Certifying ecosystem services is not going to be easy

BOGOR, Indonesia (20 September, 2011)_Certifying the goods and services provided by ecosystems requires that these are not just translated into tradable commodities, but also that social and ecological criteria are met. New holistic certification systems are needed, according to a recent study by the Centre for International Forestry Research. But it is a long way from actual implementation.
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Calculating stored carbon in an area of Columbian tropical forest. Photo courtesy of by Neil Palmer (CIAT).

BOGOR, Indonesia (20 September, 2011)_Certifying the goods and services provided by ecosystems requires that these are not just translated into tradable commodities, but also that social and ecological criteria are met.  New holistic certification systems are needed, according to a recent study by the Centre for International Forestry Research. But it is a long way from actual implementation.

“For a start, the science to consistently translate forest ecosystem services into tradable commodities is inadequate,” said Erik Meijaard, lead author of Ecosystem Services Certification: Opportunities and Constraints.

“Answers to questions such as  “how much carbon is stored in your forest?” are needed for trade, however co-objectives related to social and ecological aspects of forest management also need to be met which complicates their certification, for example, “are certified forests also good for wildlife?” or “are local communities being sufficiently involved in decision making?” said Meijaard.

Humans benefit from goods (such as clean drinking water) and services (e.g. pollination of crops and natural vegetation) supplied by our natural ecosystems. These benefits, known as ecosystem services, were defined by the United Nations in a global four-year study culminating in the creation of the 2004 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

However, as human populations grow, so too does the demand on goods and services provided by natural ecosystems and many ecosystem services are now being assigned economic value in order to  shift ecosystem management in a more socially and environmentally responsible direction.

Independent certification body, The Forest Stewardship Council, is currently in the process of developing certification systems for ecosystem services, to ensure that they conform with social and environmental requirements such as respecting indigenous people’s rights and protecting endangered species.

As such, valuing ecosystem services and goods may provide exciting tools to help maintain the world’s forests. If users pay for the water, carbon, and non-timber forest products provided by forests, hopefully revenue from those payments is higher than what loggers could earn from cutting down those forests. This could provide a significant incentive to preserve fragile ecosystems.

However while the theory is simple, putting it into practice is a lot more challenging, said the study which looked into the challenges facing ecosystem service markets, specifically in tropical forests, and provided guidance for overcoming these obstacles.

One important issue is that trading ecosystem services requires that these goods and services be quantified and commoditized. While this is relatively straightforward for goods such as forest honey or shade-grown coffee, it is potentially complex for services such as water purification, reducing risk from floods or other disasters or carbon sequestration.

Reliable systems are required to ensure that these conditions for trade in ecosystem system services are met. Developing certification systems for forest ecosystem services is one potential way to define, quantify and verify these services in a way that buyers can trust, and this is why certification of ecosystem services is currently being promoted by a number of environmental and forestry NGOs.

However despite nearly two decades of hard work, certification of tropical forests has been slow to take off. A major challenge appears to be to balancing the need for thorough assessments of forest management standards, social issues, and ecological aspects, with the need to do this relatively cheaply, quickly, and for large areas.

“Presently, the costs and effort of certification are too high to make it interesting to all but the biggest and most capital-rich companies”, says Louis Putzel, who organized the CIFOR study. “Our study suggests that if certification of ecosystem services in tropical commercial forestry is already difficult, there is only a small chance that financially viable certification systems can be developed for ecosystem services in the near future.”

Based on the report’s findings, the authors have passed on recommendations to the FSC’s certification process. To reduce the costs of certification and simplify monitoring, reporting and verification processes, more holistic concepts for measuring management sustainability are needed. For example, rather than identifying all threatened species in a forest area (a present requirement under FSC certification), more simple and cheaper methods are needed that approximate ecological integrity and importance of a forest area for wildlife conservation.

An even more challenging step would be to then translate the ecological and social integrity of forest landscapes into provision of quantified ecosystem services, and again find new ways to objectively, transparently, consistently, and reliably approximate this.

Significant cost cutting is possible, says the report, by bundling certification of different ecosystem services and goods. For example, management certification of a particular forest could cover timber, water, carbon, and goods such as forest honey or coffee.

“The ideas and opportunities are there”, says Meijaard, “the key for having real impact on the future of tropical forests is to develop systems that are practically feasible and meaningful, and can be scaled up easily”.

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  • It’s hardly news that after more than two decades of talk about the need for including ecosystem services in the effort to achieve sustainable development, we humans continue to have a poor track record when it comes to achieving sustainable results. How can we implement change while up against the overwhelming current of business as usual? It will take a new perspective, new approaches and different means of leadership…

    The Essence of Sustainable Development
    http://www.triplepundit.com/2011/02/fractal-frontier/

  • The problem seems to be finding a system that is not easy to cheat but also affordable enough for smaller players to participate. What about trying to crowd source certification issues? It is completely different from all current certification systems but I think there is potential for such a system. Smaller players may not generate as much interest from the public and therefore would not have to spend as much time and money on certification while larger more controversial projects may need to do quite a bit of work to gain public approval. There are lots of modern examples of crowd sourcing tasks to solve complex problems. I have more ideas on this but don’t want this comment to get too long.

  • Erik Meijaard

    Hi Julie, I like the sound of your crowd sourcing idea but don’t know enough about it. Can you clarify with some examples?

  • Hi Erik,
    Thanks for your reply. I don’t know exactly how it would work as it isn’t being done for ecosystem services but it is obvious that you have a wide range of needs and none of the current certification models seem to work for all groups. There are lots of modern examples of crowdsourcing and all have advantages and disadvantages. But looking at all the other examples I think you could come up with something that would fit. Some examples that I think have elements that could be included in an ecosystem services model include Kickstarter,Open Source Science Project, Crowdspring, StackOverflow or Wikipedia. I like Wikipedia because there is a core group of people who really seem to defend the topic and help to keep out trolls and other mildly interested users that can participate. StackOverflow is nice because users have to put their own reputation on the line to make comments which seems to encourage intelligent ideas. But the general idea is that there would be some loose guidelines for ecosystem services certification created by CIFOR. Communities or organisations would submit their projects for certification and the public could vote. As people voted on more projects and became more involved the weight of their opinion would improve. One advantage is that as projects become larger or more controversial they will naturally generate more input and concern from the public and will therefore be challenged to a higher standard than smaller less controversial projects. This will allow communities with fewer resources to participate without the administrative burden of larger projects.

    There are certainly lots of other ways you could organise it and I have other ideas of how it would work but I see lots of potential for it in PES and REDD+ projects.

  • Yes, That’s right on Certifying ecosystem services won’t be easy. But there is a solution on that Since current impact assessment practices mostly consider and assess impact on social conditions and the environment separately, WRI’s Ecosystem Services Review for Impact Assessment (ESR for IA) proposes a conceptual framework linking ecosystem services, human well-being and the project for which the impact assessment is carried out. It also provides specific steps to implement this framework seamlessly within the impact assessment process, including guidance on engaging ecosystem service stakeholders. Ok? Thanks