The Law and Policy of Ecosystem Services

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Those goods and services, if properly accounted for, may even be worth enough to justify the protection of the forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other ecosystems that provide them. It is not surprising that the logic of ecosystem services has struck a chord. But the situation is not as simple as these caricatures might suggest. If it is just a matter of structuring payments for the delivery of services of known and agreed value, it is difficult to explain why so much public-sector effort is being put into studying ecosystem services and enhancing their provision.

Public sector entities are, however, deeply involved in such efforts. National governments are also becoming more involved in ecosystem service valuation. The United Kingdom is undertaking a National Ecosystem Assessment that includes, among other aspects, the valuation of several ecosystem services.

Geological Survey, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had each initiated programs on ecosystem services. What motivates public policy toward ecosystem services? One common answer is that the services afforded by natural ecosystems are, by and large, public goods. But some commonly cited ecosystem services are not necessarily public goods. And even if some ecosystem services are public goods, it is not always clear that they serve large enough populations to justify using national governments, let alone international organizations, to allocate them efficiently.

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Information is a public good. So perhaps a better argument for large-scale public involvement in ecosystem service policy is that government provision of research will be required to determine the proper values of ecosystem services. But this raises the question: What is such research likely to find?

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Are ecosystem services really so valuable that an appreciation for them would motivate us to forgo alternative uses of the areas that provide them? Despite the accumulation of writing on the topic, there continues to be a surprising dearth of reliable evidence on the value of ecosystem services. If compelling cases have not yet been made for their values, one might reasonably ask whether there ever will be.

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Many approaches to the valuation of ecosystem services remain controversial and are unlikely to ever be wholly convincing. At the same time, as this essay will discuss, simple arguments suggest that the value of many ecosystem services may be relatively modest in most times and places. Moreover, the exceptions may prove the rule: While it may seem paradoxical, the value of ecosystem services might be highest when the incentives they provide for conservation are modest.

If after years of effort and thousands of articles, we have so little compelling evidence concerning the value of ecosystem services, why has interest remained so high? Some historical context is useful in answering this question. Having conceded that they will not succeed by appealing to the intrinsic merits of conservation, this new group hopes to salvage a partial victory by making more pragmatic arguments for conservation based on ecosystem services. This perspective raises important questions, and I will conclude this essay by posing if not resolving them.

First, do conservation advocates who champion an ecosystem-services approach intend for their arguments to be taken literally? Second, if advocates propose ecosystem service-based arguments in pursuit of ulterior motives, can policymakers be assured that conservation is conducive to community development and well-being?

Third, does the ecosystem-services approach to conservation envision a world of human communities that is so closely integrated with ecosystem processes that ecosystems themselves are necessarily diminished as a result? In other words, does the ecosystem services paradigm mistakenly presume that the best way to conserve nature is to use it for its goods and services?

All in all, the value of ecosystem services has not been sufficiently demonstrated. Furthermore, a compelling case has yet to be made that public intervention is required to assure adequate areas are set aside to provide ecosystem services. Will more research resolve the issue? I am not optimistic. Perhaps the most important policy question to ask is the most fundamental: What is it that we as a society wish to save of nature?

The claim that ecosystem services are public goods is ubiquitous. Economics textbooks define public goods as non-rival meaning that my consumption of the good does not reduce your ability to enjoy the same good and non-exclusive once the good is provided, I cannot prevent you from enjoying it. Many authors assert that public action is required to ensure that public goods such as ecosystem services are adequately provided, as if it were a self-evident truth. These claims raise the question: What should be the appropriate public policy to address ecosystem services?

Just because an ecosystem generates some public benefits does not assure that those benefits offset the opportunity costs of maintaining the ecosystem. The choice to intervene should also be tempered by the concerns that accompany any public intervention, such as the marginal excess burden of taxation, 3 infringements of individual liberties, and the potential for corruption.

When benefits are local, simple measures may effectively render public goods as private. Some ecosystem services might be non-rival and non-exclusive if small areas of natural habitat are sufficient to provide them. If it is in fact worth the opportunity cost of land use to provide the public good, we would expect one landowner to acquire the necessary holdings and appropriate the benefits of the ecosystem service for herself.

Several ecosystem services fit this scenario. Consider pollination, which is often cited as a classic example of an ecosystem service see, e. If someone maintains an area of natural habitat on her land, bees and other pollinators may be healthier and more abundant. But insects are, of course, mobile. They might fly off and benefit others as well. In this case, farmers might simply purchase enough farmland to appropriate a greater share of the benefits the bees create. Or alternatively, they might reach an agreement with neighboring landowners to set aside enough pollinator habitat. Similar questions might be asked of a number of other ecosystem services.

Trees and natural vegetation may provide barriers against wind and flood, but if they are cost-effective in this role, what prevents landowners or communities from providing themselves with this protection? Commercial or residential land developers often have the choice of how much and where to retain or recreate forests, wetlands, and other areas that would shade buildings, and protect them from winds and floods. If relatively small areas are needed to provide such services, why would a profit-maximizing developer not set them aside?

Valuation of Ecosystem Services: Classes of Values

Of course, municipal and local governments do regularly set aside some lands for less-intensive use in parks and other public lands, so it is not clear that higher levels of government need to be involved in the allocation of land for the provision of many ecosystem services. Even if private actors or local governments can effectively allocate some ecosystem services, there might be a second public-goods argument for government involvement at national or international scales.

It may be that the role for public policy is to provide information on the value of ecosystem services, which can then be used by the public to better determine what is in their individual or collective interest.

The Law and Policy of Ecosystem Services

So let us examine what efforts to provide such information have revealed so far, and what they might be expected to show in the future. What does the research tell us about the value of ecosystem services? Given the lack of robust work on ecosystem service valuation, it is not surprising that, as Laurans et al.

Since the information that is available now is limited, it may be instructive to consider what basic economic principles imply concerning the value of ecosystem services. The single most important thing to remember when thinking about economic value is that value is determined on the margin. The economic value of a hectare of forest, as one example of native habitat, is determined by the increase in services that an additional hectare affords over and above all other hectares of forest—not by the total value of the forest, nor by the average value of a hectare of forest.

This principle is fundamental, but it is often not appreciated by non-economists who have been engaged in much of the research on ecosystem services. A clearer focus on the basic economics of ecosystem services can help clarify their values and help us understand how to devise defensible estimates of those values. Many ecosystem services are comprised of some natural asset—the ecosystem, or some of its components—that contributes to the production of something. We can then derive the value of the asset providing the service by multiplying the value of the thing being produced by the additional amount of the ecological asset.

Moreover, for many types of ecosystem services, the more of the service the ecosystem supplies, the less of the service remains to be performed. Table 1 gives several examples of this paradigm. For example, think of wild bees as ecological assets. Once an egg has been fertilized, the arrival of additional bees makes no difference to its development.


The more bees there are, the less likely it is that a flower has not yet been pollinated. So, when there are large numbers of bees, the value of the marginal bee for pollination services is negligible. Similar considerations determine the value of other ecological assets and demonstrate why those values decline as the assets become more abundant. Forests or grasslands retained in a riparian buffer may remove some of the pollution that would otherwise enter streams and cause environmental damage see, e. But the wider the buffer, the less pollution remains for the marginal meter of buffer to remove.

The greater the area set aside to retain rain and snow, however, the lower the probability of a storm large enough to exceed its retention capacity Simpson It is worth underscoring that these considerations do not mean that ecosystem services are not valuable. To the contrary, they could be very valuable; however, they would only be valuable when they are relatively scarce.

Basic economic principles suggest that ecosystem service values might be limited in many cases, and that it is unlikely that an appeal to ecosystem services would motivate large-scale conservation when opportunity costs are significant. What does this mean for the question of whether public funds should be allocated to estimating the value of ecosystem services? At the very least, it suggests that we should not expect that we are setting aside far too little land for the provision of ecosystem services.

But if this is the case, then why is it that the ecosystem services framework is often used to suggest that society is conserving too few native habitats? Ecosystem services may seem to be a modern development in conservation policy, but current debates retrace a century-old conflict over the value of nature. In the early 20 th century, John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, championed a vision of preserving nature for its own sake. Muir clashed with Gifford Pinchot, who would become the first Chief of the U. Forest Service. The ecosystem services approach might be traced to several earlier writings such as Westman and Ehrlich and Ehrlich Another that may have been particularly important, however, was the publication of World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development, by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Creating Markets for Ecosystem Services: Notes from the Field - NYU Law Review

The document signaled a change in course, away from a vision in which protected areas were to be guarded for their intrinsic merits, and toward one in which such areas would be conserved to promote the sustainable development of the communities in which they are located. The rationale for these ICDPs was similar to that of ecosystem services today. Nature could, ICDP advocates claimed, essentially pay for itself, if only we recognized its value. A number of reports documented problems with the sustainable-use approach of ICDPs see, e. Hopes for some natural products were dashed when the markets for them turned out to be smaller than advocates anticipated.

Projects intended to promote the sustainable harvest of natural products may have resulted in disturbances to the ecosystems the projects were intended to protect Chomitz and Kumari ; Terborgh To dig beneath the hype and understand the promise and challenges of conserving ecosystem services, start by reading this book. It reminds me of the successful interaction of science, law, and policy in the s. We need that to happen again and this book provides the basis for it. Pub Date:. May Add to Cart. E-book Format. March Exam Copy.


Book Description Review Quotes Contents. Book Description. Review Quotes. Daily, Professor, biological sciences; author of "New Economy of Nature" "One of the most important contributions of economics to environmental protection is the idea that ecosystems can perform economically valuable services even if their monetary value is not captured in markets.

The Context of Ecosystems Services Chapter 1. Ecology Chapter 2. Geography Chapter 3. Property Rights Chapter 5. Regulation Chapter 6. An Odyssey on 6, Acres: Pre to Chapter 8. Water: Blue, Green, and Virtual Chapter 9.