Sub-global assessments: Tools and techniques for undertaking and using ecosystem assessments

IUCN World Conservation Congress, September 11, 2012

Organizer: UNEP-WCMC, TEEB, Ecosystem Service Partnership (ESP), Natural Capital Project

Report by Johannes Förster (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ)

This training event was part of the Conservation Campus at the IUCN World Conservation Congress and organized by partners of the Sub-Global Assessment (SGA) Network. The SGA Network evolved from the regional assessments of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and supports the capacity building of practitioners for designing and undertaking ecosystem assessments in ways that they can provide relevant and credible information to decision makers on the role of biodiversity and ecosystem services for human wellbeing. Experiences and lessons learned are not only shared among practitioners but the SGA Network is also aiming at supporting and informing global processes such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The training event provided an overview of tools and techniques for the assessment of the biophysical characteristics and socio-economic values of ecosystem services. The model InVEST – Integrated Valuation of Environmental Services and Tradeoffs – was introduced by Gregg Verutes and Choong-Ki Kim from the Natural Capital Project. Its use for informing decision making was explained with the help of case studies on spatial planning onSumatra,Indonesia and the analysis of coastal and marine ecosystems at the west coast ofCanada. As part of the practical training participants were using maps from these two case studies  for identifying areas that are of high value for providing ecosystem services, potential stakeholder that benefit from these services, and assessing synergies and trade-offs between different management options.

Participants also tested a participatory mapping exercise using a map of the coast ofBelize. Areas for coastal development and fishery were identified, synergies and trade-offs described and potential conflicts among stakeholder groups and potential solutions were explored. Participants also gained hands on experience in using the InVEST tool and got an overview of its potential application.

Lessons learned included: 1) The process of creating models and maps for assessing ecosystem services is very helpful for assessing ecosystem services as they can show how changes in land use (scenarios) might affect different stakeholder groups; 2) In order to produce meaningful information, local stakeholders need to be involved in the entire process right from the beginning; 3) Models and maps are a simplification of reality and involve uncertainties. Therefore, decision makers need to be also aware of the information that cannot be shown on maps; 4) Even if the assessment produces meaningful and scientifically credible results, it does not mean that it will be taken into account in decision making. Leadership is crucial for translating knowledge into action. 5) Maps and models can be a very good communications tool in both the assessment process itself and in the decision making process.

Pavan Sukhdev gave an introduction to the genesis of TEEB – The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity and pointed out that valuing nature is a human institution as valuation is practiced by individuals or communities in everyday decisions. Valuation does not necessarily happen in monetary terms but can be expressed in non-monetary terms such as input of time, labor and distributional aspects.

However, in our current economic system dependencies and links between economy and biodiversity and ecosystem services are often neglected and valued at zero, causing overexploitation and degradation. Therefore, the TEEB approach is about: A) recognizing the links between economy and nature and the value nature provides for economy; B) demonstrating the multiple values of nature in monetary and non-monetary terms, e.g. through certification or by integrating the value of biodiversity and ecosystem services into national and international accounting, policies and regulations; and C) capturing these values in policies and decision making through establishing specific mechanisms such as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes.

In order to successfully integrate the value of biodiversity and ecosystem services in decision making it is crucial to target the information needs and policy priorities of decision makers and provide them with relevant data and alternative options. The TEEB six-step approach provides basic but crucial guidance for this (see TEEB for Local and Regional Policy Makers).

After the introduction to TEEB Vanja Westerberg from IUCN presented different valuation methods. A case study on the perception of the value of wetlands by a local community inFranceshowed, that people valued biodiversity and ecosystem services of wetlands (e.g. bird watching and recreational use) higher than decision makers thought and therefore, restoration activities of wetlands would be supported by local communities. Participants of the event had the opportunity to undertake a choice experiment themselves which helped the discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of some of the methods.

Lessons learned included: 1) Valuation (in non-monetary and monetary terms) can help to reveal unexpected benefits of biodiversity and ecosystem services and inform decision making; 2) Economic valuation involves uncertainties which need to be taken into account in decision making. However, as nature is currently often valued at zero it is better to be “incorrectly right than completely wrong”; 3) Choice experiments and willingness to pay studies need to be adapted to the specific ecosystem, cultural and socio-economic context in order to generate useful information. Therefore, 4) benefit transfer should be applied with caution using studies that use similar methods for the same ecosystem.

Overall participants regarded the training to be successful in informing practitioners about how to design an ecosystem assessment so that it can provide meaningful information on the value of biodiversity and ecosystem services to decision makers. Furthermore, the space provided for discussions allowed also participants to share their rich experiences and explore how the presented tools and techniques could be adapted to fit their specific local context.

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