A new approach provides means to measure important aspects of ecosystem services closely related to the wellbeing of women and local communities Photo: A. Maslennikov/Azote

Implementing policy targets

Measuring the immeasurable

New approach can make target on protecting crucial ecosystem services easier to assess

Story highlights

  • Study develops holistic matrix approach for measuring ecosystem services aligned with Target 14 of the Aichi biodiversity targets
  • Social-Ecological-Systems approach allows for human-well being to be included in the equation, that uniquely assesses benefits of ecosystem service bundles
  • Methodology should ease measurements of ecosystem services and value for policy

When the Nagoya Biodiversity Summit closed its meeting in the final days of October 2010, it did so with the formal adoption of the Aichi targets, 20 headline targets that would address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss.

One of the targets was Target 14 which stated that "By 2020, ecosystems that provide essential services, including services related to water, and contribute to health, livelihoods and well-being, are restored and safeguarded, taking into account the needs of women, indigenous and local communities, and the poor and vulnerable."

That's all good, but how can we actually measure that this is actually implemented?

Four dimensions
In an article recently published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, centre researchers Oonsie Biggs and Thomas Elmqvist, together with centre research fellow Belinda Reyers from South Africa, and colleagues from the US and the UK have developed a holistic 'matrix approach' for measuring ecosystem services aligned with Target 14.

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Although there have been many attempts at making multidimensional policy targets measurable, they have mostly been compromised by the complex, interconnected and dynamic nature of ecosystem services. Add the requirement of measuring human well-being and you are in for a massive task.

"We believe that what is required is an approach or a set of measures that make explicit the dynamic linkages between social and ecological structures and processes"

Oonsie Biggs, lead author

The approach, which Biggs and her colleagues call a Social-Ecological-Systems approach, aims to help measure four important aspects:

1. The social and ecological factors that produce ecosystem services
2. The bundles of services produced and their benefit flows
3. The changes in human well-being and how that influences the management of social-ecological systems
4. Any changes in management and how that affects the production of ecosystem services

"This approach recognises that in a human-dominated environment, social factors such as skills, management regimes and technology also affect the production of ecosystem services," Thomas Elmqvist says.

Narrowing down services and their benefits
In contrast to existing frameworks, this approach aims to identify the benefits associated with a bundle of interacting services and see how these benefits reach different groups.

The first step is to identify a group. Take the example of vulnerable women. By focusing on the specific needs of this group, the approach can help identify relevant factors of well-being such as basic materials, health and security. The next step isto link these dimensions to the required ecosystem services needed to guarantee these factors, such as access to domestic water, food, fuel and protection from natural disasters.

Step three would be a further prioritisation of the ecosystem services to identify what exactly must be included to reach a target. Take access to domestic water for instance. This would require services like water purification and erosion control services.

"From the final list of relevant services, we can identify the fundamental social and ecological services required to ultimately reach a target," Oonsie Biggs explains.

Based on this methodology, Biggs and her colleagues believe it is easier to measure the importance of an ecosystem service and explore its value for setting policy targets.

"This will provide a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the close linkages between social and ecological systems while at the same time making them more tangible and thus measurable."

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Reyers, B., Biggs, R., Cumming, G.S, Elmqvist, T., Hejnowicz, A.P., Polasky, S. 2013. Getting the measure of ecosystem services: a social—ecological approach. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 268—273. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/120144
Oonsie Biggs' research focuses on regime shifts — large, abrupt, long-lasting changes in the dynamics of coupled social-ecological systems that can have dramatic impacts on human economies and societies.
Thomas Elmqvist is a professor in Natural Resource Management. His research is focused on ecosystem services, land use change, natural disturbances and components of resilience including the role of social institutions.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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