World Resource Institute

Decision Making for Ecosystems in a Changing Climate: Time to Mainstream Ecosystem-Based Approaches

By Heikki Toivonen, Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE)


Commentaries were commissioned by the World Resources Report to react to the Expert Perspectives series. This commentary responds to Question 4: Must we fundamentally change course to conserve ecosystems in a changing climate?


Ecosystem-based responses to climate change adaptation and mitigation have recently gained quite a lot of attention. Carbon reporting on land use and land use changes (LLULUCF) under the UNFCCC refers to the importance of ecosystems both in emitting carbon to, and sequestering carbon from, the atmosphere. In addition, REDD+, a suggested global mitigation mechanism, has potential to contribute to adaptation by improving local livelihoods, strengthening local institutions, and conserving ecosystem services. REDD+ has been welcomed with enthusiasm by the biodiversity community as a tool to find win-win situations that accommodate both climate change responses and the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, as reflected in the Decision on Biodiversity and Climate Change by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP 10 in Nagoya, Japan, in October 2010. Besides maintenance of ecosystem services, inter-linkages between climate change and biodiversity also have a central role in the revised Strategic Plan of the Convention for the years 2011-2020, adopted in Nagoya as well.

There is strong support for ecosystem-based adaptation (EBA). However, frameworks for design and governance or practical guidelines for implementation of EBA activities are largely insufficient as is the political and policy commitment.

The responses by expert authors to the WRR question posed – do we need to adopt a fundamentally different approach to conserving ecosystems and their services in a changing climate? – refer to challenges related to ecosystem services in the context of both climate change and human development. Specifically, they focus on the carbon cycle, the water cycle from the viewpoint of water quality and quantity, forests, and food production. The papers clearly point out the essential role that biodiversity and ecosystems have as the foundation for human societies. The secure flow of ecosystem services can significantly reduce social vulnerability, and conservation and sustainable management of ecosystems and their services can generate multiple socio-ecological benefits and also promote long-term approaches to climate change adaptation. It is also recognized that often the people bearing the costs for managing ecosystems are not the same as those gaining benefits from these ecosystems. This creates a strong argument for public investment to restore and protect ecological infrastructure.

The practice of the global economy is also discussed. Munang et al. demonstrate that emissions from ecosystems and due to human activity are increasing continuously while global ecosystems´ capacity to absorb greenhouse gases is declining. Our current economic models have led to a very severe market failure, where the resources underpinning human society are being degraded. Ecosystems are an undervalued commodity in the current economic model and process of political decision making. Authors argue for a radical change where ecosystem management must be given a primary priority to protect the vital ecosystem services we all depend on.

Regarding our current knowledge base, environmental management has been associated with varying levels of uncertainty, limited information, and risk. Knowledge limitations are tending to multiply as there is a need to increase cross-scale and cross-sectoral linkages in adaptation planning. Hence there is a much greater need for scientific understanding of biodiversity and ecosystem processes so as to identify their vulnerability and risk of exceeding resilience.

An important challenge in the context of EBA is the changing roles of stakeholders involved. Economic and societal development requires changes in the practices of public and private actors that have implementing responsibilities, and whose strategic and operational priorities are at stake. We have to recognize the need for adaptation of organizations and stakeholders to changing policy requirements. In practice, ecosystems-based adaptation requires new models of local and national governance that include multi-sectoral processes, stakeholder participation, and flexible institutions, such as policy networks. For example, improved analyses of the trade-offs between different land-uses are needed in order to better manage landscapes for reducing social vulnerability to climate change. Financial transfers from sectors benefiting from ecosystem services to sectors managing the ecosystems could be encouraged through EBA.

As food production dominates most of our recent land use globally I will refer to findings in the paper by Janet Ranganathan. Food production is a major force behind most ecosystem degradation identified by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and the challenges ahead are still greater in the pressure of rising populations and changing consumption patterns. Integration of climate change and ecosystem service risks in decisions, and reconciliation of food production and conservation goals should be done accordingly. The latter includes three major strategies: restore degraded lands, increase productivity on existing farmland, and manage demand for food (including changing diets), reducing food waste and advancing programs that encourage sustainable food production.

Some examples on new thinking are already given in the papers, as stated by Ranganathan: "The good news is that examples of tomorrow’s approach are already beginning to emerge. The challenge is to scale them up in a changing climate." We may want to add piloting projects of the REDD+ initiative to these examples. But how long will it take to make these approaches mainstream?

To sum up, ecosystem protection and valuation should be at the heart of economic and political decision making.