Ecosystem Approach

Ecosystem Approach Sourcebook - Case-Study Details

1. Project Details
Author or Responsible Organization Prof. Roy Haines-Young, PD Dr Marion Potschin, Duncan Cheshire; CEM University of Nottingham for Defra.
Project Title Defining and identifying environmental limits for sustainable development; a scoping study.
Date of Publication 17/03/2006
Project Status Completed
Project Start Date
Project End Date 10/01/2006
Countries United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Regions Western Europe and Others
Funding Source Other
2. Background to Project
Project Issue/Problem Statement If the goals of sustainable development are to be achieved there is a need to understand environmental limits and thresholds. Natural resource systems can provide a range of benefits to people. These include clean and regular water supply, the production of food and fibre, and the protection of communities from hazards. External pressures, such as pollution or over-use, may impact upon natural resource systems and diminish the level or quality of the benefits that they provide. Eventually people may judge that a critical point has been reached, and that the reduction in benefit is no longer acceptable or tolerable. Such a critical level can best be described as an environmental limit. The driver for this study arose from commitments made in the UK Sustainable Development Strategy to: -Make a critical review on environmental limits; -Collate existing research and to identify shortfalls in understanding about where environmental limits exist, and where they are being exceeded; and, -Conduct a strategic assessment of future research needs in all policy areas. Although some natural resource systems can exhibit threshold types of response, the extent to which this is commonplace is uncertain. The concept of a limit is therefore more useful generally, since it focuses attention on the possibilities of system collapse and the chronic or progressive loss of integrity which natural resource systems may suffer with increasing environmental pressures. The concerns of the UK Sustainable development Strategy for further work on environmental limits echo those made on a broader international front. The Convention on Biological Diversity, for example, specifically flags the need to develop a better understanding of biodiversity thresholds in relation to ecosystem functioning. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations also emphasises the importance of identifying thresholds in their discussion of biodiversity and conservation. The importance of thresholds as a research priority has also been emphasised by the EU, through its 6th Framework Programme, and the IGBP/IHDP in their recently announced Global Land Project.
Project Description The review looks at the way in which ideas about limits and thresholds have been developed in relation to ideas about ecosystem health, resilience and ecosystem goods and services. The authors have also considered how the ideas fit in with contemporary approaches to the valuation of natural assets, and current debates about sustainable consumption and production. The ideas were developed and tested by a detailed review of current issues relating to biodiversity, land use and landscape, recreation, climate change, the marine environment, water supply and demand, pollution loads and soil. The aim of this study was to collate and critically review recent developments, across the range of discipline areas where environmental limits and sustainability have been discussed, in order to: a. Outline how environmental limits are identified and defined; b. Assess the robustness of the evidence that underpins the identification of limits; c. Identify gaps in current understandings of environmental limits; d. Assess the need for, and feasibility of, collecting new evidence on environmental limits, including where knowledge of existing limits may be out of date; e. Look at how the evidence used to identify current limits might be collated; f. Identify current thinking on the application of environmental limits in policy-making; and g. Identify where further research may be needed to look at how limits could be used in policy making. This study was part of a larger work programme initiated by the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), looking at how to develop the evidence base needed to support a strategic approach to conserving, enhancing and managing the natural environment both in the UK and other countries. The study undertook two major tasks: a. The first was a review of relevant scientific literature describing environmental limits and thresholds. The aim was to clarify how the concepts are used, and to trace how the terms link to wider debates about ecosystem health, ecosystem resilience, ecosystem goods and b. The second task involved using the literature review to develop recommendations about how the current ideas about limits and thresholds can assist in the development of policy frameworks related to the protection of natural resources in the UK. The aim here was to identify what gaps in present understandings exist and what research strategies might therefore be appropriate to build the kind of evidence base required. The brief for the study was therefore very wide ranging, and so in order that it should focus on Defra’s need in this area, the work looked specifically at the key thematic areas covered by Defra’s responsibilities in the area of natural resource management, namely: a. Biodiversity; b. Water quality, supply and demand; c. The marine environment; d. The soil environment; e. Land use and landscapes (including forestry); f. Atmosphere, including air quality, green house gas emissions and rates of climate change; g. Emissions and ozone depleting substances h. Recreation and access to the natural environment; and, i. Levels of dispersal of toxic substances and the disposal of solid waste. In Part II of the report an account is provided of the development of the limits and threshold concepts and their place in wider scientific debates. This material will helps in terms of understanding how limits and thresholds are identified and defined. The report also considers combinations of the thematic topics listed above, and explores how the limits and threshold concepts have been applied and what evidence there is for their identification in each area. Finally, recommendations are made about how the concepts of limits and thresholds might be developed and applied in a policy context in the UK, so achieving objectives f and g.
3. Sectors and Biomes
Sectors Agriculture
Biomes Agricultural Biodiversity
Forest Biodiversity
Inland Waters Biodiversity
Marine and Coastal Biodiversity
4. Tools and Approaches
Tools and Approaches   Relevance
Other Tools and Resources Available to Assist with Application of the Ecosystem Approach 3-High environmental limits
5. Issues
6. Ecosystem Approach
Principles and Operational Guidance   Relevance
(Only if NOT relevant)
Principle 5: Conservation of ecosystem structure and functioning, in order to maintain ecosystem services, should be a priority target of the ecosystem approach 3-High
Principle 6: Ecosystem must be managed within the limits of their functioning 3-High
7. Lessons Learned and the Outcomes
Lessons Learned
Other Information
8. References
9. Contact Details
Contact Person Ms. Tina J Yates
Job Title Sustainability Advisor
Organization JNCC
Address Monkstone House
City Road
Postal Code PE1 1JU
City Peterborough
ZIP/State/Province Cambs
Telephone 01733 866850
Fax +44 1733 555948
E-mail Address