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Re: Payments for environmental services (PES) in theory and practice: Lessons learned and way forward

Peter Steele Independent Consultant Agricultural Engineer, Italy
Peter Steele

Sustainable Cities

Payments for environmental services (PES) are not well understood by those at the sharp end of the business; it represents a sophisticated approach to resource management that can be well outside the remit of those involved with current resource use. And this, notwithstanding the logic of many of the principles behind PES. If there are people out there who are not really certain of what is involved, there is a quick introduction provided by the World Bank.[1] The messages can be summarized as: ‘Providers get’ and ‘Users pay’.

For all that, however, local socio-political decision-making frequently rides rough-shod over the value of a particularly area of natural cover, watershed, swampland and/or habitat, and much will depend upon the support given to the sometimes impoverished and ill-informed rural people, in particular, by concerned public services or NGOs.

My contribution to the debate, however, is one of placing PES within the context of ‘sustainability’ and linking this to those ever expanding urban areas – the preferred habitat of the majority of the world’s people. This raises a couple of interesting developments: 1. When everyone is living in towns and cities, the remaining 93% of the globe’s surface can be managed on the basis of best practices land/resource suitability;[2] and 2. The conceptual appreciation of cities as ‘Networks of inter-dependent and self-sustaining systems’.

I may not have expressed myself sufficiently well enough with this kind of approach, but the basis for considering it is the finite nature of the global biosphere and the difficulties that will face national and international global managers when sustaining a population >10B in a few years time with the standards that are currently enjoyed today by less than one third this number. How will the planet cope? There is need for a different way in which to consider the extent to which natural resources are consumed and, in most cases, wasted.

You can consider urban dwellers as living in a technosphere[3] wherein everything that is required for the sustenance of daily life has to be produced elsewhere and shipped into the city; and the city then becomes hostage to the life-supporting systems, infrastructure, foods, energy, water, minerals and other necessities, on the one hand, and the copious waste streams discharged into the surrounding environment, on the other.

Sure, there are glimpses of the changes already taking place with waste re-use, materials recycling, etc. which are beyond a brief consideration of the many issues involved here but, consider, the analogy of a city as a natural habitat – an urban forest, ocean, savannah grasslands or whatever - with opportunities into the long-term of making the city as sustainable as that forest; meaning no waste streams, no land-fill, no waste heat, no atmospheric discharges, etc.

Practical or futuristic? Probably both, but much will depend upon approach and understanding, and the ability of concerned people everywhere when working towards this kind of shared future. The alternatives – much of what we can see already – of competition for resources, increased consumption, waste instead of conservation and pragmatic opportunism by many of the major players – including the world’s richest 30% (meaning you and me, of course) – do not provide optimistic answers.

PES represents a small step into this kind of protective sustainability; and not before time. You only need to explore the reduced quality of the majority shallow seas, loss of natural flora/fauna, the degradation of natural forest lands – particularly those that are accessible to cities – and the decline in productive lands/soils everywhere.

It is particularly apt to explore a debate of this kind within the world’s leading international food agency given the unsuitability of many of the agro-industrial food/materials production systems that currently sustain the world. The externalities of food production should not be sacrificed on the altar of low cost; new approaches and new models are long overdue.

Peter Steele


[2] Urban land area. There is an interesting approach to the challenge of one international city housing 7B people. Check out: tp://persquaremile.com/2011/01/18/if-the-worlds-population-lived-in-one-city/. 93% is based upon a ‘London’ model density.

[3] Technosphere. Something of an emotive word (concept even) with different meanings according to those promoting different platforms for the way in which the world should/may continue to change into the next period.