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Ecosystem Change

8. What options exist to manage ecosystems sustainably?

  • 8.1 How can degradation of ecosystem services be reversed?
  • 8.2 What types of actions would most benefit ecosystems?
  • 8.3 How can decision-making processes be improved?

8.1 How can degradation of ecosystem services be reversed?

It is a major challenge to reverse the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands for their services, but this challenge can be met. Three of the four scenarios show that changes in policies, institutions, and practices can mitigate some of the negative consequences of growing pressures on ecosystems. However, the actions that would be required to reverse degradation are much larger than those currently under way.

Required actions include

  • major investments in environmentally sound technology,
  • active adaptive management,
  • proactive action to address environmental problems before their full consequences are experienced,
  • major investments in public goods (for example, education and health), and
  • strong action to reduce economic disparities and eliminate poverty.

Examples of specific actions taken under different Millennium Ecosystem Assessment scenarios

  • in Global Orchestration trade barriers are eliminated, distorting subsidies are removed, and a major emphasis is placed on eliminating poverty and hunger;
  • in Adapting Mosaic, by 2010 most countries are spending close to 13% of their GDP on education (compared with an average of 3.5% in 2000), and many institutional arrangements are made to transfer skills and knowledge among regional groups;
  • In TechnoGarden, individuals and companies are paid to provide or maintain ecosystem services and significant advances occur in the development of environmental technologies.

Past actions to slow or reverse the degradation of ecosystems have been beneficial. However, these improvements have generally not kept pace with growing pressures and demands. Although most ecosystem services have been degraded, the extent of that degradation would have been much greater without actions implemented in past decades. More...

8.2 What types of actions would most benefit ecosystems?

The present assessment examined a wide range of possible actions to benefit ecosystems. The following general categories of actions emerged as particularly promising as they lead to the greatest long-term benefits for ecosystems and human well-being. More...

8.2.1 Institutions and governance: Many institutions at both the global and the national level have the mandate to address the degradation of ecosystem services but face a variety of challenges in doing so. Today’s institutions were not designed to take into account the threats associated with this degradation, nor to deal adequately with the management of open access resources, a characteristic of many ecosystem services. Changes in institutional and environmental governance frameworks are sometimes required to enable effective management of ecosystems. Promising actions include, amongst others, integration of ecosystem management goals within other sectors, and an increased coordination among international environmental agreements. More...

8.2.2 Economics and incentives: Economic and financial interventions are powerful instruments that can regulate the use of goods and services. However, since many ecosystem services are not traded in markets, there are no appropriate market signals (such as price) that contribute to their efficient distribution and sustainable use. In addition, the people harmed by the degradation of ecosystem services are often not the ones who benefit from the actions leading to their degradation. Hence those costs are not taken into account in management decisions. Promising actions include, amongst others, the elimination of subsidies that promote excessive and unsustainable fishing or agriculture, and the greater use of market instruments such as taxes and user fees. More...

8.2.3 Social and behavioral actions generally involve participation of stakeholders in efforts to improve ecosystems and human well-being. Promising actions include improved communication, as well as education and empowerment of groups particularly dependent on ecosystem services or affected by their degradation, including women, indigenous people, and youth. More...

8.2.4 Technological actions: Given the increased pressures on ecosystems, the development and diffusion of technologies that can increase the efficiency of resource use or reduce impacts on ecosystems are essential. However, technological changes can also have unknown negative consequences on ecosystems and human well-being. It is thus important to make careful assessments before the introduction of new technologies, as the cost of later adjustments may be extremely high. Promising actions target, for instance, agricultural practices, ecosystem restoration, and energy efficiency. More...

8.2.5 Information based actions: The lack or inadequate use of information on different aspects of ecosystems can limit the efficiency of ecosystem management. Although enough information exists to take many actions that could help to conserve ecosystems and enhance human well-being, major gaps remain. For example, in most regions, relatively limited information exists about the status and economic value of most ecosystem services, and their degradation is rarely tracked in national economic accounts (e.g., GDP). Moreover, decision-makers do not use all of the relevant information that is available, such as scientific information or traditional knowledge. Promising actions include basing management and investment decisions on both market and non-market values of ecosystems, improving the use of relevant information, and enhancing and sustaining the capacity to assess the consequences of ecosystem change. More...

8.3 How can decision-making processes be improved?

Decision-making processes vary across jurisdictions, institutions, and cultures. A series of elements tend to improve the decisions reached and their outcomes for ecosystems and human well-being:

  • Use the best available information.
  • Ensure transparency and the effective participation of important stakeholders.
  • Recognize that not all important values at stake can be quantified.
  • Strive for efficiency.
  • Consider equity and vulnerability.
  • Ensure accountability, monitoring, and evaluation.
  • Consider cumulative effects and effects that occur on different scales.

Decision-making can be improved through tools for stakeholder participation, information gathering, and planning.

A variety of frameworks and methods can be used to make better decisions in the face of uncertainties in data, prediction, context, and scale, but few of them address equity.

Scenarios can be used to address many uncertainties, but they also create uncertainties of their own due to our limited understanding of ecological and human responses.

Historically, most actions addressing ecosystem services have concentrated on increasing short-term productivity of provisioning services such as food production.

Effective management of the ecosystems in any particular region requires coordinated actions at multiple scales. Stakeholder at different scales perceive different values in various ecosystem services. Ignoring this can undermine the effectiveness of assessments and lead to unworkable and inequitable policies or programs at all scales. Ecosystem services that are of considerable importance at global scales, such as carbon sequestration or waste regulation, are not necessarily seen to be of value locally. Similarly, services of local importance are often not seen as important globally. Active adaptive management can be particularly valuable as a tool for reducing uncertainty about ecosystem management decisions. More...

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