Land Use 2016: Regional Planning for Ecosystem Goods and Services

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Discussing our environment in the context of ecosystem services has become increasingly common in recent years, but what does that term mean, and how can it influence policy and planning?

Ecosystem services are natural environmental processes that directly contribute to human society. The latter part of that definition is crucially important: all ecosystems have natural functions, but in order to be defined as an ecosystem service, a function must contribute to a human objective or need.

Water quality is a common example. We benefit when the water available to us is clean, so if a natural ecosystem function purifies water, it can be described as an ecosystem service. The same can be said of functions like flood mitigation; if a natural ecosystem retains heavy water flows and prevents the flooding of a city, it can be recognized as contributing an ecosystem service. The term can also apply when ecosystems help meet human-set environmental objectives, such as carbon sequestration, or biodiversity.  

But what is the benefit of viewing natural ecosystem functions as services?

Many economists study the use of market-based approaches –– instead of government regulation –– to achieve environmental outcomes. The question behind this research is simple: can societies compensate private individuals to provide ecosystem services for a market-determined fee?

For example, wetlands can provide ecosystem services such as water purification and flood mitigation. If a farmer restores wetlands on his or her property, can we create an economy in which the population benefiting from those services pays the farmer at market-established rates to maintain them? Could paying farmers to provide wetlands some day be as normal as paying to build water treatment plants, or dams?

Much needs to be learned before these kinds of ecosystem services can be bought and sold on an open market. Correctly measuring the services provided is a particularly complex problem, because quantifying how much an individual wetland contributes to water purification or retention can be extremely difficult. But while our scientific understanding of such metrics continues to grow, we also need to examine how markets for buying and selling ecosystem services might integrate into policy and regional planning.

If policy makers decide that certain environmental objectives must be achieved, how can they support the use of ecosystem services to meet those aims? In the wetland example, how can regional planning make the restoration of wetlands practical for land owners? What existing policies could be barriers to an ecosystem services approach?

Though Canada is not a leader when it comes to integrating ecosystem services markets into policy, Australia has extensive experience in this area. During the Regional Planning for Ecosystem Goods and Services policy stream at Land Use 2016, Dr. David Pannell from the University of Western Australia will deliver a plenary address exploring lessons learned in that country.

An expert panel including City of Edmonton Councilor Michael Walters, City of Calgary planner Chris Manderson, and researcher Dr. Irena Creed will then discuss ecosystem services in the real-world Alberta context.

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