21 June 2017 14:18

Efforts to solve environmental problems in one place often fail to recognise the risk of turning up the pressure elsewhere—a challenging and frustrating phenomenon highlighted in a new article published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

In an increasingly interconnected world, an “out of sight, out of mind” approach can lead to big problems when dealing with complex social-ecological challenges. It can also put into question well-intended place-based sustainability practices.

Dr Jacob Phelps of Lancaster University’s Environment Centre, together with a team of colleagues from Spain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, has looked at how ecosystem assessments often overlook “distant, diffuse and delayed” impacts.

Coined ‘environmental leakage’, the term refers to how interventions aimed at reducing environmental pressures at one site may be locally successful, but increase pressures elsewhere.

On example is how the recovery of fish stocks in Europe has led to increased fishing pressure in West African waters. Another is how improved regulations of Chinese and European forests have led to deforestation in the tropics due to increased Chinese and European biomass imports. This not only has global environmental consequences but social ones as well, since people’s livelihoods in those distant places are often negatively impacted.

These kinds of impacts may be critical for global sustainability.

Dr Phelps said: “We increasingly understand the relationships between human actions and environmental changes, including impacts on sites that may be very distant. However, the existing sustainability toolkits that we use to evaluate and try to reduce impacts, often look too locally. In an increasingly interconnected world, meaningful changes towards sustainability require that we also account for ‘off-stage burdens’ that may not be immediately obvious, but are critical to other sites and to future impacts.”

These burdens must be better recognised and incorporated in ecosystem assessments, such as those led by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPBES). Some policies do recognise environmental leakage of particular impacts, for example where protection of a coral reef from fishing leads to more fishing in neighbouring sites. However ‘off stage burdens’ also include impacts that differ from the ‘on stage impacts’. For example where people displaced from fishing revert to activities that cause other types of environmental impacts such as diffuse pollutant or emissions of climate. Off-stage burdens ultimately impact people’s quality of life but these are often in distant populations or even future generations. As such they are difficult to measure and are generally outside the scope of most environmental policies and ecosystem service assessments.

Lead author, Unai Pascual from the Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3), argues that neglecting these off-stage burdens may jeopardise achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

He said: “For global sustainability to be achieved, assessments and policies need to account for impacts on ecosystems and people across sites and scales. The lack of attention to off-stage burdens is partly because of the methodological difficulties and costs involved in systematically addressing them and the absence of effective institutions. But also because they have not been recognized as important components in ecosystem assessment frameworks.”

In the study, Pascual and his colleagues suggest various ways for science and decision-makers to deal with these “burdens” in ecosystem assessments. Fundamentally, there is a need to merge work on environmental impacts and risk analysis with ecosystem service assessments across time and space. This then must be converted into relevant policy action. In addition, we can measure and visualise burdens by using existing concepts such as ‘virtual water’ which, for example, captures how consuming imported goods in one place impacts water supplies in regions where these goods are produced.

“Our planet is a large, coupled human and natural system consisting of many smaller coupled social-ecological systems linked in complex ways through flows of information, matter and energy. These unprecedented interdependencies link the management of ecosystems and the wellbeing of people in distant places,” the authors conclude.

The article is available to view at http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa7392/meta