Valuing nature, paying for ecosystem services and realizing social justice

In the latest volume of the journal Ecological Economics, I contribute to ongoing debates about the role of economic valuation in market-based conservation. I respond to an earlier piece by Brett Sylvester Matulis, nuance some of his arguments and set what I believe should be the new agenda for critical scholarship of market-based conservation. I argue for more precision in the claims we make about the role of economic valuation and the impacts of payments for ecosystem services, distinguishing across market-based instruments and across types of outcomes, and for a more nuanced account of the ethical connotations of such instruments. I suggest that such analysis should entail understanding both unequal socio-economic relations and culturally bounded conceptions of justice. Overall, I advocate for the development of a more robust empirical basis to derive generalizations on the procedural, distributive and livelihood implications of market-based instruments for conservation.

“We are the city lungs”. Payments for ecosystem services in the outskirts of Mexico city.

In a recently published article in the journal Land Use Policy, we reflect on the impact of a public program of payments for forest conservation in the outskirts of Mexico city. Have been such payments effective in protecting forests? What are the main challenges in this regard? Have been payments a means to support local people’s social organisation and to enhance their financial and other material assets? How desirable and viable are this kind of direct payment programs in a context of rampant land speculation and increasing urbanisation? Is there a future for payments of this kind in other metropolis around the world? The article abstract can be read here (see Publications section for further details).

Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services

Although conservation efforts have sometimes succeeded in meeting environmental goals at the expense of equity considerations, the changing context of conservation and a growing body of evidence increasingly suggest that equity considerations should be integrated into conservation planning and implementation. In an article recently published in the journal Bioscience, and led by my colleague Unai Pascual from the Basque Centre for Climate Change Research, we review why such a desirable approach is often at at odds with the prevailing focus on economic efficiency that characterizes many payment for ecosystem services (PES) schemes. Therefore, and drawing from examples across the literature, we show in the article how the equity impacts of PES can create positive and negative feedbacks that influence ecological outcomes. We thus caution against equity-blind PES, which overlooks these relationships as a result of a primary and narrow focus on economic efficiency. We call for further analysis and better engagement between the social and ecological science communities to understand the relationships and trade-offs among efficiency, equity, and effectiveness. [See Publications page for article details]

Bioenergy and climate change mitigation

Jointly with other IPCC colleagues, we have reviewed the potential of bioenergy for climate change mitigation. In a new article published in Global Change Biology Bioenergy, we summarize technological options, outline the state-of-the-art knowledge on various climate effects, provide an update on estimates of technical resource potential and comprehensively identify sustainability effects. Stabilization scenarios indicate that bioenergy may supply from 10 to 245 EJ yr−1 to global primary energy supply by 2050. Models indicate that, if technological and governance preconditions are met, large-scale deployment (>200 EJ), together with BECCS, could help to keep global warming below 2° degrees of preindustrial levels; but such high deployment of land-intensive bioenergy feedstocks could also lead to detrimental climate effects, negatively impact ecosystems, biodiversity and livelihoods. The integration of bioenergy systems into agriculture and forest landscapes can improve land and water use efficiency and help address concerns about environmental impacts. We conclude that the high variability in pathways, uncertainties in technological development and ambiguity in political decision render forecasts on deployment levels and climate effects very difficult, which should not preclude us however of pursuing beneficial bioenergy options. The article is available online or upon email request.