Peak ecosystem services

  1. Peak biodiversity recap
  2. Every extinction is like an organ being removed from your body
  3. How much is nature worth? Ecosystem services are worth about as much as the entire worldwide GDP! Some examples:-
    1. Forests = cheap water
    2. Salinity
    3. Bees
    4. Wetlands
  4. WHO is worried
  5. An IPCC for Biodiversity? Meet the IPBEC
  6. Legendary biologist E.O.Wilson says Ecosystem Services have been valued at roughly the entire world GDP!
  7. What to do about it?

1. Peak biodiversity recap

As we saw on the Peak Biodiversity page, the over-hunting of predators, over-logging of forests, and introduction of plague animals and weeds are wiping out various little plants and critters and even larger animals. Sometimes the loss of one species of lizard or frog or especially the top line predators like wolves or tigers can threaten an entire ecosystem!

2. Every extinction is like an organ being removed from your body

Ask yourself just how many organs you could lose. As Wikipedia says on the Ecological effects of biodiversity:

The two main areas where the effect of biodiversity on ecosystem function have been studied are the relationship between diversity and productivity, and the relationship between diversity and community stability. More biologically diverse communities appear to be more productive (in terms of biomass production) than are less diverse communities, and they appear to be more stable in the face of perturbations.

Each individual species that is snuffed out means a weaker ecosystem. In other words, as each species dies we are destroying micro-ecological systems that could eventually culminate in a macro-ecological systems crash.

Ultimately this could undermine the viability of our own economies and civilisation. As Scientific American writes January 2010:

After the nineteenth century’s great age of biological collecting, when collectors filled museums to bursting with stuffed birds and pinned beetles, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have proved to be an age of connecting. Biologists have begun to understand that nature is a chain of dominoes: If you pull one piece out, the whole thing falls down. Lose the animals, lose the ecosystems. Lose the ecosystems, game over.

As Scientific American says:

Three-quarters of the world’s food supply comes from twelve plant species, but those species are dependent on thousands of others: pollinators (insects, bats, birds), soil microbes, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and fungi. The tropical rain forests contain a pool of genetic diversity for important food crops, a source for vital new strains that can be hybridized to fight pests and diseases. Botanists are combing the planet for wild ancestors of soybeans, tomatoes, hard wheat, and grapes, believed to contain valuable genes for drought tolerance and other characteristics, but much diversity has already been lost. Genetic engineering alone cannot replace what hundreds of millions of years of evolution have given us. Wild replacements for pineapples, pomegranates, olives, coffee, and other crops lie in biodiversity-rich areas that must be saved.

3. How much is nature worth? Meet Ecosystem Services!

Ecological economics  measures the sheer economic value of ecosystem services. It asks the basic question, how much is nature worth? What would it cost to replace free ecosystem services with human factories doing the same thing?

As the World Resources Institute says:

Ecosystems provide businesses with numerous benefits or “ecosystem services.” Forests supply timber and wood fiber, purify water, regulate climate, and yield genetic resources. River systems provide freshwater, power, and recreation. Coastal wetlands filter waste, mitigate floods, and serve as nurseries for commercial fisheries.

What is the economic value of the fresh water purification that a forest delivers? What other services are supplied, other than the obvious? EG: A wetlands might be processing wastes and generating oxygen and trapping carbon, but is that particular ecosystem also a fisheries hatchery, spawning the young fish that might end up caught half way around the country or globe? And what is that worth?

In a world of rapidly depleting oil resources, what additional stresses are our economies going to face if various local extinctions finally cause a major ecosystem collapse?

Ecosystems affect your national bottom line, your GDP, your prosperity, your very hip-pocket nerve! There are many ways our economies are utterly dependent on a healthy environment, and enjoy nature’s gifts for free. One of my favourite environmental systems thinking groups is Worldchanging (apart from their anti-nuclear stance). Worldchanging summarises ecosystem services in four groups:

Provisioning services are the products people obtain from ecosystems, such as food, fuel, fiber, fresh water, and genetic resources.

Regulating services are the benefits people obtain from the regulation of ecosystem processes, including air quality maintenance, climate regulation, erosion control, regulation of human diseases, and water purification.

Cultural services are the non-material benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences.

Supporting services are those that are necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services, such as primary production, production of oxygen, and soil formation.

A:   forests = cheap water

The most famous example here would be of New York City’s water supply. Instead of building a US$6-8 billion plant as initially proposed, New York City decided to spend $1.5 billion to restore the watershed in the Catskill Mountains. This isn’t to say that the watershed is worth $1.5 billion; the project provides additional services such as carbon storage and recreational and cultural services at no additional cost. The point here is that decision makers saw that the Catskill watershed, if managed appropriately, could provide the same water purification services as the planned filtration plant, but at much lower cost.

B:   Salinity costa Australia $500 million a year

Australian farmers cut down trees to make space for agriculture, and so there was nothing to keep the water table at bay. Rising salty water has killed 2.5 million hectares of Australian agriculture. The government is worried.

“If nothing is done now, within 20 years Adelaide’s drinking water is predicted to fail World Health Organisation salinity standards in two days out of five…. For every 5,000 hectares of land visibly affect by dryland salinity, the economic impact will be approx $1 million annually. If nothing is done salinity will cost $1 billion a year by 2100.

It is estimated that at least 2.5 million hectares of land are already affected by salinity. This is five per cent of our cultivated land….

Preliminary findings from a four-year biological survey of the Western Australian agricultural zone indicate that salinity threatens the survival of 450 native plant species. Salinity has killed trees and shrubs in many wetlands in the wheat belt, and this in turn has caused a 50% decrease in the number of waterbirds using them. If all wetlands in the wheat belt become saline, well over 200 aquatic invertebrate species will become regionally extinct.

C:   Bees

Losing trees can also lose bees. Bees are stressed by climate change, and agricultural practices, and destroying further habitat means we’re losing our free pollinators. Alex Steffen at another Worldchanging:

If ever you needed a visual example of the value of ecosystem services, try envisioning an army of human laborers attempting to pollinate an orchard of fruit trees by hand, one blossom at a time. Absurdly enough, an alarming decrease of bee populations worldwide, known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), has some farmers hiring teams to do just that. …But the cost we’d incur if the buzzing workers disappeared has been estimated at anywhere between $14 billion and $92 billion in the U.S. alone.

D:   Wetlands

As the World Resources Institute puts it:

Unlike the impacts of climate change, biodiversity and the ecosystem services it harbors disappear in a mostly silent, local and anonymous fashion. This may explain, in part, why the devastation of nature has triggered fewer alarm bells than a warming planet. Once felled, dug up, polluted or filled in, however, such complex systems as rainforests, wetlands, coastal estuaries and mangroves are very difficult to restore…

… has compiled a database of more than 1,000 examples showing a high ratio of economic benefits to the costs of conserving ecosystems and biodiversity. In Vietnam, to give just one illustration, planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of coastal mangroves cost US$1.1m but saved the government $7.3m annually on dike maintenance. Environmental NGOs including the World Resources Institute are also developing information and tools to make nature’s services visible for decision makers, including business risk assessment, valuation, mapping, and indicators.

 Worldchanging documents more at their Series Introduction, Ecosystem Valuation 101, and Moving Ecosystems Services from Theory to Reality. Indeed, the World Wildlife Fund biodiversity project calls biodiversity the “Rock on which you stand”.

Ecosystems need their various species in balance the way our body needs its various organs functioning in just the right way. Everything has an important function, and the more species an ecosystem loses, and the more habitat that is chopped down or degraded, the more risk there is that we will lose the lot.

4. WHO is worried

As the World Health Organisation (WHO) said:

What does biodiversity mean for human health?

People depend on biodiversity in their daily lives, in ways that are not always apparent or appreciated. Human health ultimately depends upon ecosystem products and services (such as availability of fresh water, food and fuel sources) which are requisite for good human health and productive livelihoods. Biodiversity loss can have significant direct human health impacts if ecosystem services are no longer adequate to meet social needs. Indirectly, changes in ecosystem services affect livelihoods, income, local migration and, on occasion, may even cause political conflict.

Additionally, biophysical diversity of microorganisms, flora and fauna provides extensive knowledge which carry important benefits for biological, health, and pharmacological sciences. Significant medical and pharmacological discoveries are made through greater understanding of the earth’s biodiversity. Loss in biodiversity may limit discovery of potential treatments for many diseases and health problems.

Threats to biodiversity and health

There is growing concern about the health consequences of biodiversity loss and change. Biodiversity changes affect ecosystem functioning and significant disruptions of ecosystems can result in life sustaining ecosystem goods and services. Biodiversity loss also means that we are losing, before discovery, many of nature’s chemicals and genes, of the kind that have already provided humankind with enormous health benefits. Specific pressures and linkages between health and biodiversity include:

Nutritional impact of biodiversity

Biodiversity plays a crucial role in human nutrition through its influence on world food production, as it ensures the sustainable productivity of soils and provides the genetic resources for all crops, livestock, and marine species harvested for food. Access to a sufficiency of a nutritious variety of food is a fundamental determinant of health.

Nutrition and biodiversity are linked at many levels: the ecosystem, with food production as an ecosystem service; the species in the ecosystem and the genetic diversity within species. Nutritional composition between foods and among varieties/cultivars/breeds of the same food can differ dramatically, affecting micronutrient availability in the diet. Healthy local diets, with adequate average levels of nutrients intake, necessitates maintenance of high biodiversity levels.

Intensified and enhanced food production through irrigation, use of fertilizer, plant protection (pesticides) or the introduction of crop varieties and cropping patterns affect biodiversity, and thus impact global nutritional status and human health. Habitat simplification, species loss and species succession often enhance communities vulnerabilities as a function of environmental receptivity to ill health.

5. An IPCC for Biodiversity? Meet the IPBEC


As the World Resources Institute puts it:

Decision-makers lack the necessary information to accurately weigh the trade-offs among ecosystem services that stem from development choices…

… Just as they now weigh up economic and social factors, decision makers at every level of government and business should be able to answer the following three questions:

  • What ecosystem services do I depend upon?
  • How will my decision affect ecosystem services?
  • What is the condition of these services and how will this create risks and opportunities for me?

This may sound like a tall order given that the phrase “ecosystem services” is not even part of most policy makers’ lexicons. But urgently needed help may be on the way.

A proposal for a new body, modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is in the making. This week, governments from all regions of the world will meet in Busan, Republic of Korea, to decide on whether to establish a new Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The effort is championed by France and Japan – whose leaders have made it a personal priority – and strongly supported by environmental and conservation groups, including the World Resources Institute.

The new panel would provide a long overdue forum in which scientists engaged in research on biodiversity and ecosystem services and their links to economics and human well-being can provide policy makers and other stakeholders with the independent, authoritative, peer-reviewed scientific information needed to promote more sustainable, nature-friendly development. The panel would provide regular assessments of the condition of, and trends in, biodiversity and ecosystem services, and develop a common terminology and indicators. It could also organize information by biome, enabling research and exchange between scientists and policymakers for ecosystems such as grasslands, mangroves, woodlands, or deserts. Such a panel could also improve knowledge on the links between climate change and ecosystem change, and facilitate sharing of ecosystem management and climate change adaptation strategies.

The panel must bridge the institutionally divided worlds of environment and development. The information it generates must serve the decision-making needs of national ministries of finance, planning, agriculture, forests, fisheries and energy.

To be truly effective, however, the panel must bridge the institutionally divided worlds of environment and development. Rather than just preaching to the converted (environment ministries), the information it generates must serve the decision making needs of national ministries of finance, planning, agriculture, forests, fisheries and energy. In France, the ministry of environment is also that of energy, transport, and the sea. But in times of economic crisis, issues such as biodiversity conservation may be put aside, even where environmental ministries have a broader scope. The fate of ecosystems, therefore, does not lie primarily in the hands of the environmental ministries who will be at the table in Busan. Rather it is the world’s finance and development ministries who must learn, and act on, the lesson that mounting devastation of ecosystem services jeopardizes economic development goals.

How to ensure cross-governmental participation and buy-in is therefore the key question for countries gathering at Busan. The future health of the natural world, and humanity’s wellbeing, may depend upon it.


7. Legendary biologist E.O.Wilson says Ecosystem Services have been valued at roughly the entire world GDP!

(2 minutes, below)

How close are we to this? The World Resources Institute again:

However, human activities are rapidly degrading these and other ecosystems. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment— the largest audit ever conducted of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems—found that ecosystems have declined more rapidly and extensively over the past 50 years than at any other comparable time in human history. In fact, 15 of the 24 ecosystem services evaluated have degraded over the past half century. The Assessment projected further declines over coming decades, particularly in light of population growth, economic expansion, and global climate change. Left unchecked, this degradation could jeopardize future economic well-being, creating new winners and losers within the business community.

8. What to do about it?

Nature provides so many services for free, but we barely know how to count them. It provides answers, but we don’t even know how to ask the right questions. It inspires wonder and awe in most who bother to look, but our corporations squander it and our laws fail to protect it. This is simply unacceptable. It’s time to act!

We must learn to Repair Ecosystems! Please read on!

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