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ecosystem services

Creating Value Through Ecosystem Service Management in Urban and Suburban Landscapes

In this Issue Brief, we examine (1) how integrating ecosystem services into landscape management can increase the economic, environmental, and social values generated by managed landscapes for both private landowners and surrounding communities, and (2) how these considerations can be...

Brazil’s economy has been booming. During the past decade, it grew from the ninth to the sixth-largest in the world. While this growth has brought many socioeconomic benefits, it’s come with a downside: significant environmental impacts. Brazil has the highest rate of deforestation worldwide, while pollution threatens the country’s drinking water supply. Despite a decrease in national greenhouse gas emissions of late, agriculture emissions and energy demand are still rising.

Ensuring that development projects benefit both people and the planet is becoming more and more of a priority.

Environmental and social impact assessments (ESIA) have been in use for decades to consider the effects of projects such as dams, highways, and oil and gas development. Over the years, ESIAs have evolved to cover both environmental and social impacts, including health and human rights.

However, the assessments often study social or environmental factors separately from one another, missing the many ways in which they interact.

In 2012, important financial institutions--the International Finance Corporation and the Equator Principles Financial Institutions--took a welcome step towards promoting a more holistic approach to impact assessment, requiring their clients to address ecosystem services as part of their due diligence.

Incorporating the concept of ecosystem services into ESIA can ensure that affected stakeholders, project developers, financial, and governmental institutions understand the full scope of a proposed project’s impacts on people and the environment. But as I recently learned at the annual conference of the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) two weeks ago, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the concept of “ecosystem services” really means and how it can be applied to conducting impact assessments. It’s a good time to clear up confusion on this critically important yet complex issue.

This post was co-written with James Mulligan, Executive Director at Green Community Ventures.

Natural ecosystems provide essential services for our communities. Forests and wetlands, for example, filter the water we drink, protect neighborhoods from floods and droughts, and shade aquatic habitat for fish populations.

While nature provides this “green infrastructure,” water utilities and other decision-makers often attempt to replicate these services with concrete-and-steel “gray infrastructure”—usually at a much greater cost. Particularly where the equivalent natural ecosystems are degraded, we build filtration plants to clean water, reservoirs to regulate water flow, and mechanical chillers to protect fish from increasing stream temperatures. And even though healthy ecosystems can reduce the operational costs of these structures, investing in restoring or enhancing various types of green infrastructure is rarely pursued—either as a substitute for or complement to gray infrastructure.

Despite America’s history of reliance on gray infrastructure, now is a critical time to tip the scales in favor of a green infrastructure approach to water-resource management. Investing in the conservation and improved management of natural ecosystems to secure and protect water systems can keep costs down and create jobs. Green infrastructure can also provide a suite of co-benefits for the air we breathe, the places we play, the wildlife we share our landscapes with, and the climate we live in.

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