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Oct. 9, 2019

New study: Global modeling of nature’s contributions to people

Nature supports people in critical ways, often at a highly local level. A wild bee buzzes through a farm, pollinating vegetables as it goes. Nearby, wetlands remove chemicals from the farm’s runoff, protecting a community drinking water source. In communities all around the world, nature’s contributions are constantly flowing to people. Scientists have mapped these contributions at local levels for years, but a new Stanford-led study closes a critical gap in how this information can be used to drive global policy and development.

The study, published in Science, uses high-resolution satellite data to funnel the details of individual local analyses into one, global map. Using advanced technology and software, the researchers created interactive maps that showcase the details of local analyses on a global stage. Informed by this planet-wide analysis, the paper emphasizes nature’s declining ability to protect people from water pollution, coastal storms and under-pollinated crops.

“We can now connect nature’s benefits to where people live, including to conservation in agricultural and other working landscapes”, said Nick Haddad, professor of Integrative Biology at Michigan State University.

Becky Chaplin-Kramer, lead scientist at Stanford’s Natural Capital Project and lead author on the study, and her fellow researchers set out to understand and map where nature contributes the most to people and how many people may be affected by future changes in climate, fossil fuel use and development. They focused on three fundamental benefits that nature provides to people: water quality regulation, protection from coastal hazards and crop pollination. Using open-source software developed by the Natural Capital Project, they modeled how the flow of these benefits might change in the future. 

5 billion at higher risk

Across the board, they found that where people’s needs for nature are greatest, nature’s ability to meet those needs is declining. By 2050, their projections show that up to 5 billion people could be at higher risk of water pollution, coastal storms and under-pollinated crops. 

Critically, the team’s research shows that these impacts are inequitably distributed. In all scenarios, developing countries shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden. 

“Our analyses suggest that the current environmental governance at local, regional and international levels is failing to support the most vulnerable regions to invest in ecosystems,” said study coauthor Unai Pascual, co-chair of the recent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment. “If we continue on this trajectory, ecosystems will be unable to provide natural insurance in the face of climate change-induced impacts on food, water and infrastructure.”

People in Africa and South Asia are the most disadvantaged in the face of diminishing contributions from nature. More than half the population in these regions is facing higher-than-average “benefit gaps,” the tangible elements — like vulnerability to coastal storms, water pollution or crop losses — that people feel when contributions from nature stop flowing. The impacts aren’t isolated to certain countries, though. Under climate change, projected sea-level rise increases risk to coastal communities everywhere and may impact over 500 million people worldwide by 2050. 

Informing policies to invest in nature

In an increasingly globalized world, this new technological application of integrated, high-resolution data provides an opportunity to incorporate nature into worldwide policy decisions. With accessibility in mind, a key priority of the research was to produce high-resolution, interactive maps through an online viewer. Not only did this viewer help the team digest the data internally, but it now serves as a model for presenting complex global data to key decision-makers in a digestible way.

The goal of this research — and future projects building off this new approach — is to help inform policy and decision-making around investments in nature. For example, the models suggest that places within the Ganges Basin and parts of Eastern China can be targeted for high-impact investments in natural ecosystems. Preserving or restoring these areas’ ecosystems will help bolster the wellbeing of entire communities.

The team is looking to policymakers, development banks and other global influencers to use this information to drive sustainable development and conservation. 

“Determining when and where nature is most important is critical to understanding how best to enhance people's livelihoods and wellbeing,” said study coauthor Stephen Polasky, a professor of environmental economics at the University of Minnesota.

Looking forward, the researchers are expanding their analysis to model other ecosystem benefits.  They’re also looking to more deeply understand where nature’s contributions could best support the planet’s most vulnerable populations. 

“We hope that this work will advance the integration of nature’s contributions to people into decision making and further galvanize global action,” said Chaplin-Kramer. “We’re equipped with the information we need to avert the worst scenarios our models projected and move toward an equitable, sustainable future. Now is the time to wield it.”

By: Sarah Cafasso