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Ecosystem Services

Note: this post is a translation of the original article in Portuguese by Ana Carolina Addario, which appeared on Ideia Socioambiental. It is posted here with permission.

Ecosystems are responsible for diverse products and services for humans, as well as the regulation of climate and water and preservation of biodiversity, among other services---whether on a local, national or global scale. Given the importance of environmental services for economic activities, businesses are beginning to develop specific strategies and tools to integrate them into management practices.

According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, an evaluation that measures the state and trends of global ecosystems, environmental services have been degraded faster and more severely in the past 50 years than in any other period in human history. The evaluation predicts yet further decline in the next decades, especially in light of population growth, economic expansion and a changing global climate. Without action, this degradation could put future economic well-being at risk as well.

In order to demystify the relationship between ecosystems and business, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, in partnership with the Meridian Institute and the World Resources Institute (WRI), has released the Corporate Ecosystems Services Review. The methodology assists businesses in examining impacts, as well as dependencies, on environmental services as a way of understanding future risks and opportunities related to changes in the ecosystem.

According to Charles Iceland, associate member of WRI and author of the publication, we are entering an interdependent era in which business depends on environmental services to materialize production, and the environment also depends on the actions, such as conservation, of companies to continue providing natural services. “Businesses should begin to concern themselves more with their impacts on the ecosystem, as many of them depend on the availability of ecosystem services to carry out internal processes,” says the researcher.

Regarding Brazil, Iceland asserts that the principal measure the country should take would be reducing deforestation on behalf of its water reserves and the ability of its trees to neutralize carbon. “This is something that the global community is encouraging Brazil to address, which could bring in new revenue to the country through foreign investment for reforestation. Thus, forests could sequester carbon and mitigate the problem of climate change,” he says. However, Iceland points to possible obstacles to managing natural resources as a market strategy, such as changes in regulatory mechanisms as well as the lack of regulation in such sectors.

In legal terms, Werner Grau Neto of the Sub-Commission of Climate Change of the Environmental Commission of Brazil’s Order of Lawyers, Sao Paulo branch, and a partner of Pinheiro Neto Advogados law firm, notes that the judicial system is making important transformations in the areas of development, conservation and ecosystem management. According to the specialist, two important vectors are guiding these changes: businesses, now considering how, and not if, they should take sustainable actions; and the public, responsible for expanding the dialogue between economic production and environmental production. “We should stop putting anthropocentrism ahead of environmental issues, in that if the damage is to the environment, the repair is made for the individual. We’re entering a moment in which repairs are beginning to be made to correct damaging effects to and for the environment,” states Werner Grau Neto in an event held by Fundio in partnership with Alcoa to discuss strategies in relation to environmental services.

Other Strategies

Because of the necessity to protect the environment and operate strategically, businesses have perceived that conserving resources can create new opportunities to improve performance and generate profits, as well as strengthening a company’s reputation. As such, initiatives that reward companies or even agribusinesses that promote environmental conservation can be seen as effective incentives. As least that is what many companies find.

In the public sector, one such initiative was that of the Agência Nacional das Águas, or National Water Agency, and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). In 2007 these organizations established the Water and Forest Products program, with the idea of incentivizing rural producers to restore and maintain the forest on and near their properties. The program paid the producers for looking after environmental services, such as protecting water systems and resources used by farmers in the region. “The idea of this concept is to recognize that environmental services have a value to society, and from there, we can begin to reward those who protect, maintain or restore these environmental services” says Fernando Veiga, Environmental Services Coordinator at TNC.

To participate in the program, the proprietors must meet the following conditions: an intention to conserve or restore; a specified quantity of areas prioritized for water production on one’s property; conserved forests on one’s property; and residence within the limits of the project. The initiative aims to establish a dialogue between ecology and the economy, finding ways to value the care of nature and provide ecologically correct alternatives to a society accustomed to excess. “From an economic point of view, paying a premium to the producer is much more efficient than having to pay later to remediate problems arising from poor system maintenance. When the forest and its services don’t function well, the producer stops having to spend money to restore it,” adds Veiga.

Another very successful example in the realm of conservation and environmental services, but in the private sector, is Coca-Cola Brazil’s strategy to reduce the amount of water used in its beverage production. According to Marco Simões, Vice President of Communication and Sustainability for Coca-Cola Brazil, the plan to promote sustainable development for the company follows the 4 R system. The plan consists of reducing, recycling and reusing all of the water utilized in the beverage production process with the aim of not only guaranteeing the a water supply for the production plant, but for the local community that depends on the same resources for survival.

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