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We tend to be more aware of human dependence on nature than ever. The science of ecosystem services is rapidly advancing and concepts like natural capital and biodiversity are now commonly heard in everything from government buildings to corporate boardrooms.
The question is why this has not yet fundamentally changed decision making, and what can be done about it?
Not well suited
The answer is complex, but lies somewhere in the fact that our current economic and political systems "are not well suited to deal with the fact that global environmental changes and further population expansion threaten to undermine future prosperity."
This is one of the main conclusions of a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), published by an international team of scientists including centre researchers Thomas Elmqvist, Carl Folke, Belinda Reyers and Johan Rockström
"There is a fundamental asymmetry at the heart of economic systems that rewards short-term production and consumption of marketed commodities at the expense of stewardship of natural capital necessary for human well-being in the long term," the authors conclude.
Natural capital, defined as the world’s stock of natural assets, such as rocks minerals, soil, air, water and all living organisms, is where humans derive a wide range of ecosystem services which make life possible. With this in mind, it comes as a surprise that natural capital and ecosystem services are merely discussions instead of decisions.
After exploring more in detail why ecosystem service information does not adequately change current decision-making the authors proceed to suggest a path forward that emphasizes, for example, developing more solid evidence linking decisions, ecosystem services and human well-being.
They further suggest that scientists should work more closely with leaders in government, business, and civil society to develop the knowledge and practices necessary to integrate ecosystem services into everyday decision-making. Finally, they call for reforms that change policy and practices to better align private short-term goals with societal long-term goals.
"A growing number of cases suggest that incorporating natural capital and ecosystem service information into decisions is practical and can lead to decisions that secure a broader set of desired outcomes"
Johan Rockström, co-author
Perhaps the most difficult remaining challenge is to change the economic systems, which rewards production of marketed commodities but not the provision of non-marketed ecosystem services or the sustainable use of natural capital that supports these services.
The article lists a number of positive examples of how governments, organizations, businesses, and NGOs have begun to include natural capital and ecosystem services into policy and management. Examples include China’s "Sloping Land Conversion Program" for flood control, Belize’s incorporation of the value of ecosystem services in coastal zone management, the UK national-scale assessment of status and trends of ecosystem services, and urban planning and green area management in Sweden.
Despite this progress, the authors stress that we are far from mainstreaming ecosystem services and natural capital into everyday decision making on a larger scale.
"Incorporation of natural capital and ecosystem service information into diverse decisions remains the exception, not the rule," they write.
There are, however, some promising signs even on larger scales highlighted in the end of the article. The new UN Sustainable Development Goals is one example. The fact that the body of evidence on the value of natural capital and ecosystem services have advanced rapidly over the past decade is another.
The UN Secretary General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability and the Vision 2050 document of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development are also mentioned.
"Many important building blocks are in place for achieving sustainable development by active stewardship of natural capital alongside human, manufactured, built, financial, and social capital," they write
In summary, the group of 23 authors behind the study identify three key dimensions of progress:
1. raising awareness of the interdependence of ecosystems and human well-being
2. advancement of the interdisciplinary science of ecosystem services
3. some promising signs in the implementation of this science in decisions to restore natural capital and use it sustainably.
Guerry, A. D., S. Polasky, J. Lubchenco, R. Chaplin-Kramer, G.C. Daily, R. Griffin, M.H. Ruckelshaus, I. Bateman, A. Duraiappah, T. Elmqvist, C. Folke, J. Hoekstra, P. Kareiva, B. Keeler, S. Li, E. McKenzie, Z. Ouyang, T. Ricketts, B. Reyers, J. Rockström, H. Tallis and B. Vira. 2015. Natural capital and ecosystem services informing decisions: From promise to practice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112(24):7348-7355
Thomas Elmqvist is a professor in Natural Resource Management at Stockholm University. His research is focused on ecosystem services, land use change, natural disturbances and components of resilience including the role of social institutions.
Carl Folke is Science Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Director of the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. His transdisciplinary research focuses on ecosystem dynamics and services as well as the social and economic dimension of ecosystem management and proactive measures to manage resilience.
Belinda Reyers is the Director of the GRAID program (Guidance for Resilience in the Anthropocene: Investments for Development) at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which aims to synthesize the latest knowledge on resilience thinking, specifically in a development context.
Johan Rockström is a Professor in Environmental Science with emphasis on water resources and global Sustainability at Stockholm University, and the Executive Director of Stockholm Resilience Centre. He is an internationally recognized scientist on global sustainability issues, where he, e.g., led the development of the Planetary Boundaries framework.