Smart Prosperity's Research Network conducts world-class research focused on a stronger, cleaner economy. This Spotlight Series highlights the activities of faculty and student researchers alike, showcasing the breadth of expertise and activities of our Research and Student Networks.
In this edition, we caught up with Marian Weber and Dean Ahmadi. The team, working with Nancy Olewiler, was awarded funding through Smart Prosperity's 2020 Call for Research Proposals for their project titled "BC Environmental and Ecosystem Benefits Assessment Platform."
Marian: The recent global assessment of the Economics of Biodiversity highlighted that the benefits of ecosystems and natural capital are largely invisible and thus hard to weigh in public and private decision making. This puts our economy and well-being at risk. Nobody knows how much is at risk since we don’t have a good baseline understanding of the services nature provides to people, let alone how these change with policy and management decisions.
Over the last 30 years there has been a concerted effort to measure and value the contributions of ecosystems to well-being and the economy. Nonetheless, there are few examples where governments have successfully embedded natural capital in decision making. In addition to science gaps, primary data on ecosystem benefits is expensive to collect and maintain so efforts tend to be idiosyncratic and hard to scale. Assessments which propose natural capital values that are orders of magnitude larger than development values are not viewed as credible by decision makers, particularly as they often arise from values transferred from a small set of decades-old primary studies from different jurisdictions and decision contexts.
We are interested in finding a suite of ecosystem benefit indicators that are credible and relevant across a range of scales and decision contexts. We hope to start with a small suite of indicators that are easy to communicate and can be developed with administrative data, and use these to build confidence in incorporating ecosystem benefits in decision making. These indicators will be the building blocks of more complex indicators of natural capital value that may be developed in the future.
Dean: Specifically, we are working to identify a suite of ecosystem benefit indicators that would be feasible and relevant for British Columbia, and that would complement BC’s State of Environment reporting. To do this, we reviewed emerging platforms from around the world along with the decision context and audiences for which they are intended. Examples include The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), the US Environmental Protection Agency’s EnviroAtlas, and the System for Environmental Economic Accounting Ecosystem Accounting standard.
We looked at the suitability of different approaches for BC by linking benefits and indicators to BC legislation and policy priorities. For example, we found over 90 sections in 9 Acts administered by the Natural Resource Ministries in which ecosystem service indicators could support the purpose of the Act. We also reviewed mandate letters for the Natural Resource Ministers to identify areas where ecosystem service indicators could support policy priorities. These include supporting biodiversity and wildlife strategies, climate adaptation and water security. Based on this prioritization, we developed a list of potential indicators and assessed their feasibility for future development. These results will be used to engage with various ministries and program areas to move forward with a pilot project.
Marian: Ecosystem service indicators serve a number of purposes and audiences – ranging from communicating the broad benefits of environmental stewardship, to improved efficiency and accountability in land and resource decisions. One of our challenges is to make sure that the indicators we develop will match the target purpose and audience. We are focusing on indicators that support land use planning and provincial strategies such as Together for Wildlife which call for targeted ecosystem investment. It is important to initially focus on indicators that are easy to understand, cheap to develop, and salient to communities. Ultimately politicians must make the case for land use decisions in terms that their constituents relate to. This means focusing on metrics such as recreation and local amenities that can be supported by observational data and that people are passionate about.
Marian: In 2019, BC adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ Act which recognizes that Indigenous peoples’ cultural identity and well-being is linked to their land. This creates a specific priority to engage Indigenous communities to understand how to represent Indigenous ecosystem values while respecting their own information, knowledge and perspectives. Many of the benefits provided by ecosystems – for example the provision of food, or clean water – are similar for Indigenous and non-indigenous communities, although distributional and specific concerns may differ.
One important aspect of Indigenous ecosystem benefits is the place-based legal enshrinement of traditional rights (including hunting, fishing, and cultural rights) that are underpinned by ecosystems. The place-based ecological underpinning of Indigenous rights overcomes one of the biggest challenges to ecosystem service valuation which is how to account for substitutes for natural capital – both with other natural capital, as well as physical or built capital. In the case of ecosystems underpinning many traditional rights, there are no substitutes.
Additionally, many in-situ ecosystem benefits are confidential to Indigenous communities. So while this is an area that government can support, ultimately leadership to develop some of these indicators must come from Indigenous communities themselves.
I have been most inspired by the UK’s approach. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ 2011 Environment White Paper was a call to measure and value natural capital to better incorporate it in decisions. The UK recognized the importance of moving the discussion out of academia and statistical agencies by developing practical information based on available data that could move the dial on policy, decision making and public awareness. The White Paper was sweeping in scope and distinct from previous approaches to environmental management through its emphasis on the interconnectedness of wildlife, water, soil and landscapes, and working at scales that support outcomes in those domains.
The paper led to the establishment of an independent Natural Capital Committee whose role was to advise the Government on the state of natural capital in England and make recommendations for progress. Based on their recommendation, the government launched a 25 Year Environment Plan in 2018. Using a similar process of indicator review and engagement that we borrowed from for this project, the Natural Capital Committee recommended a suite of metrics to track progress of the plan. The UK’s approach is very applicable to provinces such as BC due to the need for multi-scaled approaches and provincial jurisdiction over many of the decisions that impact the extent and quality of ecosystems.
My prior research experience was mainly focused on the impact of human behaviour on energy consumption without considering the impact of policy on those behaviours, nor the impact of human behaviour on the broader environment. This project was an excellent opportunity for me to learn more about environmental policy and legislation as tools that can be used to modify behavior and impacts on the environment. I feel this project gave me a good understanding of how economics can support environmental policy.
Marian: For ecosystem service indicators to be useful for government decision making, someone must own the outcomes they represent. Now that we have identified a preliminary list of indicators, we are engaging with government and other experts to develop the business case for one or two indicators. These could be developed over the next year or two to support the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategies’ mandate letter priorities, which include protection and enhancement of biodiversity and species at risk, and developing a water security strategy. Our intention is to use the results of this project to develop a Ministry road map for embedding natural capital in our own Ministry’s decisions, and making information available to both the private and public sector to mobilize investment in natural capital.
Dean: After graduating from Simon Fraser University in fall 2020, I was seeking roles in policy and data analysis. Through this project, I gained valuable experience working in a new policy area, and exploring various indicators and datasets. I also had the opportunity to develop interpersonal and leadership skills by taking leadership training with my team and learning more about how government works. I developed a deeper appreciation of public policy and am looking forward to applying these skills to solve real-world environmental issues.
Thank you Marian and Dean!