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”.