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New factsheets on ecosystem services and the future of European freshwaters

May 6, 2016
Wind Energy Lake, CC Conor Dupre-Neary, Flickr - Consensus World

A wind farm beside a lake: a common sight in a future ‘consensus world’ scenario for Europe’s freshwaters? Image: Conor Dupre Neary | Creative Commons

What benefits do freshwater ecosystems provide to humans, and how might they alter in Europe in coming decades?  These are key questions that underpin how freshwater science, management and policy is done in Europe, both now and in the future.

The MARS project has recently released a set of short and easily-digestible factsheets, which summarise the ‘start of the art’ knowledge on freshwater ecosystem services, and provide a range of ‘horizon scanning‘ potential scenarios for freshwater management, policy and ecology in the future.

Constructed reed bed lagoon, CC Natural England:Paul Glendell, R+M Services

A constructed reed bed lagoon, built to boost regulating and maintaining services such as water filtration. Image: Paul Glendell, Natural England

Freshwater ecosystem services

Ecosystem services describe the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems. They outline the direct and indirect contributions that ecosystems make to human well-being. Ecosystem services are directly linked to the under-lying ecosystem functions, processes and structures that generate them.

Ecosystem services help make visible the vital roles that ecosystems play in supporting human lives. By clearly linking ecological and socioeconomic systems, the ecosystem service concept is intended to foster enhanced appreciation and protection of global ecosystems. However, there is still uncertainty about how ecosystem services are related to ecosystem structure, functioning, habitat type, size and condition.

Fly fishing, CC jenkinson2455 Flickr - Cultural Services

A fly fisherman. Recreational angling is an important cultural service. Image: Jenkinson2455 Flickr | Creative Commons

The MARS project is investigating how multiple stresses (e.g. pollution, over-abstraction) affect the ecosystem services that Europe’s freshwaters can provide. Understanding these relationships is crucial in helping communicate and legitimate why freshwaters are important and should be conserved, both to policy makers and the general public.

The ecosystem service factsheets are split into three categories:

Provisioning services encompass all the outputs of materials, nutrients and energy from an ecosystem. These might include food and water supplies, raw materials for construction and fuel, genetic resources, medicinal resources and ornamental resources.

Regulating and maintaining services support ecosystem functioning and productivity. Regulating and maintaining services describe the ways in which living organisms can mediate or moderate their environments in ways that benefit human well-being.

Cultural ecosystem services are the non-material benefits that people obtain from ecosystems through recreation, tourism, intellectual development, spiritual enrichment, reflection and creative and aesthetic experiences.

Each factsheet gives examples of different services provided by freshwaters, and outlines the policy and management challenges for valuing and addressing them.

irrigation CC Brad Smith Flickr - Prov Sevices

An irrigated field. Water for irrigation is a widely-used provisioning service. Image: Bard Smith | Creative Commons

Three scenarios for the future of European freshwaters

The future is uncertain. Depending on both human actions and the scale of climatic changes, we can expect any number of potential changes in freshwater ecosystems between now and 2060. In response to this uncertainty, MARS scientists and stakeholders have collaboratively developed a range of different scenarios, each based on climate and socioeconomic predictions.

Using these scenarios, three ‘storylines’ were written to explore the potential future impacts of multiple stressors on the ecosystems and basin regions studied by MARS. Two time horizons are used for scenarios: 2030 (to inform the update of the Water Framework Directive in 2027) and 2060 (to show the impacts of climate change). This scenario methodology has been used by many organisations to present unpredictable futures, including UNEP and the IPCC.

Traditionally, these scenarios have been simple, linear predictions, with sequential and predictable relationships between socio-economic actions and climatic and environmental outcomes. In recent years, however, scientists have pointed out that the interactions between humans and the environment are more complex than such a sequential approach gives credit for, and a more responsive methodology is used here, in which emissions and socio-economic scenarios are developed in parallel.

Tysso Hydroelectric Plant, Norway, CC Dag Endre Opedal, Flickr - Techno World

The Tysso Hydroelectric Plant in Norway. Similar constructions might underpin a techno world scenario. Image: Dag Endre Opedal | Creative Commons

Analytical priority is given to changes in emissions and greenhouse gas concentrations over time (termed ‘Representative Concentration Pathways’). Scenarios can then be created based on these emission pathways alongside parallel (and plausible) ‘Socio-Economic Pathways’ and policy scenarios.

As water management is usually site-specific, global data and predictions currently tells us little about water management in the future. Projections and data do tell us, however, about aggregate global demand and availability.

The storylines designed by MARS scientists use this data and create further predictions around potential changes such as technologies for irrigation, changes in river discharges, changes in pesticide use (and thus pollution), technologies like dikes and dams, water use in industry and energy production, and use of surface and groundwater.

Manure desertification farming, CC werktuigendagen, Flickr - Fragmented World

Manure spreading on a dusty field. Intensive agriculture is a key characteristic of the fragmented world scenario. Image: werktuigendagen | Creative Commons

MARS uses three scenarios to predict how European freshwater policy and management might develop in coming decades, and how this could affect the health and diversity of freshwater ecosystems.

In the Fragmented World, we envision a future with rising emissions and significant climatic change (Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5). Technological developments are slow, and fossil fuel dependence is high; international cooperation is poor and significant pockets of poverty persist (Shared Socio-Economic Pathway 3).

The Consensus World storyline is based on a scenario where future development follows similar patterns to the recent past: the economy grows well in some countries and poorly in others, and inequality between rich and poor countries continues. Despite this disparity, the world tends towards being relatively politically stable (Shared Socio-Economic Pathway 2). This occurs alongside a stablising and relatively low level of climatic change (Representative Concentration Pathway 4.5).

The Techno World storyline is based on a scenario of high greenhouse gas emissions and rising global temperatures (Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5) in combination with a strong, carbon-based global economy in which many currently pressing social concerns, such as inequality and population growth, have been ameliorated (Shared Socio-Economic Pathway 5).

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Read all the MARS Factsheets here

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Scenarios links:

Shared Socio-Economic Pathways

Representative Concentration Pathways

Ecosystem service links:

Freshwater Ecosystem Services (2005), Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Chapter 7

Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES) (2012), European Environment Agency

Cookbook for water ecosystem service assessment and valuation (2015), European Commission Joint Research Centre

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