Lessons from A (Broader) Community on Ecosystem Services

Overview: A Community on Ecosystem Services 

By: Marcus Becker, ABMI
ACES 2018 – Washington, DC. December 3-6, 2018.

Held every two years, the ACES (A Community on Ecosystem Services) conference brings together leaders from the private sector, academia, government, and various NGOs, hailing from a wide range of countries around the world, to discuss and share knowledge around how ecosystem services (ES) can be incorporated into public and private decision making. This year the conference was held in Washington, DC, with program themes including Environmental Markets and Ecosystem Services, Developing Natural Capital Accounts, Business Sector Approaches, Communication and Education about Ecosystem Services, among many others. These topics were addressed through over 200 oral and poster presentations, spanning work done in a multitude of political, cultural, and environmental contexts. When attending an event like ACES, it becomes readily apparent just how large the community of people throughout the world who are dedicated to work on this issue is, and to advancing both our understanding and implementation of ES-based approaches.

One benefit of attending an event like this is the chance to learn from others who are attempting to achieve the same goals and have travelled further down the path to doing so. The lessons they’ve learned along the way, often through mistakes or missteps, can prove to be incredibly valuable when evaluating one’s own strategy. In Alberta, through the efforts of the ESBN and other groups, work has begun to build the knowledge base and infrastructure necessary for the development of a marketplace for ES. Happily, other jurisdictions have attempted this before with varying degrees of success, enabling us in Alberta to learn from these lessons and pick and choose the components of these market systems that were most successful.

Lessons Learned about Water Markets

While a wide variety of ES receive attention for potential inclusion in a market, water quality trading seems to be the most mature and well developed (or ‘well-tried’). At ACES 2018, many sessions were devoted to tackling this issue of how best to set up a functional market for water quality improvement, which is pertinent to the activity currently taking place in Alberta. A broad theme that emerged was that, even though it’s possible to model the biophysical pathways of water quality provision in a robust and scientifically defensible way, and that the supply of these services from private actors on the landscape can be secured (admittedly, sometimes with challenges), it is crucial that market administrators also give enough time and attention to the following question: where will the demand for these services come from? Without proper forethought, a lack of demand for the service (i.e., an absence of people of organizations willing to spend money for water quality improvement credits) can derail even the most well-designed and technologically savvy marketplace. This alarm was sounded by a number of groups in the United States, notably the Forest Trends Initiative and the Willamette Partnership, both of whom have been involved in efforts to set up water quality trading markets in the pacific northwest region. To address this challenge, the Willamette Partnership, in conjunction with the Association of Clean Water Administrators, published the Water Quality Trading Toolkit[1], which was designed for policy-makers and market administrators seeking to create a trading program.

Forest Trends also published an important resource, titled Lessons Learned on Demand[2], which is a post hoc review of past experiences with ES markets in the US. Their overarching message was that robust demand requires a co-occurrence of several factors: environmental impact (i.e., a problem that is salient to the public), high costs or complexity of alternative compliance options (e.g., regulations that are challenging to set up or enforce), and a predictable regulatory process. Regarding the latter, market administrators should carefully consider how regulators are the ultimate gatekeepers of a functioning market. Without their support, demand may be on uncertain ground. To actionize these recommendations, Forest Trends also conducted a mapping exercise to pinpoint regions of the country where demand for water quality trading may potentially be highest and therefore a market most likely to work[3]. Criteria was established based on those lessons learned; for example, where is water quality a significant issue and challenge (environmental impact)? This type of exercise could potentially be very helpful in deciding where a pilot project of water quality trading may be best placed for success within the province of Alberta.

When dealing with complex issues, relying on the experience and wisdom of others can be a tremendous benefit. Conferences such as ACES bring together people with a wide variety of backgrounds all working to solve similar problems, and facilitate the important process of knowledge sharing. In Alberta, as markets for ES continue to be developed, this knowledge can be capitalized on to improve both environmental and economic outcomes.      


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