Getting the Price Right: Paying for Ecosystem Services Recognizes the Payback That These Life-Supporting Processes Offer

By Olmsted, Paige | Alternatives Journal, November 2010 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Getting the Price Right: Paying for Ecosystem Services Recognizes the Payback That These Life-Supporting Processes Offer


Olmsted, Paige, Alternatives Journal


IMAGINE a solar-powered machine that filters water, moderates air temperature and regulates the climate. Some would call it an amazing feat of engineering genius. Most people call it a tree.

Humans have a history of overlooking the many ways by which nature supports us. In North America, pollinators are responsible for one in every three mouthfuls of food, yet we are allowing habitat decline and pesticide use to devastate their numbers. Ten per cent of the world's fish catch comes from coral reefs, yet overfishing, pollution and sedimentation have destroyed or degraded one-third of these underwater gardens.

When it comes to sustaining biodiversity, our track record is not very good.

By 2010, the International Year of Biological Diversity, we were to have seen a significant reduction in global rates of biodiversity loss. This target was adopted in 2002 by the signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). But there has been little progress, and CBD officials concede that "most of the direct drivers of biodiversity loss are projected to remain constant or to increase in the near future."

A substantial barrier to progress has been pervasive ignorance of our economic, social and biophysical dependence on biodiversity. If there is any light on the biodiversity horizon, it is that now people seem to better understand that biodiversity is crucial to our well-being.

More often than not, biodiversity is considered to be a matter of protecting endangered species, especially polar bears, whooping cranes and other media darlings. This is how diversity is treated in the best-known monitoring programs and in most species-at-risk legislation. In contrast, modern science and the CBD recognize three aspects of biodiversity: diversity among species; genetic variations within individuals and populations; and ecosystem diversity, which includes the ways organisms interact with each other and the non-living world around them.

Each aspect of biodiversity facilitates the functioning of an ecosystem. In Canada's boreal forest, for example, species diversity builds resilience to disease and invasive plants. Genetic variation gives forest species the capacity to adapt to changing environmental conditions. These, in turn, combine with the cumulative interactions of forest plants, animals, air and soil to produce the air we breathe, filter the water we drink and absorb the carbon we produce in order to mitigate the impacts of global warming. If the boreal forest is to continue providing these essential "ecosystem services," it requires diversity of species, genetics and ecosystems.

Diverse, natural forests are especially good at delivering ecosystem services. But while a tree plantation may produce timber, paper, biofuel and other commodities, its marginal biodiversity limits disease resistance, soil production and, ultimately, its ability to sustain production over the long term.

Shahid Naeem, professor of Ecology at Columbia University, studies the role of biodiversity in ecosystem functioning. "The greater the biodiversity one finds in forests, farms, fisheries, parks and even urban ecosystems," says Naeem, "the more services they will provide and the more resilient they will be to environmental challenges such as global warming, fires and floods." In other words, he adds, "the more diverse our world, the more productive and stable it will be."

This understanding of biodiversity is the central idea behind the CBD. Ratified by 193 countries at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the CBD aimed not just at species preservation, but also at biodiversity protection for the survival of all life, and the adoption of more sustainable approaches to resource management and use.

Unfortunately, drafting the accord was the easy part. "In reality, international environmental instruments all tend to be non-binding," explains Eleanor Sterling, director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Getting the Price Right: Paying for Ecosystem Services Recognizes the Payback That These Life-Supporting Processes Offer
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?