Why We Must Put Nature Back to Work

On March 19, The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its new report card on the condition of America’s infrastructure. Overall, our infrastructure in 16 categories ranging from bridges to water systems earned only a D+. ASCE estimates the United States needs to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020 to bring America’s infrastructure up to good repair.

Among these systems are several that are critical to reducing the loss of life and property from the growing impacts of global climate change. Dams were graded D; levees earned only a D-; waste water and storm water control systems also were given a D. Drinking water and energy infrastructure – both vulnerable to extreme weather events – received a D and D+ respectively.

The bad news is that the cost of bringing these engineered systems up to par comes at a time when government budgets at all levels are strained, if not in crisis. The good news is that some of the services we receive from engineered systems can be provided instead by natural systems if we restore and protect them.

Ecosystems perform a wide variety of important services for free. Trees provide shade, purify air and water, and store carbon. Wetlands regulate flooding. Coastal marshes buffer communities from storm surges. Forests and soils store carbon as well as water. Many of these ecosystems have been degraded or destroyed by human development. Now, communities need to put nature back to work.

I asked three of the United States’ premier experts on ecosystem services about these issues. The first is Keith Bowers, president of Biohabitats Inc. in Baltimore. Mr. Bowers is working on conservation, restoration and regenerative design projects across the United States, from Fairbanks, Alaska to the Big Cypress Swamp in Florida. The second expert is Dr. Bob Costanza, the ecological economist who coauthored one of the first assessments of the economic value of global ecosystem services. The third expert is Prof. Ed Barbier, a prolific author and blogger on the topic and a professor of economics at the University of Wyoming.

Bill Becker (Q): It has been our practice in the United States not to value things we can’t count – particularly things we don’t think have monetary value. A great deal of work has been underway in recent years to express the value of ecosystem services in monetary units so we can quantify their benefits in terms that everyone understands. What’s the status of that work?

Dr. Bob Costanza (A): In 1997, several colleagues and I made the first attempt to do this at global scale. We synthesized existing studies and produced an estimate significantly larger than global GDP. We estimated the global value of ecosystem services expressed in monetary units to be in the range of $15 – $47 trillion per year in 1995 dollars. That estimate has attracted considerable attention and discussion. 

We are now finishing work to update those estimates based on the significant amount of new data, methods and research that has accumulated. These new estimates are significantly larger, indicating that the more we learn about ecosystem services the more comprehensive our estimates or their values become. 

What do these analyses tell us? First, the ecosystem services concept makes it abundantly clear that the choice of “the environment versus the economy” is a false choice. If nature contributes significantly to human well being, then it is a major contributor to the real economy. The choice becomes how to manage all our assets, including natural and human-made capital, more effectively and sustainably.

Second, we should be clear that expressing the value of ecosystem services in monetary units does not mean that they should be treated as private commodities that can be traded in private markets. Most ecosystem services are public goods that cannot or should not be privatized. Their value in monetary units is an estimate of their benefits to society expressed in units that communicate with a broad audience. It’s also possible to express these same tradeoffs in other units, such as land area, energy, or time. 

However, using monetary units to express the value of ecosystem services can help to raise awareness of their importance to society and serve as a powerful and essential communication tool to inform better, more balanced decisions regarding trade-offs with policies that enhance GDP but damage ecosystem services.

Prof. Ed Barbier (A): Another important point here is how we define ecosystem services. A key contribution of natural resource economics has been to treat the environment as a form of capital asset, or natural capital. But it has been long argued that the concept of natural capital should not be restricted just to those natural resources, such as minerals, fossil fuels, forests, agricultural land and fisheries, that supply the raw material and energy inputs to our economies. Nor should we consider the capacity of the natural environment to assimilate waste and pollution the only valuable “service” that it performs.

Instead, natural capital is much broader, encompassing the whole range of goods and services that the environment provides. Many have long been considered beneficial to humans, such as nature-based recreation, eco-tourism, fishing and hunting, wildlife viewing, and enjoyment of nature’s beauty. However, natural capital should also comprise those ecosystems that through their natural functioning and habitats provide important goods and services to the economy. Such ecological capital is a unique and important component of the entire natural capital endowment that supports, protects and is used by economic systems.

Bill Becker (Q): So, while we might try to assign economic value to ecosystems, they are not the same as economic assets?

Prof. Ed Barbier (A): There are several crucial features of ecosystems that distinguish them from other economic assets. First, unlike skills, education, machines, tools and other types of human-made capital, we did not have to manufacture and accumulate our endowment of ecological capital; nature provided it to us for free.

Second, the provision of goods and services by many ecosystems is poorly understood, and their values are often not marketed and unknown. These include many important benefits, such as coastal protection, nutrient cycling, erosion control, water purification and carbon sequestration.

Finally, although like other assets in the economy an ecosystem can be increased by investment, such as through restoration activities, ecosystems can also be depleted or degraded, e.g. through habitat destruction, land conversion, pollution impacts and so forth.

The result is that, we have tended to “undervalue” ecosystem assets and the various goods and services they provide. As a consequence, we often overexploit ecological capital in the pursuit of economic development, growth and progress. The outcome may seem initially to be a gain, but as the ecological impacts and associated economic losses become apparent over time, it is less clear that the costs of irreversible ecosystem conversion and overexploitation are always worthwhile.

Bill Becker (Q): It sounds as though we’re making progress on recognizing the tangible value of ecosystems. How close are we to doing this routinely so that decision-makers take that value into account?

Prof. Ed Barbier (A): As Bob [Costanza] noted, substantial progress has been made in valuing many ecosystem goods and services, but our knowledge of many values is still limited. For example, for marine systems, valuation studies have largely focused on only a few ecosystem benefits, such as recreation, coastal habitat-fishery linkages, raw materials and food production, and water purification. In recent years, a handful of more reliable estimates of the storm protection service of coastal wetlands have also emerged. But for a number of important services, such as erosion control, flood protection, carbon sequestration and temperature maintenance, very few or no valuation studies exist. 

Bill Becker (Q): Keith [Bowers], in your work on the ground, have you noticed increased interest in restoring ecosystem services at the local level, or do you find that most communities remain uninformed about their value?

Keith Bowers (A): Yes and no. As a whole, most communities are uninformed about the value of ecosystem services and their direct impact on the local economy, culture and quality of life. For example, the state of South Carolina is contemplating opening up its coast to offshore oil and gas drilling, claiming it will create jobs and income for state residents. However the South Carolina coast is home to a huge tourist and fishing industry critically dependent of the health and integrity of its coastal resources.

The coastal wetlands and near-shore marine environment provide an array of ecosystem services, including fisheries and shellfish, nutrient assimilation, carbon sequestration, storm surge protection and recreation, to name a few. A healthy coastal ecosystem has the capacity to not only generate orders of magnitude more jobs then the boom and bust cycles of oil and gas extraction, but is also contributes to the health and vibrancy of the community in so many ways. Yet what is being proposed has the potential to severely impact those ecosystem services that provide the foundation for a healthy and resilient community.

What we are seeing though is a groundswell of people beginning to question policy makers and elected officials on the efficacy of making decisions like this in an ecological vacuum. People are beginning to make connections, for example, between the health of the tidal marsh and the availability (and price) of oysters, recognizing that untreated storm water running off their street contributes to the degradation of the marsh and the disappearance of oysters.

What is missing is a collective voice that rivals industry special interest groups.

Dr. Bob Costanza (A): One group trying to generate this critical mass is the Ecosystem Services Partnership (ESP), a global alliance of researchers, policy makers, and practitioners working on ecosystem services.

Bill Becker (Q): Keith [Bowers], are we seeing any innovative ways that cities are using ecosystems to solve problems? What are some of the innovative approaches you’ve seen and helped communities employ?

Keith Bowers (A): Our approach is about reaffirming life. Without life, a full diversity of life, we can never expect to have a thriving, healthy and resilient ecosystem. So we often ask, “Is what you are trying to do, in the way you are trying to do it, going to diminish life or is it going to embrace, protect and restore life?” We call this a living system approach.

For example, we are working with cities up and down the East Coast and Great Lakes on restoring oyster reefs to protect shorelines and wetlands instead of using rock breakwaters; we are restoring ribbed mussel beds and underwater sea grasses to improve water quality and increase habitat for juvenile fish, which in turn will provide people with more opportunities to go swimming, fishing and recreating.

We are working with wastewater plants to use constructed wetlands as part of the treatment process. These wetlands have the ability to remove nutrients, hydrocarbons and heavy metals from the wastewater, while simultaneously providing great habitat for migratory birds, waterfowl, amphibians and reptiles. And we are working with planners, landscape architects and engineers to reconnect habitat that has been fragmented due to past poorly conceived land use patterns, giving life and hope to many of the wildlife species that are disappearing from our planet.

(PART 2) 

Bill Becker (Q): Are there examples where ecosystems actually reduce pressure on local government budgets – in other words, on taxpayers? 

Keith Bowers (A): Yes. The classic example is the water supply system for New York City. Instead of upgrading and building new water treatment facilities, the City decided to invest in protecting the source of the water in the Catskills. As a result they have saved billions of dollars while indirectly protecting a whole host of ecosystem functions and services that are enjoyed by the region at large.

There are other examples around the world including the protection and restoration of mangrove wetlands that protect against storm surges along coastal areas while also providing the nursery grounds for the shrimping and seafood industry. We are also recognizing that tree canopy in urban environments modifies the microclimate and absorbs storm water, greatly reducing energy demands and the need for extensive storm water collection and treatment systems.

Bill Becker (Q): What cities are making the most effort these days to utilize ecosystems and their services? Who are the leaders?

Keith Bowers (A): Federal clean water regulations are driving many cities to begin utilizing ecosystem services to assist them with meeting performance criteria. It’s great to see that many cities are beginning to embrace what we call green infrastructure — that is, using natural systems and their processes to replace gray infrastructure – the pipes, roads, walls, and concrete that we have been using for the past 100 years. Cities with aging infrastructure are beginning to turn to green infrastructure as a viable, and in most cases, a cost-competitive and more effective alternative to conventional gray infrastructure. This is especially true when you begin to calculate the natural capital, or the ecosystem services that green infrastructure provides on top of its primary use.

Bill Becker (Q): With all their benefits, ecosystems need to be understood as assets in our states and communities. Has anyone done an inventory of ecosystem services? 

Dr. Bob Costanza (A): The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Geological Service, the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service all have programs on ecosystem services. The EPA is creating a national atlas of ecosystem services that will be useful at multiple scales. In addition, some cities are taking stock. For example, Seattle has completed a 3-year study of the benefits provided by its urban forest.

Bill Becker (Q): As you all know, rural areas also are important to protecting ecosystems. For example, forest lands need to be preserved for carbon sequestration. Poor farming practices deplete the fertility of our soils. Logging and tilling can cause runoff that increases flooding and water pollution. The national agriculture program is coming up for reauthorization again this fall. What changes do we need in national policy to make sure we’re not subsidizing the loss of rural ecosystem services? 

Keith Bowers (A): As Wes Jackson, the founder of the Land Institute, says, it’s all about soils. We need an agriculture program that fist and foremost protects the structure, fertility and regenerative capacity of soils to provide us with the food and fiber we need. We also need to consider the ecosystem services that rural lands, including farmland, have the capacity to provide.

We need to be taking a whole-systems approach, looking at not only what the landscape can provide with regard to food and fiber, but how it can do so in a way that supports a full array of wildlife species; protects wetlands, aquifers and rivers; restores wildlife corridors and regenerates ecological processes that contribute to soil health.

Bill Becker (Q): Are we seeing any progress in protecting ecosystem services worldwide?

Prof. Ed Barbier (A): Global ecosystems and freshwater sources are clearly endangered by current patterns of economic development. Over the past 50 years, ecosystems have been modified more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel.

The result has been a considerable decline in the economic benefits provided by ecosystems. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, approximately 60% of the major global ecosystem services have been degraded or used unsustainably, including freshwater capture, fisheries, air and water purification, and the regulation of regional and local climate, natural hazards, and pests.

However, we may be slowly waking up to the current global ecological crisis, given the recent, large-scale coastal disasters that have occurred worldwide: the December 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami; the 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the US Gulf Coast; the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan; and finally, last year’s Hurricane Sandy in the Northeastern United States. Collectively, these disasters are a powerful reminder of the vulnerability of growing human coastal populations to natural disasters, and the important role of coastal ecosystems in this relationship.

I’m singling out coasts because more than 123 million Americans live in coastal counties and the number is growing. That’s nearly 40% of our population that is vulnerable to climate impacts such as rising ocean levels and more severe coastal storms. We see the same vulnerability at the global level. There are a few points to keep in mind.

First, coastal human population densities across the globe are nearly three times that of inland areas, and they are increasingly exponentially. Thus as the human population grows, we are packing more people into our coastlines than ever before.

Second, many estuarine, coastal and marine ecosystems naturally protect coastlines from storm surges, wind, flooding, erosion and other impacts of storms, but as coastal development and populations expand, these systems are disappearing rapidly. Their resulting loss and degradation due to human activities is intense and increasing, such that 50% of salt marshes, 35% of mangroves, 30% of coral reefs, and 29% of sea grasses are either lost or degraded worldwide. Such rapid decline and deterioration of these systems are making coastlines more vulnerable.

Third, across all the cities worldwide, about 40 million people are exposed to a one-in-100-year extreme coastal flooding event, and by 2070, it will be 150 million people. Consequently, because of the growth of urban populations generally, and cities in coastal areas specifically, more and more cities are facing the growing risks of major storm events such as Hurricanes Sandy or Katrina.

Finally, the most vulnerable populations are likely to be in the poorest countries, and thus the least able to afford the risks and damages posed by coastal storms and floods. Around 14% of the population, and 21% of the urban dwellers in developing countries, live in low-elevation coastal zones that are exposed to these risks and damages.

Given these trends, there is an urgent need to develop a long-term strategy for investing in reducing the vulnerability of coastal populations to storm events. Such a strategy should have two primary features: protecting coastlines and populations to the risks posed by damaging storms, and restoring valuable coastal systems such as salt marshes, coral reefs, mangroves, sea grasses and sand dunes.

Once again, however, we are back to the crisis in ecological capital – without our understanding what we are losing as ecosystems are irreversibly converted, and the consequences for human welfare – then an import source of economic wealth is irretrievably lost, and as a consequence, the most vulnerable will suffer.

Bill Becker (Q): The vulnerability of populations that are least able to cope is an issue that seems to cut across climate disruption. Is there also a relationship between poverty and the loss of ecosystem services? 

Prof. Ed Barbier (A): When any form of wealth of an economy declines, it is the poor that suffer disproportionately more. The same is true for the continuing decline in ecological capital worldwide. Poor people in developing countries will be most affected by the continuing loss of these critical ecological services.

In my bookScarcity and Frontiers: How Economies Have Developed Through Natural Resource Scarcity, I argue that the world is entering a new era, the “Age of Ecological Scarcity”. The main development challenge of this era is the implications for global poverty. Exacerbating the problem is that, compared to past eras in human history, economic growth through exploiting abundant “frontiers” of land and natural resources will no longer be the means to improve the livelihoods of the poorest human populations.

The rural poor in developing regions tend to be clustered in areas of ecologically fragile land, which are already prone to degradation, water stress and poor soils. In addition, by 2019, half of the developing world will be in cities and by 2050, 5.33 billion people, or 67% of the population in developed countries, will inhabit urban areas. This brisk pace of urbanization means that the growing populations in the cities will be confronted with increased congestion and pollution and rising energy, water and raw material demands.

Although such environmental problems are similar to those faced by industrialized countries, the pace and scale of urban population growth in developing countries are likely to lead to more severe and acute health and welfare impacts.

Bill Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project and co-director of The Future We Want. Parts of this interview were extracted from a recent blog post by Prof. Barbier and an upcoming article by Bob Costanza.

Posted in Articles, Bill Becker, PCAP