Every year deliberately lit fires rage across Indonesia. They destroy pristine rainforest, endanger orangutans and contribute to climate change. A young carbon trading entrepreneur goes in search of a solution.
In the context of forest management, a new paradigm has originated from the private sector. The idea of ‘ecosystem services’ is taking off, and countries who are protecting their forests are set to reap the benefits.
The term ‘ecosystem services’ refers to the benefits of the processes and resources derived from natural ecosystems. Forests are like massive utility companies providing services that we all benefit from but (at this stage) don’t pay for. As well as keeping excess carbon out of the atmosphere, forests also generate rainfall, protect biodiversity, store water, stabilise soil, and protect us from climatic extremes.
Ecosystem services fall into five categories:
Cultural: Recreational and spiritual benefits
Preserving: Maintaining biodiversity to guard against uncertainty
Provisioning: Production of food and water
Regulating: Control of global warming, climate, and disease
Supporting: Pollination of crops, nutrient cycles
One real-world example of the value of ecosystem services occurred in New York City in 1997, when the quality of tap water fell below government standards for consumption. The cost of installing a water filtration plant for NYC was quoted as being between 6 and $8 billion USD, plus annual running costs of $300 million. However, rather than filtering the polluted water, the authorities chose to address the problem at its source and restored the Catskill Watershed instead. This is the catchment area where all the drinking water originated, and by diminishing pollutants like pesticides and sewage, the water supply was restored to its original purity. Natural abiotic processes that filtered the water were re-established, and the water was drinkable again. The cost? $1.5 billion… much less than establishing the artificial filtration plant. The investment in the natural capital of ecosystem services was good for the environment, and a sound financial decision too.
Aceh’s Governor Irwandi has an interesting analogy for the ecosystem services provided by the province’s magnificent forests: “Aceh is like a septic tank”, he says. “While the rest of the world is polluting the atmosphere, Aceh’s forests are purifying it. Other countries need to pay to use the septic tank.”