Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment

Well...its arrived.

After a lot of research and input, the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (a mini version of the MEA) has delivered its initial assessment of the value of UK ecosystems. This is quite a big deal, and represents the first scientific assessment of the 'value of nature' and the services it provides to society. I, like many others, tend to be sceptical about placed £ or $ on the value of nature. For me, the answer is easy - it is infinite. Without healthily natural systems and a function ecology, we are dead and there is no society. Easy. Or, at a different scale, if I'm asked to value my local beach where I grew up in Australia, where I regularly walked, surfed, swam and pondered, I would be hard pressed to quantify this in terms of monetary value. It means far more than that, it is a part of my heritage, culture and well being. The salt is in my blood.

However, that said, there is immense value in estimating ecosystem services and benefits. The overall finding rings very true:
"The natural world, its biodiversity and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to our well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in conventional economic analyses and decision making."
Despite my scepticism and inherent discomfort at valuing life, decisions are made that do not take into account the benefits of functioning ecosystems and the broader benefits they provide to society. In this world of cost and benefit, it is increasingly useful to balance the ledger books, and to make rational economic arguments that support conservation. To the reports credit, valuation of benefits is not purely in monetary terms - it recognises that values are as much social as economic. How these non monetary values stack up against economic arguments is yet to be seen, and will be interesting in the future in terms of pragmatic decision making and EIA.

How does do coasts and marine perform? The report identifies that these broad habitats provide a range of important functions, from provisioning services that supply resources to society, regulating services that underpin functioning habitats, and culturing services that provide a sense of place and wonder. Many of these services are in decline in coastal and marine settings, due to heavy use and exploitation, increased development, eutrophication and the impacts of climate change. While the report brings to light the benefits and values of coastal and marine services, it is clear the evidence base is narrow. Critically, we have to ask the 'so what' question - if ecosystem services are valuable and in decline in some areas, what happens next? Will they steer development or resource use decisions?

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