Local Decisions Big Impact on Ecosystems

Stephen Leahy

HAVANA TIMES, Sep 11 (IPS) — What do New York City, Vienna, Quito and Rio de Janeiro have in common? They all get their high quality drinking water through aqueducts connected to protected areas in nearby hills and mountains.

Twenty years ago, a rapidly expanding New York City determined it was far cheaper to protect and restore the source of its water supply, the Catskill/Delaware forests and wetlands, than spend six to eight billion dollars on a water treatment plant.

Cities are dependent on nature. There are many examples of how the ecosystem services provided by nature can provide cost-effective solutions for local municipal services,

according to a new major study titled “TEEB report for Local and Regional Policy Makers” released Thursday in India, Brazil, Belgium, Japan and South Africa.

However, the study notes that few politicians and public officials realise that factoring in the planet’s multi-trillion-dollar ecosystem services into their policy-making can help save cities and regional authorities’ money while boosting the local economy, enhancing quality of life, securing livelihoods and generating employment.

“All economic activity and most of human well-being whether in an urban or non-urban setting is based on a healthy, functioning environment,” said Pavan Sukhdev, study leader of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme.

“Nature’s multiple and complex values have direct economic impacts on human well-being and public spending at a local and well as national level,” Sukhdev, a leading economist, said in a release.

In hot, drought-stricken Canberra, Australia’s local authorities enhanced urban quality of life by planting 400,000 trees. Besides making the city greener, the trees are expected to cool the city, reduce pollution, improve urban air quality, and reduce energy costs for air conditioning. The tree planting is expected to provide an estimated 10 million dollars a year in benefits to the city and increase in value with time.

Deforestation and low rainfall resulted in severe water shortages in India’s Hiware Bazaar during the 1970s. Village elders and leaders realised that better management of water

and forests was needed, and regenerated 70 ha of degraded forests. In less than a decade, poverty rates fell by 73 percent, the number of active water wells doubled, grass production went up and income from agriculture increased, according the TEEB report, which lists many other examples from around the world.

Storm surges are a major threat to communities along northern coastal regions of Vietnam. To protect themselves they chose to plant and protect mangrove forests. An investment of 1.1 million dollars has saved an estimated annual 7.3 million dollars in dyke maintenance alone.

Living things – plants, animals, fish, insects and so on – are collectively known as biodiversity. Networks of living things make up ecosystems that provide us with food, timber, medicines, and fiber, and services such as flood control, pollination, climate regulation, and nutrient cycling, as well as nonmaterial benefits such as recreation. Local policy and economic decisions – log the forest, develop coastlines, build a factory – multiplied millions of times over the last hundred years have put our biological infrastructure in jeopardy.

“Despite increasing worldwide conservation efforts, biodiversity continues to decline,” said Mike Rands, director of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative at the University of Cambridge in England.

Species are going extinct at 1,000 times their natural pace due to human activity, recent science has documented, with 35 to 40 species vanishing each day, never to be seen again. About 21 percent of all known mammals, 30 percent of all known amphibians and nearly a quarter of plant species are believed to be at risk, Rands and a variety of co-authors note in their paper published Friday in the journal Science.

This decline is largely due to unintended human actions that result in degradation, fragmentation and destruction of habitats, pollution, overexploitation of species, invasive

species and climate change, the “Biodiversity Conservation: Challenges Beyond 2010” paper notes.

“It is critical that that we begin to view biodiversity as a global public good which provides such benefits as clean air and fresh water,” Rands said in a release. Human development and poverty alleviation are impossible without healthy functioning ecosystems, and society and governments need take “seriously the central role of biodiversity in human well-being and quality of life”, the paper concludes.

Most importantly, understanding of the vital role of biodiversity has to be integrated not just into policies but also into society and individuals’ day-to-day decisions, says Rands.

The TEEB report for Local and Regional Policy Makers was created to help local officials do just that, says report co-author Carsten Nesshöver of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany.

“The report aims to provide an inspiring starting point for thinking local policy in a new way,” Nesshöver told IPS from Lepzig.

Most of the negative impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems happen at the local level as a result of local decisions, he said. However, studies show it is most often far more cost-effective to protect and enhance ecosystems. Integrating the real value of ecosystem services into policy making can save future costs, boost local economies, enhance local quality of life and secure livelihoods, the report found.

“It (the report) offers a new perspective and provides a guideline for local authorities to take a stepwise approach on how to assess and factor nature’s benefits into local policy action,” said Nesshöver.

To make the report of wider practical use, local officials from 30 communities around the world were asked what tools they needed to be able to use the findings in this report, he says. The report is freely available and includes a short eight-page guidebook for policy makers. There is also a website with case studies and examples of best practices.

“Many countries like Brazil are very keen on this. They understand that many of their local problems could be solved by integrating the findings of TEEB,” he said.