Marine ecosystems provide the foundations for wellbeing and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people. The majority live in developing countries with few alternative sources of sustenance or economic revenue. However, the sustained and global decline of coral reef ecosystems, driven by a combination of climate change and accumulating local pressures, is compromising their ability to provide the goods and services upon which individuals, communities and entire cultures depend.
While the challenges of reversing this decline are enormous, actions to reduce additional impacts and support ecosystem recovery are feasible, and urgent. However, decisions continue to be made at all levels of society that further erode the natural capital provided by healthy marine ecosystems in the pursuit of short-term social and economic development opportunities. There is an urgent need to help decision-makers value the services provided by coral reefs so that the trade-offs between short term (and often short-duration) gains and longer term (and often enduring) costs of losses in marine natural capital can be better understood and objectively evaluated.
Ecosystem service valuation is rapidly emerging as an approach for addressing urgent and critically important deficiencies in our governance of natural ecosystems. It is not without its drawbacks, including the increased risk of a commodification bias in natural resource decisions and the related challenge of capturing non-monetary values. However, the trajectory of recent research and the early signs of success in application strongly suggest that we can effectively operationalise ecosystem services concepts for use in coral reef ecosystems and other marine settings. By explicitly linking the character and quality of ecosystems to human welfare, the valuation of ecosystem services offers the promise of decision-support systems that properly capture the trade-offs between short-term gains and long-term losses, and between different sectors or interest groups, thus enabling a more informed discourse about the benefits to humanity of conserving nature.
This blog is drawn from a chapter in a recent publication by the Australian Committee of IUCN on Valuing Nature.