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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?
    • 8.2.1 Institutions and Governance
    • 8.2.2 Economics and Incentives
    • 8.2.3 Social and Behavioral actions
    • 8.2.4 Technological actions
    • 8.2.5 Information based actions
  • 8.3 How can decision-making processes be improved?

8.1 How can degradation of ecosystem services be reversed?

The source document for this Digest states:

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 MA scenarios show that changes in policies, institutions, and practices can mitigate some of the negative consequences of growing pressures on ecosystems, although the changes required are large and not currently under way (S.SDM). As noted in Chapter 5, in three of the four MA scenarios at least one of the three categories of provisioning, regulating, and cultural services is in better condition in 2050 than in 2000, although biodiversity loss continues at high rates in all scenarios. The scale of interventions that results in these positive outcomes, however, is very significant. The interventions include major investments in environmentally sound technology, active adaptive management, proactive actions to address environmental problems before their full consequences are experienced, major investments in public goods (such as education and health), and strong action to reduce socioeconomic disparities and eliminate poverty, and expanded capacity of people to manage ecosystems adaptively.

More specifically, 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 institutional arrangements to promote transfer of skills and knowledge among regional groups proliferate. In TechnoGarden, policies are put in place to provide payment to individuals and companies that provide or maintain the provision of ecosystem services. For example, in this scenario, by 2015 roughly 50% of European agriculture and 10% of North American agriculture is aimed at balancing the production of food with the production of other ecosystem services. Under this scenario, significant advances occur in the development of environmental technologies to increase production of services, create substitutes, and reduce harmful trade-offs.

Past actions to slow or reverse the degradation of ecosystems have yielded significant benefits, but these improvements have generally not kept pace with growing pressures and demands. Although most ecosystem services assessed in the MA are being degraded, the extent of that degradation would have been much greater without responses implemented in past decades. For example, more than 100,000 protected areas (including strictly protected areas such as national parks as well as areas managed for the sustainable use of natural ecosystems, including timber harvest or wildlife harvest) covering about 11.7% of the terrestrial surface have now been established (R5.2.1). These play an important role in the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services, although important gaps in the distribution of protected areas remain, particularly in marine and freshwater systems.

Technological advances have also helped to lessen the rate of growth in pressure on ecosystems caused per unit increase in demand for ecosystem services. For all developing countries, for instance, yields of wheat, rice, and maize rose between 109% and 208% in the past 40 years. Without this increase, far more habitat would have been converted to agriculture during this time.

An effective set of responses to ensure the sustainable management of ecosystems must address the drivers presented in Chapter 4 and overcome barriers related to (RWG):

  • inappropriate institutional and governance arrangements, including the presence of corruption and weak systems of regulation and accountability.
  • market failures and the misalignment of economic incentives;
  • social and behavioral factors, including the lack of political and economic power of some groups (such as poor people, women, and indigenous groups) who are particularly dependent on ecosystem services or harmed by their degradation;
  • underinvestment in the development and diffusion of technologies that could increase the efficiency of use of ecosystem services and reduce the harmful impacts of various drivers of ecosystem change; and
  • insufficient knowledge (as well as the poor use of existing knowledge) concerning ecosystem services and management, policy, technological, behavioral and institutional responses that could enhance benefits from these services while conserving resources.

All these barriers are compounded by weak human and institutional capacity related to the assessment and management of ecosystem services, underinvestment in the regulation and management of their use, lack of public awareness, and lack of awareness among decision-makers of the threats posed by the degradation of ecosystem services and the opportunities that more sustainable management of ecosystems could provide.

Source & ©: MA  Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report (2005),
Chapter 8, p.92

8.2 What types of actions would most benefit ecosystems?

    • 8.2.1 Institutions and Governance
    • 8.2.2 Economics and Incentives
    • 8.2.3 Social and Behavioral actions
    • 8.2.4 Technological actions
    • 8.2.5 Information based actions

The source document for this Digest states:

The MA assessed 74 response options for eight ecosystem services along with additional responses related to integrated ecosystem management, conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and climate change. (See Appendix B. Effectiveness of Assessed Responses.) Many of these options hold significant promise for conserving or sustainably enhancing the supply of ecosystem services. Examples of promising responses that address the barriers just described are presented in the remainder of this chapter (RWG, R2). The stakeholder groups that would need to take decisions to implement each response are indicated as follows: G for government, B for business and industry, and N for nongovernmental organizations and other civil society organizations such as community-based and indigenous peoples organizations

Source & ©: MA  Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report (2005),
Chapter 8, p.92

8.2.1 Institutions and Governance

The source document for this Digest states:

Institutions and Governance

Changes in institutional and environmental governance frameworks are sometimes required in order to create the enabling conditions for effective management of ecosystems, while in other cases existing institutions could meet these needs but face significant barriers. Many existing 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 related to the need for greater cooperation across sectors and the need for coordinated responses at multiple scales. However, since a number of the issues identified in this assessment are recent concerns and were not specifically taken into account in the design of today's institutions, changes in existing institutions and the development of new ones may sometimes be needed, particularly at the national scale.

In particular, existing national and global institutions are not well designed to deal with the management of open access resources, a characteristic of many ecosystem services. Issues of ownership and access to resources, rights to participation in decision-making, and regulation of particular types of resource use or discharge of wastes can strongly influence the sustainability of ecosystem management and are fundamental determinants of who wins and who loses from changes in ecosystems. Corruption, a major obstacle to effective management of ecosystems, also stems from weak systems of regulation and accountability.

Promising interventions include:

  • Integration of ecosystem management goals within other sectors and within broader development planning frameworks (G). The most important public policy decisions affecting ecosystems are often made by agencies and in policy arenas other than those charged with protecting ecosystems. Ecosystem management goals are more likely to be achieved if they are reflected in decisions in other sectors and in national development strategies. For example, the Poverty Reduction Strategies prepared by developing-country governments for the World Bank and other institutions strongly shape national development priorities, but in general these have not taken into account the importance of ecosystems to improving the basic human capabilities of the poorest (R17.ES).
  • Increased coordination among multilateral environmental agreements and between environmental agreements and other international economic and social institutions (G). International agreements are indispensable for addressing ecosystem-related concerns that span national boundaries, but numerous obstacles weaken their current effectiveness (R17.2). The limited, focused nature of the goals and mechanisms included in most bilateral and multilateral environmental treaties does not address the broader issue of ecosystem services and human well-being. Steps are now being taken to increase coordination among these treaties, and this could help broaden the focus of the array of instruments. However, coordination is also needed between the multilateral environmental agreements and the more politically powerful international legal institutions, such as economic and trade agreements, to ensure that they are not acting at cross-purposes (R.SDM). And implementation of these agreements also needs to be coordinated among relevant institutions and sectors at the national level.
  • Increased transparency and accountability of government and private-sector performance in decisions that affect ecosystems, including through greater involvement of concerned stakeholders in decision-making (G, B, N) (RWG; SG9). Laws, policies, institutions, and markets that have been shaped through public participation in decision-making are more likely to be effective and perceived as just. For example, degradation of freshwater and other ecosystem services generally have a disproportionate impact on those who are, in various ways, excluded from participation in the decision-making process (R7.2.3). Stakeholder participation also contributes to the decision-making process because it allows a better understanding of impacts and vulnerability, the distribution of costs and benefits associated with trade-offs, and the identification of a broader range of response options that are available in a specific context. And stakeholder involvement and transparency of decision-making can increase accountability and reduce corruption.
  • Development of institutions that devolve (or centralize) decision-making to meet management needs while ensuring effective coordination across scales (G, B, N) (RWG). Problems of ecosystem management have been exacerbated by both overly centralized and overly decentralized decision-making. For example, highly centralized forest management has proved ineffective in many countries, and efforts are now being made to move responsibility to lower levels of decision-making either within the natural resources sector or as part of broader decentralization of governmental responsibilities. At the same time, one of the most intractable problems of ecosystem management has been the lack of alignment between political boundaries and units appropriate for the management of ecosystem goods and services. Downstream communities may not have access to the institutions through which upstream actions can be influenced; alternatively, downstream communities or countries may be stronger politically than upstream regions and may dominate control of upstream areas without addressing upstream needs. A number of countries, however, are now strengthening regional institutions for the management of transboundary ecosystems (such as the Danube River, the Mekong River Commission, East African cooperation on Lake Victoria, and the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization).
  • Development of institutions to regulate interactions between markets and ecosystems (G) (RWG). The potential of policy and market reforms to improve ecosystem management are often constrained by weak or absent institutions. For example, the potential of the Clean Development Mechanism established under the Framework Convention on Climate Change to provide financial support to developing countries in return for greenhouse gas reductions, which would realize climate and biodiversity benefits through payments for carbon sequestration in forests, is constrained by unclear property rights, concerns over the permanence of reductions, and lack of mechanisms for resolving conflicts. Moreover, existing regulatory institutions often do not have ecosystem protection as a clear mandate. For example, independent regulators of privatized water systems and power systems do not necessarily promote resource use efficiency and renewable supply. There is a continuing importance of the role of the state to set and enforce rules even in the context of privatization and market-led growth.
  • Development of institutional frameworks that promote a shift from highly sectoral resource management approaches to more integrated approaches (G, B) (R15.ES, R12.ES, R11.ES). In most countries, separate ministries are in charge of different aspects of ecosystems (such as ministries of environment, agriculture, water, and forests) and different drivers of change (such as ministries of energy, transportation, development, and trade). Each of these ministries has control over different aspects of ecosystem management. As a result, there is seldom the political will to develop effective ecosystem management strategies, and competition among the ministries can often result in policy choices that are detrimental to ecosystems. Integrated responses intentionally and actively address ecosystem services and human well-being simultaneously, such as integrated coastal zone management, integrated river basin management, and national sustainable development strategies. Although the potential for integrated responses is high, numerous barriers have limited their effectiveness: they are resource-intensive, but the potential benefits can exceed the costs; they require multiple instruments for their implementation; and they require new institutional and governance structures, skills, knowledge, and capacity. Thus far, the results of implementation of integrated responses have been mixed in terms of ecological, social, and economic impacts.

Source & ©: MA  Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report (2005),
Chapter 8, pp.93-95

8.2.2 Economics and Incentives

The source document for this Digest states:

Economics and Incentives

Economic and financial interventions provide powerful instruments to regulate the use of ecosystem goods and services (C5 Box 5.1). Because many ecosystem services are not traded in markets, markets fail to provide appropriate signals that might otherwise contribute to the efficient allocation and sustainable use of the services. Even if people are aware of the services provided by an ecosystem, they are neither compensated for providing these services nor penalized for reducing them. 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, and so those costs are not factored into management decisions. A wide range of opportunities exists to influence human behavior to address this challenge in the form of economic and financial instruments. Some of them establish markets; others work through the monetary and financial interests of the targeted social actors; still others affect relative prices.

Market mechanisms can only work if supporting institutions are in place, and thus there is a need to build institutional capacity to enable more widespread use of these mechanisms (R17). The adoption of economic instruments usually requires a legal framework, and in many cases the choice of a viable and effective economic intervention mechanism is determined by the socioeconomic context. For example, resource taxes can be a powerful instrument to guard against the overexploitation of an ecosystem service, but an effective tax scheme requires well-established and reliable monitoring and tax collection systems. Similarly, subsidies can be effective to introduce and implement certain technologies or management procedures, but they are inappropriate in settings that lack the transparency and accountability needed to prevent corruption. The establishment of market mechanisms also often involves explicit decisions about wealth distribution and resource allocation, when, for example, decisions are made to establish private property rights for resources that were formerly considered common pool resources. For that reason, the inappropriate use of market mechanisms can further exacerbate problems of poverty.

Promising interventions include:

Elimination of subsidies that promote excessive use of ecosystem services (and, where possible, transfer of these subsidies to payments for nonmarketed ecosystem services) (G) (S7.ES). Subsidies paid to the agricultural sectors of OECD countries between 2001 and 2003 averaged over $324 billion annually, or one third the global value of agricultural products in 2000. Many countries outside the OECD also have inappropriate subsidies. A significant proportion of this total involves production subsidies that lead to greater food production in countries with subsidies than the global market conditions warrant, that promote the overuse of water, fertilizers, and pesticides, and that reduce the profitability of agriculture in developing countries. They also increase land values, adding to landowners’ resistance to subsidy reductions. On the social side, agricultural subsidies make farmers overly dependent on taxpayers for their livelihood, change wealth distribution and social composition by benefiting large corporate farms to the detriment of smaller family farms, and contribute to the dependence of large segments of the developing world on aid. Finally, it is not clear that these policies achieve one of their primary targets—supporting farmers’ income. Only about a quarter of the total expenses in price supports translate into additional income for farm households.

Similar problems are created by fishery subsidies, which for the OECD countries were estimated at $6.2 billion in 2002, or about 20% of the gross value of production that year (C8.4.1). Subsidies on fisheries, apart from their distributional impacts, affect the management of resources and their sustainable use by encouraging overexploitation of the resource, thereby worsening the common property problem present in fisheries. Although some indirect subsidies, such as payments for the withdrawal of individual transferable harvest quotas, could have a positive impact on fisheries management, the majority of subsidies have a negative effect. Inappropriate subsidies are also common in sectors such as water and forestry.

Although removal of production subsidies would produce net benefits, it would not occur without costs. The farmers and fishers benefiting directly from the subsidies would suffer the most immediate losses, but there would also be indirect effects on ecosystems both locally and globally. In some cases it may be possible to transfer production subsides to other activities that promote ecosystem stewardship, such as payment for the provision or enhancement of regulatory or supporting services. Compensatory mechanisms may be needed for the poor who are adversely affected by the immediate removal of subsidies (R17.5). Reduced subsidies within the OECD may lessen pressures on some ecosystems in those countries, but they could lead to more rapid conversion and intensification of land for agriculture in developing countries and would thus need to be accompanied by policies to minimize the adverse impacts on ecosystems there.

  • Greater use of economic instruments and market-based approaches in the management of ecosystem services (G, B, N) (RWG). Economic instruments and market mechanisms with the potential to enhance the management of ecosystem services include:
  1. Taxes or user fees for activities with “external” costs (trade-offs not accounted for in the market). These instruments create an incentive that lessens the external costs and provides revenues that can help protect the damaged ecosystem services. Examples include taxes on excessive application of nutrients or ecotourism user fees.
  2. Creation of markets, including through cap-and-trade systems. Ecosystem services that have been treated as “free” resources, as is often the case for water, tend to be used wastefully. The establishment of markets for the services can both increase the incentives for their conservation and increase the economic efficiency of their allocation if supporting legal and economic institutions are in place. However, as noted earlier, while markets will increase the efficiency of the use of the resource, they can have harmful effects on particular groups of users who may inequitably affected by the change (R17). The combination of regulated emission caps, coupled with market mechanisms for trading pollution rights, often provides an efficient means of reducing emissions harmful to ecosystems. For example, nutrient trading systems may be a low-cost way to reduce water pollution in the United States (R7.Box 7.3).

    One of the most rapidly growing markets related to ecosystem services is the carbon market. (See Figure 8.1.) Approximately 64 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent were exchanged through projects from January to May 2004, nearly as much as during all of 2003 (78 million tons) (C5 Box 5.1). The value of carbon dioxide trades in 2003 was approximately $300 million. About one quarter of the trades (by volume of CO2 equivalents) involve investment in ecosystem services (hydropower or biomass).

    The World Bank has established a fund with a capital of $33.3 million (as of January 2005) to invest in afforestation and reforestation projects that sequester or conserve carbon in forest and agroecosystems while promoting biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. It is speculated that the value of the global carbon emissions trading markets could reach $44 billion in 2010 (and involve trades totaling 4.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide or equivalent).
  3. Payment for ecosystem services. Mechanisms can be established to enable individuals, firms, or the public sector to pay resource owners to provide particular services. For example, in New South Wales, Australia, associations of farmers purchase salinity credits from the State Forests Agency, which in turn contracts with upstream landholders to plant trees, which reduce water tables and store carbon. Similarly, in 1996 Costa Rica established a nationwide system of conservation payments to induce landowners to provide ecosystem services. Under this program, the government brokers contracts between international and domestic “buyers” and local “sellers” of sequestered carbon, biodiversity, watershed services, and scenic beauty. By 2001, more than 280,000 hectares of forests had been incorporated into the program at a cost of about $30 million, with pending applications covering an additional 800,000 hectares (C5 Box 5.1).

    Other innovative conservation financing mechanisms include “biodiversity offsets” (whereby developers pay for conservation activities as compensation for unavoidable harm that a project causes to biodiversity). An online news site, the Ecosystem Marketplace, has now been established by a consortium of institutions to provide information on the development of markets for ecosystem services and the payments for them.
  4. Mechanisms to enable consumer preferences to be expressed through markets. Consumer pressure may provide an alternative way to influence producers to adopt more sustainable production practices in the absence of effective government regulation. For example, certification schemes that exist for sustainable fisheries and forest practices provide people with the opportunity to promote sustainability through their consumer choices. Within the forest sector, forest certification has become widespread in many countries and forest conditions; thus far, however, most certified forests are in temperate regions, managed by large companies that export to northern retailers (R8).

Source & ©: MA  Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report (2005),
Chapter 8, pp.95-97

8.2.3 Social and Behavioral actions

The source document for this Digest states:

Social and behavioral responses—including population policy; public education; empowerment of communities, women, and youth; and civil society actions—can be instrumental in responding to ecosystem degradation. These are generally interventions that stakeholders initiate and execute through exercising their procedural or democratic rights in efforts to improve ecosystems and human well-being.

Promising interventions include:

  • Measures to reduce aggregate consumption of unsustainably managed ecosystem services (G, B, N) (RWG). The choices about what individuals consume and how much they consume are influenced not just by considerations of price but also by behavioral factors related to culture, ethics, and values. Behavioral changes that could reduce demand for degraded ecosystem services can be encouraged through actions by governments (such as education and public awareness programs or the promotion of demand-side management), industry (such as improved product labeling or commitments to use raw materials from sources certified as sustainable), and civil society (such as public awareness campaigns). Efforts to reduce aggregate consumption, however, must sometimes incorporate measures to increase the access to and consumption of those same ecosystem services by specific groups such as poor people.
  • Communication and education (G, B, N) (RWG, R5). Improved communication and education are essential to achieve the objectives of the environmental conventions, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, and the sustainable management of natural resources more generally. Both the public and decision-makers can benefit from education concerning ecosystems and human well-being, but education more generally provides tremendous social benefits that can help address many indirect drivers of ecosystem degradation. Barriers to the effective use of communication and education include a failure to use research and apply modern theories of learning and change. While the importance of communication and education is well recognized, providing the human and financial resources to undertake effective work is a continuing barrier.
  • Empowerment of groups particularly dependent on ecosystem services or affected by their degradation, including women, indigenous people, and young people (G, B, N) (RWG). Despite women’s knowledge about the environment and the potential they possess, their participation in decision-making has often been restricted by social and cultural structures. Young people are key stakeholders in that they will experience the longer-term consequences of decisions made today concerning ecosystem services. Indigenous control of traditional homelands is often presented as having environmental benefits by indigenous peoples and their supporters, although the justification continues to be based on human and cultural rights.

Source & ©: MA  Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report (2005),
Chapter 8, p.97

8.2.4 Technological actions

The source document for this Digest states:

Technological Responses

Given the growing demands for ecosystem services and other increased pressures on ecosystems, the development and diffusion of technologies designed to increase the efficiency of resource use or reduce the impacts of drivers such as climate change and nutrient loading are essential. Technological change has been essential for meeting growing demands for some ecosystem services, and technology holds considerable promise to help meet future growth in demand. Technologies already exist for reducing nutrient pollution at reasonable costs—including technologies to reduce point source emissions, changes in crop management practices, and precision farming techniques to help control the application of fertilizers to a field, for example—but new policies are needed for these tools to be applied on a sufficient scale to slow and ultimately reverse the increase in nutrient loading (recognizing that this global goal must be achieved even while increasing nutrient applications in relatively poor regions such as sub-Saharan Africa). Many negative impacts on ecosystems and human well-being have resulted from these technological changes, however (R17.ES). The cost of “retrofitting” technologies once their negative consequences become apparent can be extremely high, so careful assessment is needed prior to the introduction of new technologies.

Promising interventions include:

  • Promotion of technologies that increase crop yields without any harmful impacts related to water, nutrient, and pesticide use (G, B, N) (R6). Agricultural expansion will continue to be one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss well into the twenty-first century. Development, assessment, and diffusion of technologies that could increase the production of food per unit area sustainably without harmful trade-offs related to excessive use of water, nutrients, or pesticides would significantly lessen pressure on other ecosystem services. Without the intensification that has taken place since 1950, a further 20 million square kilometers of land would have had to be brought into production to achieve today’s crop production (C.SDM). The challenge for the future is to similarly reduce the pressure for expansion of agriculture without simultaneously increasing pressures on ecosystem services due to water use, excessive nutrient loading, and pesticide use.
  • Restoration of ecosystem services (G, B, N) (RWG, R7.4). Ecosystem restoration activities are now common in many countries and include actions to restore almost all types of ecosystems, including wetlands, forests, grasslands, estuaries, coral reefs, and mangroves. Ecosystems with some features of the ones that were present before conversion can often be established and can provide some of the original ecosystem services (such as pollution filtration in wetlands or timber production from forests). The restored systems seldom fully replace the original systems, but they still help meet needs for particular services. Yet the cost of restoration is generally extremely high in relation to the cost of preventing the degradation of the ecosystem.Not all services can be restored, and those that are heavily degraded may require considerable time for restoration.
  • Promotion of technologies to increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (G, B). (R13) Significant reductions in net greenhouse gas emissions are technically feasible due to an extensive array of technologies in the energy supply, energy demand, and waste management sectors. Reducing projected emissions will require a portfolio of energy production technologies ranging from fuel switching (coal/oil to gas) and increased power plant efficiency to increased use of renewable energy technologies, complemented by more efficient use of energy in the transportation, buildings, and industry sectors. It will also involve the development and implementation of supporting institutions and policies to overcome barriers to the diffusion of these technologies into the marketplace, increased public and private-sector funding for research and development, and effective technology transfer.

Source & ©: MA  Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report (2005),
Chapter 8, pp.97-98

8.2.5 Information based actions

The source document for this Digest states:

Knowledge and Cognitive Responses

Effective management of ecosystems is constrained both by a lack of knowledge and information concerning different aspects of ecosystems and by the failure to use adequately the information that does exist in support of management decisions. Although sufficient information exists to take many actions that could help conserve ecosystems and enhance human well-being, major information gaps exist. In most regions, for example, relatively little is known about the status and economic value of most ecosystem services, and their depletion is rarely tracked in national economic accounts. Limited information exists about the likelihood of nonlinear changes in ecosystems or the location of thresholds where such changes may be encountered. Basic global data on the extent and trend in different types of ecosystems and land use are surprisingly scarce. Models used to project future environmental and economic conditions have limited capability of incorporating ecological “feedbacks” including nonlinear changes in ecosystems.

At the same time, decision-makers do not use all of the relevant information that is available. This is due in part to institutional failures that prevent existing policy-relevant scientific information from being made available to decision-makers. But it is also due to the failure to incorporate other forms of knowledge and information, such as traditional knowledge and practitioners’ knowledge, that are often of considerable value for ecosystem management.

Promising interventions include:

  • Incorporate both the market and nonmarket values of ecosystems in resource management and investment decisions (G, B) (RWG). Most resource management and investment decisions are strongly influenced by considerations of the monetary costs and benefits of alternative policy choices. In the case of ecosystem management, however, this often leads to outcomes that are not in the interest of society, since the nonmarketed values of ecosystems may exceed the marketed values. As a result, many existing resource management policies favor sectors such as agriculture, forestry, and fisheries at the expense of the use of these same ecosystems for water supply, recreation, and cultural services that may be of greater economic value. Decisions can be improved if they include the total economic value of alternative management options and involve deliberative mechanisms that bring to bear noneconomic considerations as well.
  • Use of all relevant forms of knowledge and information in assessments and decision-making, including traditional and practitioners’ knowledge (G, B, N) (RWG, C17-ES). Effective management of ecosystems typically requires “place-based” knowledge—information about the specific characteristics and history of an ecosystem. Formal scientific information is often one source of such information, but traditional knowledge or practitioners’ knowledge held by local resource managers can be of equal or greater value. While that knowledge is used in the decisions taken by those who have it, it is too rarely incorporated into other decision-making processes and is often inappropriately dismissed.
  • Enhance and sustain human and institutional capacity for assessing the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and acting on such assessments (G, B, N) (RWG). Greater technical capacity is needed for agriculture, forest, and fisheries management. But the capacity that exists for these sectors, as limited as it is in many countries, is still vastly greater than the capacity for effective management of other ecosystem services. Because awareness of the importance of these other services has only recently grown, there is limited experience with assessing ecosystem services fully. Serious limits exist in all countries, but especially in developing countries, in terms of the expertise needed in such areas as monitoring changes in ecosystem services, economic valuation or health assessment of ecosystem changes, and policy analysis related to ecosystem services. Even when such assessment information is available, however, the traditional highly sectoral nature of decision-making and resource management makes the implementation of recommendations difficult. This constraint can also be overcome through increased training of individuals in existing institutions and through institutional reforms to build capacity for more integrated responses.

Source & ©: MA  Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report (2005),
Chapter 8, p.98

8.3 How can decision-making processes be improved?

The source document for this Digest states:

Design of effective decision-making processes

Decisions affecting ecosystems and their services can be improved by changing the processes used to reach those decisions. The context of decision-making about ecosystems is changing rapidly. The new challenge to decision-making is to make effective use of information and tools in this changing context in order to improve the decisions. At the same time, some old challenges must still be addressed. The decision-making process and the actors involved influence the intervention chosen. Decision-making processes vary across jurisdictions, institutions, and cultures. Yet the MA has identified the following elements of decision-making processes related to ecosystems and their services that tend to improve the decisions reached and their outcomes for ecosystems and human well-being (R18ES):

  • Use the best available information, including considerations of the value of both marketed and nonmarketed ecosystem services.
  • Ensure transparency and the effective and informed participation of important stakeholders.
  • Recognize that not all values at stake can be quantified, and thus quantification can provide a false objectivity in decision processes that have significant subjective elements.
  • Strive for efficiency, but not at the expense of effectiveness.
  • Consider equity and vulnerability in terms of the distribution of costs and benefits.
  • Ensure accountability and provide for regular monitoring and evaluation.
  • Consider cumulative and cross-scale effects and, in particular, assess trade-offs across different ecosystem services.

Awide range of deliberative tools (which facilitate transparency and stakeholder participation), information-gathering tools (which are primarily focused on collecting data and opinions), and planning tools (which are typically used to evaluate potential policy options) can assist decision-making concerning ecosystems and their services (R3 Tables 3.6 to 3.8). Deliberative tools include neighborhood forums, citizens’ juries, community issues groups, consensus conferences, electronic democracy, focus groups, issue forums, and ecosystem service user forums. Examples of information-gathering tools include citizens’ research panels, deliberative opinion polls, environmental impact assessments, participatory rural appraisal, and rapid rural appraisal. Some common planning tools are consensus participation, cost-benefit analysis, multicriteria analysis, participatory learning and action, stakeholder decision analysis, trade-off analysis, and visioning exercises. The use of decision-making methods that adopt a pluralistic perspective is particularly pertinent, since these techniques do not give undue weight to any particular viewpoint. These tools can be used at a variety of scales, including global, sub-global, and local.

A variety of frameworks and methods can be used to make better decisions in the face of uncertainties in data, prediction, context, and scale (R4.5). Commonly used methods include cost-benefit or multicriteria analyses, risk assessment, the precautionary principle, and vulnerability analysis. (See Table 8.1.) All these methods have been able to support optimization exercises, but few of them have much to say about equity. Cost-benefit analysis can, for example, be modified to weight the interests of some people more than others. The discount rate can be viewed, in long-term analyses, as a means of weighing the welfare of future generations; and the precautionary principle can be expressed in terms of reducing the exposure of certain populations or systems whose preferential status may be the result of equity considerations. Only multicriteria analysis was designed primarily to accommodate optimization across multiple objectives with complex interactions, but this can also be adapted to consider equity and threshold issues at national and sub-national scales. Finally, the existence and significance of various thresholds for change can be explored by several tools, but only the precautionary principle was designed explicitly to address such issues.

Scenarios provide one way to cope with many aspects of uncertainty, but our limited understanding of ecological and human response processes shrouds any individual scenario in it own characteristic uncertainty (R4ES). Scenarios can be used to highlight the implications of alternative assumptions about critical uncertainties related to the behavior of human and ecological systems. In this way, they provide one means to cope with many aspects of uncertainty in assessing responses. The relevance, significance, and influence of scenarios ultimately depend on who is involved in their development (SG9.ES).

At the same time, though, there are a number of reasons to be cautious in the use of scenarios. First, individual scenarios represent conditional projections based on these specific assumptions. Thus, to the extent that our understanding and representation of the ecological and human systems represented in the scenarios is limited, specific scenarios are characterized by their own uncertainty. Second, there is uncertainty in translating the lessons derived from scenarios developed at one scale—say, global—to the assessment of responses at other scales—say, sub-national. Third, scenarios often have hidden and hard-to-articulate assumptions. Fourth, environmental scenarios have tended to more effectively incorporate state-of-the-art natural science modeling than social science modeling.

Historically, most responses addressing ecosystem services have concentrated on the short-term benefits from increasing the productivity of provisioning services (RWG). Far less emphasis has been placed on managing regulating, cultural, and supporting ecosystem services; on management goals related to poverty alleviation and equitable distribution of benefits from ecosystem services; and on the long-term consequences of ecosystem change on the provision of services. As a result, the current management regime falls far short of the potential for meeting human needs and conserving ecosystems.

Effective management of ecosystems requires coordinated responses at multiple scales (SG9; R17.ES). Responses that are successful at a small scale are often less successful at higher levels due to constraints in legal frameworks and government institutions that prevent their success. In addition, there appear to be limits to scaling up, not only because of these higher-level constraints, but also because interventions at a local level often address only direct drivers of change rather than indirect or underlying ones. For example, a local project to improve livelihoods of communities surrounding a protected area in order to reduce pressure on it, if successful, may increase migration into buffer zones, thereby adding to pressures. Cross-scale responses may be more effective at addressing the higher-level constraints and leakage problems and simultaneously tackling regional and national as well as local-level drivers of change. Examples of successful cross-scale responses include some co-management approaches to natural resource management in fisheries and forestry and multistakeholder policy processes (R15-ES).

Active adaptive management can be a particularly valuable tool for reducing uncertainty about ecosystem management decisions (R17.4.5). The term “active” adaptive management is used here to emphasize the key characteristic of the original concept (which is frequently and inappropriately used to mean “learning by doing”): the design of management programs to test hypotheses about how components of an ecosystem function and interact and to thereby reduce uncertainty about the system more rapidly than would otherwise occur. Under an adaptive management approach, for example, a fisheries manager might intentionally set harvest levels either lower or higher than the “best estimate” in order to gain information more rapidly about the shape of the yield curve for the fishery. Given the high levels of uncertainty surrounding coupled socioecological systems, the use of active adaptive management is often warranted.

Source & ©: MA  Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report (2005),
Chapter 8, pp.99-100


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