Expert Urges More Advanced Data-Based Ecosystem Services Modeling

August 18, 2020

An ecosystem expert says one option for greatly improving ecosystem services modeling that informs policy decisions would be to use more advanced data to capture detailed differences within ecosystems, compared to the current one-size-fits-all approaches that analysts are using.

Becky Chaplin-Kramer, lead scientist with the Natural Capital Project (NatCap), described the potential for improving ecosystem services modeling in Aug. 3 remarks during the online annual conference of the Ecological Society of America, a group of ecological scientists. She said NatCap is embracing the use of more-accurate information in identifying and modeling ecosystem services at multiple levels, including national and global scales.

NatCap is a partnership of several academic institutions -- Stanford University, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the University of Minnesota, and the Stockholm Resilience Centre -- along with the environmental non-profits The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund.

In her presentation at the conference, titled “Advances in the integration of earth observations and essential biodiversity variables into ecosystem service modeling,” Chaplin-Kramer said the unprecedented economic disruption of COVID-19 has spawned countless “build back better” proposals for a “green recovery” that boosts funding for clean energy and sustainability jobs.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris climate agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and other developments already mean that this is the “decade of restoration,” and a green recovery could help, she said.

She continued that there has been “slow but steady progress” in both policy and finance for investing in natural capital, she said. But “it’s been more like a dribble,” but that now with COVID-19 there might be a “tidal wave of opportunity” ecologists need to prepare for.

‘Green, Not Grey’ Projects

The need for standardized, accessible data to rapidly assess ecosystem services has never been greater, and “we need to be ready” for “green, not grey” projects, she said, reviewing the state of the science regarding ecosystem services assessment and future research needs.

A “green” project would be one that relies on ecosystem restoration projects compared to a “grey” project that builds artificial structures made, for example, of cement.

At the time of the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, scientists had only a framework and virtually no global-scale information about ecosystem services, Chaplin-Kramer noted. The 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), while an impressive feat, modeled only a few of nature’s contributions to people, mostly in biophysical terms, not direct measurements of ecosystem services’ human benefits. Moreover, IPBES used scientific literature, not global data or modeling.

But now, an approach to assessing ecosystem services that uses a forthcoming framework from the multinational Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Networks (GEO BON) and Essential Biodiversity Variables (EBVs) those limitations can be overcome, she said. GEO BON includes the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration as a key participant. Working with ecologists worldwide and using today’s high-tech observational tools, dozens of critical natural capital ecosystem services have been identified and mapped. This information includes an identification of the humans who receive the benefits of the services, and should be considered alongside CBD biodiversity goals, she said.

The real advance of the approach she described is the ability to map beneficiaries back to habitat. With such tools, maps can be made to understand globally where nature contributes most to people. In the CBD context, it can be shown that specific ecosystem service areas provide “quite a lot of value for not a lot of area,” Chaplin-Kramer said.

Despite progress using advanced tools, they do not go far enough as they still rely on simplified one-size-fits-all “land-use cover” categories as a proxy for “a diversity of functions,” she said. A forest with ground cover, for example, is better at preventing soil erosion than a degraded forest with only a canopy, but at present both are put in the same land-use category, she said.

But GEO BON’s EBVs can serve as new inputs to ecosystem service models to replace or complement land-use categories, she said, describing how the GEO BON’s technical EBV system can “drive ecosystem services models,” especially for such services as carbon sequestration. She described “research frontiers” for using the EBVs and ecosystem services modeling to link services and human beneficiaries, using examples of carbon storage, sediment retention, and nature-based tourism. While not yet done at a global scale, the approach should be much easier to scale up than the IPBES scientific literature approach and more accurate.

NatCap is using the more-advanced modeling with companies that made “no net deforestation” commitments that likely will involve some deforestation in their supply chains. The model will help identify where companies can initiate restoration projects to “get the most carbon bang for their bucks” and ensure no net deforestation means no net carbon loss, she said.

Research Agenda

Regarding a research agenda, Chaplin-Kramer noted that the current land cover categories fail to represent how ecosystem services are changing over time and “we need detection and early warning systems if stocks are dipping dangerously low.” She pointed to extensive research ecologists could incorporate to capture the ecosystem dynamics over time. She also said modelers need to move past “merely delineating beneficiaries” to calling out “inequities in ecosystem service flows and access,” injustices the pandemic has brought to the fore.

At the Ecological Society of America conference, Chaplin-Kramer and other researchers described their work in biodiversity assessments that the symposium said “are increasingly in demand for supporting conservation policies and international agreements.”

In response to an audience question following her remarks, Chaplin-Kramer cited agricultural policies as an example of why one-size-fits-all approaches fail. With more-standardized ecosystem services measures, policies could focus with more specificity on desired outcomes, for example: “Are the hedgerows you've planted diverse enough or closely spaced enough to provide pollinators, given the context of your broader landscape? Are your riparian buffers thick enough, given your soil, climate and topography?” -- David Clarke

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