There is growing global concern about the condition of the environment. From biodiversity loss to climate change, the natural world is changing. As the problems are becoming more evident, possible solutions are developing. There is evidence that maintaining old forests (Humphrey, 2005) and increasing young forests (Rozendaal et al., 2019) can help combat some of the problems being faced. Forests have the ability to act as a carbon sink (Luyssaert et al., 2008), storing large amounts of carbon in the vegetation and soils (Eswaran et al., 1993; Jobbágy and Jackson, 2000). Not only that, but forests also provide habitat to many species, provide storm and flooding mitigation, provide recreation facilities for people, and other ecosystem services.
Comprising 31% of the Earth (FAO, 2020), forests are a major ecosystem type. However, they are being lost at an alarming rate. With education and tighter enforcement, deforestation has decreased but it is still approximately 5 million HA each year (FAO, 2020). The effects of deforestation will not be localised events. The major deforestation events in the Amazon and the Congo will have massive global repercussions, having the ability to change global weather patterns for example (Avissar and Werth, 2005).
Ireland was greatly deforested in the past as a result of land clearing for agriculture. The realization of the need for forests in the past century has led to an increase of forestry in Ireland. The Irish government wants to increase the current 11% forest land cover (DAFM, 2020) to 17% by 2030 (Forest Service, 1996) which has proven to be difficult (DAFM, 2020). New initiatives are introducing forests back into the Irish landscape, making conversion from agricultural land profitable for landowners. As these forests age, the issue of maintaining them will grow in importance, as will managing the multiple benefits they deliver for people.
Partnering with Coillte, an Irish commercial timber company and the largest forest owner in Ireland, the For-ES project will pilot the creation of natural capital accounts for approximately 20 different forest types throughout Ireland. This will allow decision makers to determine and compare the ecosystem services and benefits derived from different types of forest, and to track those over time. Model sites will be selected to encompass a variety of forested ecosystem types (different species present, age classes, etc.). Data on timber production, carbon sequestration, water retention, biodiversity and recreation will be collated for each forest. A structured decision-making approach will be used, and ultimately the project aims to create a decision support tool. The tool created will be intended for the use of Coillte employees and private forest owners. Strong and close communication with stakeholders is pertinent to ensure that the tool created for them will be used by them.
System of Environmental Economic Accounting – Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA)
Without frameworks and standards, tracking ecosystem services would be difficult. However, the United Nations recently ratified the System of Environmental Economic Accounting Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA). It is a framework that connects ecosystems and their services to the economy, evaluating ecosystem “stocks” and their quality for the “flow” of ecosystem services. The For-ES project will be using the SEEA EA approach. Ecosystem services is a term that has a number of different definitions and this project will be using the definition from SEEA EA “Ecosystem services are the contributions of ecosystems to the benefits that are used in economic and other human activity…use incorporates direct physical consumption, passive enjoyment and indirect use” (UN, 2021). Under this definition, ecosystem services are directly connected to human wellbeing. Another term that needs a clear definition is ecosystem asset. The SEEA EA defines ecosystem assets as the “the contiguous spaces of a specific ecosystem type characterised by a distinct set of biotic and abiotic components and their interactions” (UN, 2021). Assets provide the ecosystem services. The ecosystem service can be provided by one asset or as the result of many assets working together. Ecosystem assets are the main unit used throughout ecosystem accounting. They contain information about extent, condition and ecosystem services both in physical and monetary terms.
The SEEA EA creates different accounts with different classifications (Figure 2). The three stock accounts are ecosystem extent, ecosystem condition, and ecosystem asset accounts. The ecosystem extent is the size and type of the asset. The condition is the quality of the asset. The ecosystem asset account is a monetary account which encompasses all ecosystem asset monetary values in an ecosystem accounting area. The flow accounts are the services that ecosystems provide. Ecosystem extent and ecosystem condition are physical accounts, meaning they are measured by a non-monetary quantity. Ecosystem services can be a physical or monetary account determined by the audience and the questions being asked.
The SEEA EA can be seen as a bridge connecting statistics, policy, science and economics with the united goal of preserving nature. The SEEA EA can be incorporated into national and international policies (UN, 2021), which will provide and accountability factor. Changes in these accounts can be attributed to degradation, conservation, etc., a feature that was missing in system of national accounts (SNA) or GDP (Edens et al., 2022). The SEEA EA is an approach that can be used in conjunction with SEEA CF and alongside SNA. Economics is embedded in the environment and should be seen as such (Figure 3).
About the author:
Kathleen Conroy is a first year PhD student on the DAFM-funded For-ES project supervised by Jane Stout, Yvonne Buckley of Trinity College Dublin. Kathleen has a MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation from TCD and a BSc in Environmental Science from University of Massachusetts Boston.
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