Work In Progress

Complex diffusion: the Rise and Fall of the Ecosystem Services Norm in the Regime Complex for Biodiversity. ISRU Work-In-Progress Seminar with Dr​. Jennifer Allan 03.04.2019

On the 3rd of April 2019, the ISRU met to discuss Dr Jennifer Allan’s paper entitled ‘Complex Diffusion: The Rise and Fall of Ecosystems Services Norm in the Regime Complex for Biodiversity’ in the last Work-In-Progress Seminar of the Spring Semester. Dr Allan received her PhD from the University of British Columbia in May 2017. Dr Allan is the newest member of the School of Law and Politics, having joined Cardiff University as a lecturer in International Relations in January of this year. Dr Allan specialises in Global Environmental Politics, looking at the way in which environmental and social movements influence and interact with global environmental  governance and negotiations. 

In the article, Dr Allan seeks to understand the rise and fall of Ecosystem Services as a norm within the regime complex of biodiversity. Ecosystem Services is a norm ‘that entails identifying and valuing, usually in monetary terms, the contributions of nature to human wellbeing’. The development of this norm arose largely from a concerted effort to express the value of nature to humanity in a language that certain key actors such as investors, finance ministers and members of the private sector could relate to. Dr Allan claims that it was initially placed at the center of the regime complex for biodiversity, with its inclusion in the Convention on Biological Diversity. When referring to regime complexes, Dr. Allan is engaging with scholarship on the ever-growing overlapping mandates and rules of international institutions and organisations for many issues. In the case of biodiversity governance, a range of treaties and organisations address similar or the same aspects of the issue, creating a web international law and practice. The question Dr. Allan’s paper asks is why a norm like ecosystem services, that is meant to speak to a range of actors, did not spread beyond the center of the Convention on Biological Diversity to be embedded in related governance activities on agriculture, climate change, or finance and development.  

However, through her analysis of a large data set of entries with reference to ecosystem services by institutions and organisations within the regime complex for biodiversity, Dr Allan seeks to understand the initial rise and then noteworthy fall of the use of this norm. Dr. Allan is of the belief that not only can this case study provide insights into ecosystem services as a concept, but it also illuminates the process of the diffusion of norms and concepts within regime complexes. 

Following the ISRU seminar, I met up with Jen to discuss this paper and her research at greater length. 

Rosa: 

So, it seems that the majority of your research is based in the realm of global environmental politics, has this always been the case?

Jen: 

Yes, broadly speaking. My PhD looked at climate activism and sought to unpack and understand why NGOs took up climate change as an issue. I wanted to understand the way in which these NGOs attempted to interact with international organisations such as the UN. It was in my post-doc that I first started looking at the idea of ecosystem services and how states and other types of actors adopt and interpret these kind of concepts. 

Rosa: 

One of the things I found really interesting in the paper was that the concept of ecosystem services seemingly originated in the academic community. Could you explain a little more where this idea of ‘ecosystem services’ came from?

Jen: 

In was ecological economists that starting using the term. It was about attempting to connect the environment and biodiversity to people and demonstrate the value of these natural resources to humanity. Economists, naturally, really liked the concept, for them it acted almost to monetise and quantify the value of certain environmental resources to people. It was hoped that a concept such as this would act to incentivise and bring in other actors, especially those from the private sector. 

Rosa: 

For some, the way in which ecosystem services can be seen as attempting to monetise or quantify environmental value is slightly problematic. Some would argue that we should value these resources inherently of themselves rather than needing to relate them to human activity in order to demonstrate their value. What would you say to this?

Jen:   

It is really difficult. Indeed, it’s one of the problematic trends we see in environmental politics. Rather than just recoginising the inherent value of nature, often there is a sense of a need to amplify the issue by connecting it to something else. One of the most problematic of these attempts, in my view, was the securitisation of climate change that we see sometimes. There is occasionally talk of the massive security threats that would be created as a result climate change. Most problematically, the securitisation of climate change is often connected to the issue of migration and ‘climate refugees’. 

Rosa: 

With regard to the article itself, you mentioned that the idea for the article was born from a large data set pertaining to ecosystem services. Could you explain a little more about the data and what you are seeking to illuminate through your research?

Jen: 

A colleague developed a data set of around 400 entries, each representing an initiative, project, or rule from an international actor. What I am seeking to understand is the evolution of the concept and predominately the rise and fall of the concept. What we can see from the data is an initial uptake of the concept by these kind of organisations as a number of initiatives were elaborated. There was massive enthusiasm leading up to around the mid-2010s. It is clear that the kind of organisations that were really keen in the uptake of the concept were already those in the ‘choir’ if you will. What we see is that international organisations and partnerships are the two main actors articulating this. In contrast, the majority of corporations have failed to really engage with ecosystem services. 

However, this uptake was followed by decline of the concept as it is increasingly replaced by other notions. The decline is clear, but one of the things that is really difficult to ascertain is the full extent of the decline. This is because actors rarely log the end dates of their initiatives. They live on, on the web even if they are not still operational. . What we can clearly observe however, is the sharp decline in the number of new initiatives being established that mobilise the concept of ecosystem services.

Rosa: 

You mentioned that the ecosystem services is being increasingly replaced with other concepts that seem to express very similar idea. What are these and do they represent a carbon copy re-articulation of the same concept or are they an expression of a slightly different notion?

Jen: 

We are definitely seeing ecosystem services decline as a concept and being replaced by notions such as ‘nature’s contribution to people’. It is quite difficult to tell as of yet whether this is a repackaging of exactly the same notion, or, whether this is a recognition of a different way of conceptualising the value of the environment. Really, it depends on how it is going to be used. It will be easier to tell after the next assessment at the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Interface for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Nonetheless, nature’s contributions to people does seem to seek to recognise the different world views. It is clear there has been a push-back against the monetisation aspect of the concept of ecosystem services, and the rise in favour of other concepts such as ‘natures contribution to people’ seems to be a result of this push back. 

Rosa:

Thank you for presenting your research for the ISRU and taking the time to sit down and talk to me about your fascinating research

Jen: 

My pleasure!

The entire ISRU would like to thank Dr Allan for agreeing to present her fascinating research at the WIP seminar and welcome her to the Cardiff University School of Law and Politics!  

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