Sustainability whack-a-mole

Palm Oil plantation in Indonesia

In the world of arcades, the whack-a-mole is a classic. The game, in which players use a mallet to hit randomly appearing toy moles back into their holes, is an innocent reminder that fixing a problem in one place may only cause others to pop up elsewhere. But within sustainability, such problem solving come with more serious consequences. Coined environmental leakage, it 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. 

An approach of “out of sight, out of mind” can mean big problems when dealing with complex social-ecological challenges and can put into question well-intended place based sustainability practices.

Off-stage ecosystem service burdens

In a study recently published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, researchers from the Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3), together with a team of colleagues from Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, UK, Spain and Canada, have looked at how ecosystem assessments often overlook what they describe as “distant, diffuse and delayed” impacts. 

These impacts, termed “off-stage ecosystem service burdens by Unai Pascual and his colleagues” may be critical for global sustainability. The lead author, Ikerbasque Professor Unai Pascual, at BC3 states that “we’ve made great progress in understanding how human wellbeing is affected by ecosystems in many different places. But in our tightly interconnected world, we really can’t achieve any sustainability transition unless we take better account of ‘off-stage burdens’ that are felt elsewhere or in the future.”

To succeed, these burdens must be better recognised and incorporated in ecosystem assessments such as those led by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 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. 

Jeopardising the Sustainable Development Goals

Unai Pascual argues that neglecting these off-stage burdens may jeopardise achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. 

“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,” he says.

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. 

Pascual and his colleagues argue that “off-stage ecosystem service burdens may well be an inconvenient truth, but neglecting them does not help to avoid their impacts”.  In fact, ignoring them will hamper science-policy efforts for transitioning towards global sustainability and for living within critical global biophysical boundaries, they argue.

“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.

Pascual, U., Palomo, I., Adams, W., Chan, K., Daw, T., Garmendia, E., Gómez-Baggethun, E., de Groot, R., Mace, G., Martín-López, B., Phelps, J. (2017). Off-stage ecosystem service burdens: A blind spot for global sustainability. Environmental Research Letters. (DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa7392)