Taking account of ecosystems services

4th March 2013

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  • Natural resources ,
  • Biodiversity ,
  • Ecosystems



Experts from URS introduce the firm's new tool to integrate ecosystems services into environmental impact assessments

Ecosystems services were defined as “the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems” in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and they include provisioning services (for example, food and timber), regulating services (air and water quality regulation), cultural services (opportunities for recreation and tourism) and supporting services (soil formation and photosynthesis).

The wide range of benefits and values provided by ecosystems are felt by an equally broad range of people. At the local level, ecosystems services can directly support rural livelihoods, through fishing and farming for example, while at the global scale, ecosystems regulate our climate and support the diversity of wild species.

Businesses also benefit from ecosystems services through the use of inputs such as water and timber, as well as through protection from extreme events such as flooding.

Despite these benefits, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a global survey of the world’s ecosystems carried out in 2005, found that the majority of services have been degraded. More recently, a report from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, published in 2010, found that many have been degraded to such an extent they are nearing critical thresholds.

This has led to a growing shift in national and international policy, away from looking at the environment in the separate silos of air, water, soil and biodiversity, towards a more integrated approach based on entire ecosystems, and emphasising the environment in terms of the benefits that people and businesses receive.

In 2012, for example, the International Finance Corporation established a requirement for ecosystems services to be routinely considered in environmental and social impact assessments (ESIA). Other regulators are now beginning to follow suit and, most recently, the European Commission proposed to amend the European EIA Directive to include ecosystems services.

In light of these requirements, there is growing pressure on organisations to assess their impacts and dependence on ecosystems services. However, ecosystems services are complex and assessments cut across a variety of disciplines from ecology and hydrology to economics and anthropology. This can make assessments a challenging process, something which is reinforced by the lack of a clear framework for identifying services and quantifying impacts.

The absence of a clear assessment framework also creates difficulties integrating the ecosystems systems approach into existing processes and implementing reliable and verifiable assessments.

As such, there is a clear need for tools that not only allow users to assess impacts and dependence on ecosystems services, but also provide a clear framework for integrating these services into ESIAs and corporate or government decision-making processes.

In response to this challenge, URS developed a tool to flexibly integrate ecosystems services into impact assessments as well as to produce standalone assessments using a rigorous and transparent framework.

The ESIVI (Ecosystems Services Identification, Valuation, and Integration) tool provides a structured framework using a mix of qualitative and quantitative inputs to guide users through the stages of an ecosystems services assessment.

A detailed step-by-step guide breaks down each stage of the assessment into individual tasks and describes how it can be integrated into existing impact assessment processes. The ESIVI tool involves three key stages:

  1. Scoping – identify the key ecosystems services that a project may impact, or depend on, and filter out the services that are irrelevant.
  2. Assessment – establish the baseline provision of key services, quantify the project’s impact, and dependence on, these services and identify those that should be considered priority services.
  3. Mitigation – identify options to maintain or enhance the supply of priority ecosystems services using a three-step mitigation hierarchy.

The ESIVI process takes into account the services provided by ecosystems, the benefits these services provide, and the value of these benefits to people.

This focus on the benefits of ecosystems means there is an emphasis on consultation with local stakeholders to identify which services provide the most important services.

This approach also allows for an integrated analysis of ecosystems services based on input from specialists across multiple disciplines, including economists, ecologists, and social scientists. This encourages users to look at the wider impacts of a project and consider how various impacts interact.

Identifying impacts in this manner highlights the links and the trade-offs between different services, allowing the user to see areas where action can be modified to secure multiple benefits and enable cost-effective solutions to meeting lenders’ or ESIA requirements.

This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice.

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