an effort to create metrics that efficiently and effectively quantify the biodiversity outcomes of conservation lands. These metrics should be useful in efforts to integrate ecosystem services into market values, but it may also be used more immediately to describe the impact of conservation incentive programs or to measure the biodiversity value of lands being placed in conservation or affected by development.

Developing metrics for ecosystem services is a small step toward the fundamental shifts in economic systems that are described in the G8+5 report, but it may prove to be a significant step in improving the outcomes of conservation efforts on the ground. The ability to reliably measure the impacts of development and the outcomes of conservation actions can help make sure we gain the best results from every dollar spent on conservation, whether that dollar comes from government incentive programs, mitigation for development, or private investment.

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Sara O'Brien is the Private Lands Conservation Associate at Defenders of Wildlife. Sara’s work for Defenders focuses around biodiversity conservation on private lands. Her primary priority is to create and support non-regulatory tools that encourage private landowners to conserve and enhance wildlife habitat and manage their lands sustainably.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

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