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Ecosystem Services: Charting a Path to Sustainability
November 10-13, 2011


“Around the world, leaders are increasingly recognizing ecosystems as natural capital assets that supply life-support services of tremendous value. The challenge is to turn this recognition into incentives and institutions that will guide investments in natural capital on a large scale…It is clear that formal sharing of experience, and defining priorities for future work, could greatly accelerate the rate of innovation and uptake of new approaches. “
Gretchen C. Daily and Pamela M. Matson
PNAS (2008), 105, 28, p. 9355
 
Feeding the estimated 9-10 billion people who will inhabit the earth by 2050 is a complex global challenge. Though most agree that achieving sustainable food supply and distribution systems while preserving the environment is a laudable goal influenced by a variety of environmental, societal, technological and political factors, efforts to address these issues in an integrated way are not widespread. Successfully addressing this intractable challenge will require collaboration across disciplines, continents and cultures, and offers a stirring opportunity for basic and applied interdisciplinary research. An ecosystem services approach, which considers the myriad of benefits humans derive from the environment, presents a promising way forward.
 
Simply put, ecosystem services are the benefits that human beings receive from the ecosystems (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Some of these benefits are easily quantified and can be assessed in economic terms (e.g., timber, food), whereas other services are more difficult to define and quantify (e.g. soil formation, toxin filtering, nutrient cycling or recreational benefits). Around the world, scientists, philanthropists, governments and communities are grappling with how we can support human well-being while considering the needs of our planet. Too often progress is hampered by false dichotomies such as development versus conservation. 
 
A recent report by the Bridgespan Group determined that while the still fledgling field of ecosystem services faces challenges, the momentum around the field continues to build and has tremendous potential to achieve substantial benefits to conservation and human well-being.   Those working in the area come from disciplines as diverse as ecology, remote sensing, agricultural engineering, civil engineering, water resources, international development, economics, public policy, computational modeling, demography and public health. Jeffery Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute believes that “almost all environmental challenges, from greenhouse gas emissions to the depletion of groundwater resources, demand technological transformation” (p. 29, Nature, 2010).
 
Areas the conference might explore include

Linking Human and Environmental Needs
·         How can the diversity, productivity and services of intact ecosystems be conserved, and degraded ecosystems be
restored, in ways compatible with efforts to improve the human condition?
·         How do we develop a common understanding of the science needed to inform policy decision-making?
·         How can we better structure and measure local and regional projects to build upon a collective body of scientific evidence that can be shared across disciplines?
·         What approaches will best allow conservation projects to take advantage of the growing understanding of the link between landscape change and human health?
·         How can we cohesively include conservation and human development and incorporate material and intangible benefits of ecosystems in economic development initiatives?
 
Measurement
·         How do we create metrics that adequately capture the complexities of biological and socioeconomic change and examine the causal relationships responsible for the outcomes observed?
·         What valuation, sensing, measuring, analyzing, modeling, and integrating tools are required to track the processes and impacts of conservation and development efforts across multiple ecosystems simultaneously?
·         How do we better quantify ecosystem services to reduce the transactional costs of policies based on ecosystem services?
·         How do we improve understanding of the feedback effects resulting from economic, health, social, and environmental change?
 
Agriculture and Aquaculture
·         How do we measure and manage the environmental impact of food production?
·         What research and other actions are necessary to make evidence-based decisions about diversified (multi-functional) farming systems?
·         How do we most efficiently apply biotechnology and engineering approaches to address limited water supply?
·         What tools are needed to create functional agriculture and aquaculture systems to reduce environmental stress, enhance human well being and enhance stability in the developing world?