Rio+20’s sustainable development discussions must adapt to consider ecosystem services

BOGOR, Indonesia (14 March, 2012)_The invisible services that forests provide – such as recharging groundwater and preventing soil erosion– should be actively harnessed as a means to adapt to the effects of climate change, but risk being overlooked after the absence of ecosystem services from Rio+20 preparation documents.

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Ficus sycomorus, a desert tree widely distributed in Africa and parts of Asia, showing both the extent of soil erosion and the species’ ability to tolerate such changes. Photo courtesy of Bioversity International/flickr.

BOGOR, Indonesia (14 March, 2012)_The invisible services that forests provide – such as recharging groundwater and preventing soil erosion– should be actively harnessed as a means to adapt to the effects of climate change, but risk being overlooked after the absence of ecosystem services from Rio+20 preparation documents.

“Adaptation to climate change is central to Rio’s central theme of sustainable development. One of the critical questions for sustainable development is: how can we sustain development in a changing climate and under increasing climate threats?” said Bruno Locatelli, CIRAD scientist, seconded to CIFOR’s Forests and Environment Programme and co-author of Ecosystem Services in the National Adaptation Programmes of Action published in Climate Policy.

“However, there is a risk that adaptation might not surface as an over-arching critical issue in at Rio+20, as it is not really mentioned in the zero outcome document.”

Ecologists and conservationists have studied and advocated for the protection of ‘ecosystem services’ – the benefits that ecosystems provide to people – for decades.

“But the concept of using ecosystem services to help us adapt to climate change is a relatively new approach,” said Emilia Pramova, CIFOR scientist and study co-author.

Water, disasters and food have been highlighted as three of the seven critical issues for new sustainable development goals that will be released in Rio+20, all of which are heavily impacted by ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are also essential to the main theme of Rio+20: the green economy for sustainable development, say Pramova and Locatelli. They share CIFOR Principal Scientist Louis Verchot’s concern that forests are underrepresented in the Rio+20 issue briefs.

“Forest ecosystem services are central to human well-being, and we cannot have sustainable development without a sustainable delivery of services from ecosystems. Thus we cannot think about the issues that will be discussed at Rio+20 such as the green economy, or food security, without considering ecosystem services,” Locatelli said.

“However, it is encouraging to see that a number of international organisations and countries have made submissions on adaptation, and on vulnerability, poverty reduction, resilience and ecosystem services. The challenge will be to bring everything together under an integrated framework for development.”

The study examined the National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) of  the world’s 44 least developed countries – which are also, not coincidentally, those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as desertification, drought, rising sea levels and crop failures.

NAPAs were established at the Seventh Session of the Conference of Parties (COP 7) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Marrakesh in 2002, as a means for the world’s least developed countries to identify the most pressing areas in which each country needs to adapt to climate change, such as water shortages in arid countries, or rising sea levels in small island nations. By August 2010, 44 of these countries had submitted their NAPAs to the UNFCCC Secretariat — the first national adaptation planning exercise for these countries.

Locatelli and Pramova’s analysis found that while over half of these national plans acknowledge the importance of ecosystem services, few do so with the view that ecosystem services be explicitly used as a means to adapt to climate change. Moreover, the availability of knowledge, resources and finance to adequately protect these services is universally lacking.

More than mere stands of trees, forests help cool the climate, prevent desertification, recharge groundwater, control soil erosion, purify water, and provide for local people with food, medicine, fuel, shelter, food, income and benefits from tourism.

Policy makers should actively look to work these services into their plans for climate change adaptation, said Pramova, such as by reforesting mangrove forests to protect against saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels in Bangladesh, or harnessing the natural capacity of forests as protection from natural disasters such as storms, floods and hurricanes in Caribbean countries.

Pramova says the key lies in harnessing ecosystem services explicitly for the well-being of local populations and to reduce social vulnerability. She and her co-authors use the Convention on Biological Diversity’s definition of ecosystem-based adaptation, which describes ecosystem-based adaptation “as part of an overall adaptation strategy to help people adapt to the adverse effects of climate change”.

Moreover, by focusing on the benefits to people’s lives and livelihoods, working with ecosystem services for adaptation has the capacity to bring a number of sectors together, in development and in conservation, for the achievement of the same goals.

“We want to instead think about how we could elaborate the principles and guidelines for ecosystem based adaptation in a ways that doesn’t scare off the development community,” Pramova said.

“Ecosystem-based adaptation focuses on people, but also recognizes that we need to minimize the degradation of ecosystems so that they can continue to provide services to support our well-being and our ability to face climate change,” Locatelli elaborated.

But 15 of the 44 NAPAs make no mention whatsoever of the importance of ecosystem services. Of the 468 projects defined in the NAPAs, 144 consider ecosystems but 37 of them do not consider how ecosystem services can reduce social vulnerabilities, by providing food and resources when crops fail for example.

These projects took a more traditional approach of ring-fencing nature and failing to consider the benefits to local populations.

“Some NAPA projects tended to focus on protecting nature only, and resembled more typical conservation-based approaches,” Pramova said.

At the moment there is no standardised way to assess ecosystem services, which can make the situation complex and murky for policy makers.

To make matters even more difficult, academics and policy makers are already beginning to use a different technical term than “ecosystem-based adaptation”. In the documents produced at COP17 in Durban, “ecosystem based approaches to adaptation” became the phrase du jour.

“As soon as we begin to clarify one term, people start using another,” she said.

The need to agree on a clear set of definitions and to work towards their implementation in policy measures is growing ever more urgent, conclude Locatelli and Pramova, as climate change is already threatening to impede or even reverse the progress already made on the U.N. Millennium Development Goals.

To ensure that Rio+20 delivers a global message that forests matter to sustainable development, CIFOR will coordinate one of the most important conferences on forests on 19 June, 2012. Forests: The 8th Roundtable at Rio+20 will discuss new research findings, remaining knowledge gaps and policy implications for integrating forests into the solutions to four key challenges to progress toward a green economy: energy, food and incomewater, and climate. Seats are limited so register here to avoid disappointment! 

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