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Science on the pulse: top reads from February and March Part I

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This post is part of a series called Science on the Pulse that highlights the latest literature on Ecosystem Services and Resilience.

It’s been a busy time for ecosystem services these two months! With so much good literature to share, there will be two Science on the Pulse posts this week. Today’s post captures the highlights of the past two months for the quick reader. In our second post, we will be sharing more juicy reads for the true ecosystem service enthusiast.

Zen Sutherland/ Flickr

On the ride to work this morning, it struck me the extent to which Science and Nature’s policy pieces and commentaries are dominated by systems thinking. I was also impressed by just how many of these pieces were authored by researchers and collaborators of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE). This speaks to the relevance of this work in the global development agenda, and the need to move ecosystem service concepts further into action.

Essential reading

One of our favorite pieces this time round is the Liu et al’s review published in Science’s this February on Systems integration for global sustainability. The piece calls for growing research on coupled social and ecological systems and uses three integrated frameworks – ecosystem services, planetary boundaries and environmental footprints – making the case that systems-based approaches can help understand complexity and interconnectivity. However, the piece stops short on the how, why, and where; to which we can look to a piece by Erisman et al. published in Nature this March.

Erisman and colleagues argue for the need to Put people at the center of global risk management by focusing on networked risks, rather than individual risks. They highlight the need to consider the collective impact of individual decisions, and how those decisions affect the greater, interconnected system. Unlike most risk-based approaches, resilience approaches focus on whole systems thinking, long-term security, indirect management and self regulation, and making use of, rather than controlling variability.

There has been a lot of literature on ecosystems flipping from one state to another as a consequence of anthropogenic drivers, but more research is needed to understand how these changes happen and how likely they are to occur. For example, in Regime shifts, thresholds and multiple stable states in freshwater ecosystems, Capon et al. found that sudden, non-linear shifts in aquatic systems are actually rare and that gradual monotonic changes are actually the norm. This has important implications for the way we conceptualize socio-ecological dynamics and manage aquatic ecosystems.

A nice example of socio-ecological research is: Coupled social and ecological outcomes of agricultural intensification in Costa Rica and the future of biodiversity conservation in tropical agricultural regions. Operating under the National Science Foundation’s Integrated Graduate Education Research Traineeship (IGERT), this paper was put together by a team of both social and biophysical students and their mentors (including WLE colleagues). The authors describe the impact of pineapple expansion on landscape simplification, livelihoods, and biodiversity conservation, and suggest that in order to “offset the effects of pineapple expansion on social and environmental systems, we recommend developing landscape level land use planning capacity”.

All the above papers support the notion that we are now in the Anthropocene – a proposed geological era that recognizes humanity’s impact on the planet and its feedbacks (read the debate in Nature about officially accepting this term). Steffen et al. provide revised evidence for the Great Acceleration in the Anthropocene Review (yes, there is such a journal!), highlighting differences between OECD and non-OECD countries that may be of particular interest to our readers. For those interested in lighter reading, Hillary Young’s book Adventures in the Anthropocene: A journey to the heart of the planet we made has received favorable reviews.

Decision time for ecosystem services

The impact of agriculture on biodiversity, and vice versa has been a continual point of contention. However, certification has had an important impact on a growing number of tropical crops, including coffee, tea, cacao and banana. Written by one of WLE’s partners, Milder et al. propose An agenda for assessing and improving the conservation impacts of sustainability standards in tropical agriculture, which pushes for robust evidence on how sustainability standards can maximize benefits for biodiversity conservation.

Bioversity International contributed to a similar study in Naeem et al., which calls for the need to Get the science right when paying for nature’s services. This study proposes six natural science principles and guidelines for Payment for Ecosystem Service (PES) interventions including adapting to dynamic processes, documenting initial conditions, recognizing trade-offs and synergies among services, tracking factors necessary for management, trade, forecasting and assessment; and methods for procuring data. A tall order perhaps, but we feel an important one.

Martinez-Harms et al., on the other hand, identify five core steps on Making decisions for managing ecosystem services, such as identifying the problem and its socio-ecological context, specifying performance measures and defining alternative management options. In relation to this, it is worth flagging Ntshotsho et al.’s work to identify What drives the use of scientific evidence in decision making? The case of the South African Working for Water program. We’ve all been frustrated by the challenges of scaling research to policy, and this paper highlights the importance of generating evidence through an iterative process. This also speaks to the changing role of research in development, as researchers become increasingly more active in development interventions.

Schindler and Hilborn provide a thought-provoking piece on Prediction, precaution and policy under global change. Correctly I think, they argue that predictive models are largely out of reach for environmental science due to the infinite number of drivers across an enormous range of spatial and temporal scales (even more mind boggling if you include social, political and economic processes!). Thus the role of environmental models are less about prediction, and much more about scenario planning to assist policy decisions.

Scheffer et al. bring the argument down to a more manageable scale, advocating a derivation of “think global, act local” in their article on Creating a safe operating space for iconic ecosystems. A lot of agricultural development work takes place in landscapes in or adjacent to globally iconic ecosystems and as the authors highlight, agriculture can be an important driving force for either conservation or degradation. The authors suggest that addressing local stressors is more conducive to immediate action than global control, as (1) incentives for local protection are stronger than those for global protection, (2) uncertainty around global processes such as climate change can lead to policy paralysis, and (3) positive rather than negative framing can generate action, rather than fear and disagreement.

We seem obsessed with indicators, from the Aichi Biodiversity Targets to WLE’s own project “Making Ecosystems Count in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”. An issue that we have run into however, is that: clean water is clean water, whether it comes from an ecosystem service-based approach or a treatment plant. What we’re learning however, is that the process is more important than the indicator. Maxwell et al. urge us about Being smart about SMART environmental targets, stating that we need to focus on the processes that lead to a target being met and set. The authors highlight the challenge of setting SMART targets for biodiversity loss and anthropogenic climate change (two critical planetary boundaries) because stakeholder values and interests are often “diverse and passionately defended”.

Speaking of the SDGs, the goals received a rather scathing review from the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC) in Sustainable goals from U.N. under fire, who say that only 29% of the 169 draft targets are well-defined, 54% need work, and 17% are non-essential. No sign of systems-based approaches and SMART indicators there.

On the other hand, we found the paper by Asensio and Delmas on Nonprice incentives and energy conservation enlightening. Their US-based study found that environmental and health benefits were actually the drivers behind an 8% increase in energy savings by households (19% of those households with human parasites: kids). As many outside the field still largely perceive ecosystem services to be about the economic valuation of nature, maybe we should be communicating more about the important livelihood benefits they bring (and related indicators) such as nutrition and health.