Professor Mark Reed discusses valuing peatland ecosystem services for sustainable management

Wednesday, 1st April 2015

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment identified significant market failures linked to the supply of ecosystem services (the benefits people derive from nature), which have led to degradation of ecosystems around the world at an alarming scale. To tackle these challenges an increasing number of Payment for Ecosystem Service schemes have arisen around the world, for example where downstream users of water pay for catchment management upstream, that can sustain the required supply and quality of water. At the same time, regulatory approaches have also proliferated, such as the EU’s Water Framework Directive, which aims to protect and enhance the provision of water-related ecosystem services.

However, there are significant gaps in our understanding of links between the management and flows of ecosystem services, and how different groups of beneficiaries value these in complex socio-ecological systems. We have therefore published a special section in Ecosystem Services [link] that explores how issues of uncertainty may be incorporated in decision-making for the natural environment. The section covers the entire chain from methods of quantifying ecosystem services over their valuation to the development of policy tools, using peatlands as a case study. It demonstrates how solutions for policies can be developed that are both based on sound scientific input and practically implementable.

Our papers emphasise the importance of a sound scientific underpinning to ecosystem service valuation and payment schemes and we propose a cost effective approach to assess the links between pressures, ecosystem functions and ecosystem services using “pressure-response functions”. A theme running through all the papers is the trade-offs that are inevitable between the accuracy and the simplicity of the approaches used to develop the underpinning science and to value ecosystem services. However, the articles explore a range of broad approaches and specific methods that may have the capacity to provide decision-makers with simple, yet reliable evidence about links between policy options, land management and other pressures, ecosystem functions, and the consequent value of stocks and flows of final ecosystem services. In addition to monetary techniques for valuing ecosystem services, the articles consider how monetary valuation may be integrated with participatory and deliberative techniques to provide decision-makers with more nuanced and comprehensive information about the values and preferences of different beneficiary groups.

Lowland peat bog in Drenthe, The Netherlands

Peatlands are an ideal case study in which to ask questions about links between the science and values associated with ecosystem service delivery given growing evidence linking eco- system functions, services and markets in peatlands, the plethora of regulation and overlapping protective designations associated with these sites, as well as the growing number of peatland PES schemes. Each of the articles in this special section therefore uses peatlands as a lens through which to examine questions of international significance.

Peatlands are of particular interest due to their important role in storing carbon and their significance for nature conservation. In many countries peatlands are also important for the provision of clean drinking water and recreational opportunities. However, many peatlands are also used for livestock grazing, sporting interests and peat extraction, and these activities have often compromised habitats, carbon storage and water quality. Nowhere are these pressures more intense than in the UK, where the majority of lowland peat soils have been lost to agriculture or peat extraction, and where the majority of upland peats are managed for livestock and game, in addition to water supply, nature conservation and recreation. Peatlands are the UK's most significant carbon store and form the largest area of semi-natural habitat in the country, hosting a wealth of nationally and inter- nationally important biodiversity and providing amenity value for millions of people. In the UK, the majority of drinking water is derived from surface water that comes predominantly from peaty upland catchments. In the past, an estimated 80% UK peatlands have been damaged or converted to other land uses such as forestry, leading to emission of Greenhouse Gases, loss of biodiversity and water quality reduction. In the face of climate change, healthy peatlands can help society mitigate and adapt to climate change by providing climate and water regulating services. At the same time, a changing climate can impact on the delivery of these services, and peatlands need to be managed to make them resilient to such change.

Understanding the values that are placed upon these services is crucial for selecting and designing effective policy instruments that can sustain the future provision of services that underpin human well-being. However, these policy instruments need to be adapted to incorporate the values of different beneficiary groups at different spatial scales. The papers discuss a range of monetary techniques that may help overcome many of the challenges identified, but they also recognise the importance of eliciting and deliberating over values through participation with the widest possible range of stakeholders. Only in this way may it be possible to incorporate values in decision-making that are as well informed as possible by the available evidence, and that have the capacity to go beyond monetary values when necessary.

More information:

Find out more about the Valuing Peatlands project from the Valuing Nature Network or contact:
Professor Mark Reed
Twitter: @lecmsr