Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Forest Through the Trees: The Failure of the Ecosystem Services Model to Protect Nature at Scale

Money does not grow on trees: The problems of false equivalency

The aim of the ecosystem services model is to promote conservation and advocates argue that the profit incentive can protect the natural world. It is true that support for market driven solutions is pervasive and longstanding. Efforts to assign values to trees can be traced back more than 30 years.

In 1998, Edwin C. Franks and John W. Reeves published, "A Formula for Assessing the Ecological Value of Trees," in the Journal of Aboriculture. A variant of the ecosystem services model is called PES or payment for environmental services an example being natural capital accounting (NCA). This is an approach is supported by the World Bank and as they explained in a 2013 press release more than 60 countries have committed themselves to NCA. The World Bank has supported NCA through a global partnership called Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES) that includes the United Nations.

Five years ago the Global Economic Symposium, proposed the concept of a "New Economy of Nature," which advocates valuing natural resources. This is similar to an organization known as The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) who argue that we need to assign a value to address the "economic invisibility of nature."

The ecosystem services approach may be both well intentioned and ubiquitous, however, it is unlikely to deliver the desired results. As pointed out by Wilson, existing market mechanisms aimed at safeguarding the environment have not succeeded.

Wilson maintains that ecosystem services are inherently difficult to price and he is concerned that there is insufficient consideration of the rebound effect. Perhaps most significantly he explains that this approach ensures the primacy of economics over the environment.

How can we find equivalency between money and trees? Our entire economy is dependent on the health and well being of trees along with other flora and fauna. Without this there is no economic activity. Trees are part of an ecosystem that is the essential substrate of life. Assigning monetary value trivializes the actual benefits they afford.

As pointed out in the Redford and Adams study, we are cheapening nature when we frame it as a service provider fit to be incorporated into global capital markets. What value does money have if our air, water and soil are not conducive to life? Whether the assigned value of nature is 44 trillion or more than one hundred trillion really makes little difference. Any monetary valuation obscures the reality that money has no value on a dead planet.

Nature cannot be reduced to a commodity. We cannot monetize nature any more than we can monetize the intangible qualities that give life meaning. Anything we do that reduces the natural world to monetary values detracts from its priceless intrinsic value.

Putting a price on anthropogenic carbon emissions makes sense, putting a price on nature does not.

Why natives are better

Whether or not a species is native to an area matters for at least two reason. Trees that are native to an area have evolved to be able to better withstand the specific climatic conditions as well as other conditions and stressors that are present in a given area.

Trees that are relocated outside of their native ranges can have a harmful impact on native species and the wider ecosystem. For example although, the Norway Maple (native to Europe) possesses many qualities that make it desirable, it is actually a destructive invasive species in North America. While it is tolerant to drought, pollution, salt and other stresses, it threatens native species and ecosystems. First introduced into North America in 1756, this tree grew in popularity and by the 1800s, it was a popular ornamental tree. By the mid 20th century it was the most frequently planted tree in towns and cities. Now it is the dominant tree in many urban forests in North America. It continues to encroach on natural forests where its dense shade prevents young sugar maples from growing. Its shallow roots also prevent the growth of other plants, including grass. The Norway maple is susceptible to infection by a fungus called tar spot Rhytisma acerinum and it has trouble walling off and healing over a wound. These areas usually become rot pockets, reducing the durability of the tree. Its roots damage paving and sewer lines and they frequently have problems like Verticillium wilt, root rot fungus, and sun scald.

The economic and social implications of the ecosystem services with the most value

The most valuable ecosystem service as determined by the Tree Benefits Calculator is Natural Gas/Energy. This benefit is due to the fact that trees modify climate and conserve building energy use by shading, evapotranspiration and slowing winds. Strategically placed trees can thus increase home energy efficiency in both summer and winter. For example a 22 inch Red Maple in the North East, will conserve 127 Kilowatt hours of electricity for cooling and reduce consumption of oil or natural gas by 49 therm(s).

There are both economic and social implications associated with this model. While the Tree Benefits Calculator gives a 22 inch Red Maple a property value of $46.03 per year, CO2 and Air Quality are assigned much lower values. Climate change is arguably the most serious (and the most costly) crisis humanity has ever faced and trees play a vital role due to their capacity to sequester carbon. Although carbon sequestration is present in the Benefits Calculator, it can be argued that it is massively undervalued. A 22 inch Red Maple's CO2 benefits are only $1.54 annually yet it will remove 579 pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year. Air quality is only valued at $15.95 annually yet it will absorb pollutants like ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. It will also intercept particulate matter like dust, ash and smoke as well as release oxygen through photosynthesis.

Assigning a price to trees ignores their aesthetic, recreational, cultural, artistic, spiritual and educational value. The cultural importance and health benefits of biodiversity are explored in a paper by Natalie E.Clark.

An editorial in Conservation Biology titled Payment for Ecosystem Services and the Challenge of Saving Nature by Redford and William M. Adams questions how we assign monetary values to nature, who has the right to assign such values and who has the right to benefit. There are profound social repercussions associated with how we respond to these difficult questions.

As the Guardian, columnist and land rights activist George Monbiot wrote:

"When governments and PES proponents talk about employing marketplace solutions instead of traditional regulatory approaches, what they are really talking about is shrinking democracy, shrinking public involvement in decision making, shrinking transparency and accountability. By handing it over to the market you are in effect handing it over to corporations and the very rich…"

The implications for the world's poor are horrifying. Those who have contributed the least to the destruction of the natural world will be the most adversely affected. UNEP’s support for the commoditization of nature was criticized in a report by Mark Wilson at the Center for Sustainable Development. The report is called The Green Economy: The Dangerous Path of Nature Commoditization, and it addresses concerns about the social legitimacy of assigning a price to ecosystem services. Wilson explains that markets offer little protection to the poorest people.

Other ecosystem services

Although not present in the Tree Benefits Calculator, food may be a better direct measure of value. A 2017 study titled Contribution of trees to the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes by Edmundo Barrios et al, recognizes the importance of tree-mediated ecosystem services as a key feature "of more sustainable agroecosystems".

Trees can also promote the succession of vegetation and play a critical ecological role by supporting nitrogen fixation and pulling up groundwater to allow other plants to grow in an extremely dry conditions.

It is in the range of ecosystem services provided that give trees their value. Just as multiple ecosystem services are better than a single service, no single species of tree can have more value than a truly diverse forest. Research by Lars Gamfeldt et al titled, "Higher levels of multiple ecosystem services are found in forests with more tree species," refers to the complex interaction of different trees within an ecosystem:

"Importantly, no single tree species was able to promote all services, and some services were negatively correlated to each other. Management of production forests will therefore benefit from considering multiple tree species to sustain the full range of benefits that the society obtains from forests."

Trees are part of nature, part of a whole that cannot be meaningfully subdivided. The point being that we should be reticent to look to one ecosystem service or one tree species in isolation. The diversity of a forests is where the real value lies. So whether we are looking at ecosystem services or when we are planting trees we are better served by looking at the whole rather than a part.

The missing link: Changing consumerism and capitalism

Our rapacious consumer appetites make the commoditization of nature a very slippery slope. Burgeoning rates of global consumption threaten the survival of a wide range of species and habitats. Rather than create new markets we need to reduce consumption and review the cultural constructs that feed consumer behavior.

Our current economy is premised on growth and no measure of economic well being is more fixated on this notion than the gross domestic product (GDP) but as the Standford Social Innovation Review points out it has "increasingly apparent shortcomings".

Our economic system is premised on the idea that wherever there is a commercial exchange there will be those who seek to exploit that exchange in pursuit of profit. The ecosystem services model is no exception. We need to understand that greed is the crux of the environmental crises we face and we are doomed to fail if we premise our solutions on something that has proven to be so egregiously destructive.

No ecosystem services model valuation is capable of assigning adequate value to trees nor can we afford to compartmentalize. We need to conserve trees in all of their diversity. As explained in a Stanford Social Innovation Review, "without diversity of nature at scale, we lose the underpinning of all life on earth, including humanity."

The commoditization of nature leverages the same dangerous mindset that is responsible for climate change and the 6th great extinction. There is dubious logic to using a broken economic system to fix the problem. The more obvious solution involves changing our economic system to value the preeminence of nature.

"The green economy relies upon the discursive power of ecological modernization and our faith in progress to uphold a failing strategy of unfettered economic growth," Wilson says. "This discourse limits our capacity to conceive solutions outside the economic sphere. Achieving sustainable development will require a process of social change that could be facilitated by the acceptance that nature is more than just a form of capital."

Nature is the fundamental basis for all economic activity and as such it should be informing our economy.

We do not need an economy that assigns value to nature, we need is an economy that is based on values.


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Carbon Sequestration in Natural Forests vs. Monoculture Plantations
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