A low-key meeting organised by the UK National Ecosystem Assessment Secretariat saw the release of a new report last month. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment Follow On report was developed with support from Defra and continues the work instigated in the UK to respond to the 2006 Millennium Ecosystem assessment which led to the 2011 UK National Ecosystem Assessment report.
The most recent report covers a range of developments both corroborating and refining the models developed in the earlier reports and in so doing confirming the plausibility of the scenarios which they had presented. In particular the new report brings more evidence and outlines new tools to better assess various ecosystem services such as cultural services.
The report highlights the crucial importance on the Ecosystem Service Approach in policy and decision making. It highlights the difference in outcomes if policies are driven by this approach as opposed to being primarily guided by market forces. It also highlights the wider benefits of the approach if taken into the early stages of policy development and proposes a set of ‘Adaptive Management Principles’ to improve the uptake of the approach and to allow it to adapt to new knowledge as it emerges.
However key to success is the question of engagement and with the launch of the document shared largely among the experts its begs the question how the new approach will be understood outside the specialist circle? An Ecosystem Service Approach requires the input of all stakeholders who impact upon or are potential beneficiaries of the services of a given landscape. As a result farmer and fishers, private owners, central and local governments, NGOs the local community and other public’s such as tourists and recreation seekers are all significant audiences to involve. The Ecosystem Service Approach is about understanding all the benefits a landscape can potentially help support and optimizing these for people and wildlife and key to making informed solutions is providing the mechanism to develop a shared vision. One of the perceived barriers is linguistic, the ecosystem approach has its own jargon, but in an urban context this is being tackled by practitioners adopting and adapting to the language of developers, architects and planners. As a result we see the ecosystem service benefits re-framed as questions of ‘green infrastructure’ and how to ‘achieve multiple benefits’ from the incorporation of methods such as creating ‘rain-water gardens’, ‘green-roofs’ and ‘disconnecting down pipes’. This is a language which builds on and is accessible to the people – from planners to developers – who work in these urban spaces. As a result the ideas are increasingly percolating through the system; an approach which can be replicated elsewhere by understanding and engaging with stakeholders on terms they find familiar.
Another key concern is how in a multi-stakeholder approach initiative can actually emerge to push through change – rather than all the parties being reluctant to be the risky first movers and preferring to blame others for a lack of momentum. This requires more than good communications and developing a shared vision. A key issue seems to be ensuring the stakeholders do receive benefits. Why should a farmer-landowner improve his/her land to provide flood protection if this is at the cost of profits from food production? The system would not be effective it relied on good will and altruism. This is where Payments for Ecosystem Services PES -become significant – so that within the local system the benefits (of improving flood resilience for example) are supported by payments from the communities who benefit from this protection – potentially via their rates or taxes for example – so that as a result the farmer can make adjustments to his land management practices which provide this common good without being significantly financially penalized.
For the Ecosystem Service Approach to be effective it needs to look at the distribution of services at various scales – nationally, regionally and at local levels. Strategic but adaptive plans need to be created which are shared and supported in terms of their aims and then policies and approaches devised to effectively engage and reward stakeholders to support the development of the plan. This needs simple, practical working tools that are not an administrative burden and which will set out a vision that makes the Ecosystem Service Approach second nature.
The UK NEA Secratariat is hosted by UNEP-WCMC and is closely engaged with the Living with Environmental Change network.The synthesis report and the full supporting technical papers are located on the UKNEA website.