Environmental index could save rural communities

Apr 23, 2012 By Adele Rackley
Environmental index could save rural communities
Agriculture in China.

A new approach to environmental monitoring could avert ruin for some of the world's poorest communities.

By creating the world's first long-term record of , Chinese and UK researchers have identified where specific social and economic policies have damaged the environment in eastern China.

The work shows that wealth generation over recent decades is damaging essential ecosystem services on which the poorest rely - things like food, fuel, and .

What makes this approach different is the historical perspective. By revealing trends over decades researchers can separate natural causes of change from man-made ones, and set benchmarks for ecosystem health that will inform environmental and .

Identifying what causes these trends will help policy-makers prioritise their actions to improve the balance between short-term and long-term poverty alleviation.

The research team, led by Professor John Dearing from the University of Southampton, found their environmental evidence in taken from two lakes in the lower Yangtze basin, covering the period 1800-2006.

The researchers looked at several indicators of the health of the surrounding ecosystem, contained in the sediments – for example, pollen remains indicate the diversity of plant species in the region while metal content is a sign of air quality.

They then compared evidence for ecosystem services like soil stability, air and water quality with socio-economic and climate records so they could see if different approaches to economic development or agriculture had benefited or harmed these key .

For example, intensive agriculture has lifted many Chinese rural communities out of poverty over the last 30 years. But the irrigation, mechanisation and fertilisers that came with it have degraded soils badly and there is already evidence for declining water quality.

"Economic development and an increase in regional wealth are clear trade-offs for the decline in regulating services over four decades," write the researchers in the journal PNAS.

That decline is a distinct long term threat to the resources on which local livelihoods depend.

The historical perspective reveals gradual changes that might be missed over shorter periods. It also shows that human activity doesn't simply cause linear change – it can lead to tipping points beyond which damage to ecosystems becomes irreversible.

To unravel some of the complexity and make the evidence more accessible, the team has developed a 'regulating services index' – an at-a-glance indicator of environmental health.

In the Yangtze basin, over the past 40 years of population growth, intensive agriculture and industrialisation, that index has halved.

"Every day we see a financial index like the FT100 or Dow Jones being used to monitor the health of an economy over time – here we realised that palaeoecological records could provide the basis for a regional ecosystem service index, especially for the regulating services which are often lacking long-term monitored data," comments Dearing.

The issues are complex and difficult comprises are needed. For example to improve water quality in the long term it might be necessary to limit the use of fertilizers, which could mean lower yields for farmers now. But doing nothing could terminally damage water sources, which would affect the quality of life across all rural communities.

The index does not provide the answers. But by showing the long-term effects that specific social and economic policies are having it will help policy-makers prioritise the most urgent problems, and see what strategies are working well.

The project team is developing new models that can be used to apply these principles around the world.

Explore further: Tens of thousands expected at New York climate march

More information: John A Dearinga, et al. Extending the timescale and range of ecosystem services through paleoenvironmental analyses, exemplified in the lower Yangtze basin. 2012. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1118263109

The project 'Poverty and ecology: developing a new evolutionary approach', is funded by ESPA – Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation – which is part of the Living With Environmental Change partnership, along with the National Basic Research Program of China (973 program, 2012CB956100).

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Evaluating ecosystem services

Aug 05, 2008

Environmental conservation efforts have traditionally focused on protecting individual species or natural resources. Scientists are discovering, however, that preserving the benefits that whole ecosystems provide to people ...

Researchers analyze 'the environmentalist's paradox'

Sep 01, 2010

Global degradation of ecosystems is widely believed to threaten human welfare, yet accepted measures of well-being show that it is on average improving globally, both in poor countries and rich ones. A team of authors writing ...

Recommended for you

Rio's Olympic golf course in legal bunker

Sep 18, 2014

The return of golf to the Olympics after what will be 112 years by the time Rio hosts South America's first Games in 2016 comes amid accusations environmental laws were got round to build the facility in ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dutchman
not rated yet Apr 25, 2012
Unfortunately, most of the wealthy countries that could help, don't give a damn, as long as there is nothing in it for them.