There is now a myriad of methodologies to measure natural capital and ecosystem services – so how do practitioners choose the right one? Charlotte Whitham explains how valuation can be done within the realistic limits on access to time, data, skills and resources, and what this means for decision-making.
When it comes to valuing ecosystem services, we need to get the numbers right. To do this, the land managers and decision-makers amongst us, using valuation tools, need the most accurate techniques at their fingertips. Many approaches exist for estimating the value of ecosystem services and a good deal of research effort has been placed on developing increasingly accurate techniques. These techniques are not, however, always appropriate under certain conditions and are not always accessible for users on the ground. The most accurate techniques are therefore not always used. A paper recently published in PLoS ONE provides a handy insight into the results that can be yielded and the management-based interpretations that can be drawn when using methods and data which are available to protected area managers.
In this paper we explored the use of multiple land-use land cover (LULC) maps and economic valuation approaches for assessing the ecosystem service value of a protected area in southern China. Some of these approaches used local or global data; some approaches were easily accessible; and others more resource-intensive. We were not looking to use the most accurate techniques. Instead, we closely consulted with the protected area management authority to carefully select which data and valuation approaches were accessible to them on the ground. We were also not focusing on the actual estimates of ecosystem service value themselves. Usually, we think of natural capital values to be recorded as potential economic trade-offs associated with the comparison of values under two different scenarios, for example. In this case however, we wanted to use indicators of present total value to make comparisons between different management zones of the protected area. We used this as a way to help the protected area management authority identify the most and least valuable zones.
Where it all got very interesting was to see how different these results actually turned out to be when using the different methodological approaches. For example, the value of ecosystem services inside one management zone was estimated at 2.5 million Chinese Yuan per year per km2 using one methodological approach. Using another approach, this same zone was estimated to hold a value of 59,000 Chinese Yuan per year per km2.
Our paper demonstrates that calculating ecosystem service value can differ widely depending on the methods used. This could have serious implications on management decisions for protected areas. How can we therefore help the protected area management authority identify the most and least valuable zones? Until standardised protocols for ecosystem service valuation have been agreed upon and are readily available for use at variable scales, managers and decision-makers should be aware of the caveats associated with using different valuation approaches.
We acknowledge the recent improvements in methods for valuing natural capital, but we feel it is of utmost importance to also explore not only what is best but also what is accessible. In this way we provide a clear example of how differing ecosystem service valuation methods can affect local decision-making. Despite the case study being situated in southern China, these results could have implications for valuation processes all over the world. We therefore urge researchers and practitioners to read and share this paper, and through this, we hope to motivate the community of researchers, data providers and tool developers to work towards producing both accurate and accessible valuation methods.
About the author: Charlotte Whitham is soon to obtain her PhD from Beijing Forestry University where she has been based for the past 5 years, working with a team dedicated to applied conservation science. Her work throughout China and in collaboration with China’s State Forestry Administration and the University of Oxford, explores how ecosystem services and human-wildlife conflicts might be researched, monitored and managed simultaneously, all in the name of more effective and efficient conservation action.