At the recent Green Building Conference organised by alive2green and held in Johannesburg over 13 and 14 July, Eamonn O’Rourke from Strategic Environmental Focus (SEF) offered delegates one of the most thought-provoking presentations.
The title of O’Rourke’s presentation – Ecosystems have no value – certainly raised questions ahead of his taking the podium. However, he soon clarified that statement to say, actually, “Ecosystems have no Rand value. They are priceless.”How do we determine what is valuable?
In his presentation O’Rourke explored the whole question of values, whether different value systems can be compared, and what value systems are appropriate when we consider plans for land use, built developments, site selection and construction.
If something is priceless – is it of no value? How do we determine what is valuable and what is valueless?The first slide pictured a typically banal parking lot – effectively, a previously pristine paradise paved over to add value to a particular property.
O’Rourke went on to say: economic value systems are based on quantitative measures – monetary values; social value systems are based on qualitative measures – such as ethics, aesthetics, culture, religion. Ecological values, however, are intrinsic to the natural environment. They are reflected in the continuing existence of a biodiverse world where there is no human presence and no need for human sanction.
Ecosystems are consistent and balanced. They do not present the volatility associated with economics where financial or monetary values are eroded over time by inflation – which consequently motivates a short-term focus on profit. O’Rourke suggested that because of this volatility currency cannot be considered a reliable store of value.
However, when we place a monetary value on anything, when its perceived worth is quantified in a price, this value is automatically exclusive; it replaces all other value systems. In this scheme of things, a paved parking lot is worth more than the environment on which it was imposed and the ecosystems that preceded it.
The value of ecosystems
Ecosystems are biological, living, physical systems which function within a framework of unique interrelationships and intricate feedback loops. They are adaptable and enormously resilient – up to a point. O’Rourke here introduced the alarming example of fruit orchards in the Sichuan province of China where the trees are now pollinated by hand – men climb ladders to reach the flowers – because all the natural pollinators – the bees – have been eradicated by excessive use of pesticides.
Wetlands provide an excellent example of ecosystems that function perfectly well to produce clean water without any human intervention. They are built “for free” – by nature, they are self-repairing and self-maintaining. They do not necessitate high capex costs, nor do they incur any operational costs. And, as well as providing clean water through a natural water treatment process, they serve as natural flood attenuation reserves.
As another example of the natural effectiveness of ecosystems, O’Rourke pointed out how the earth manages waste absorption and decomposition – and, over time, buries toxic wastes in coal, deep beneath the surface.
He suggested that ecosystems actually provide everything we need. “They have evolved through 3,5 billion years of research and development – which has been provided free of charge and is therefore unappreciated. It is also irreplaceable,” he said.
When we look at land use planning, the standard approach takes the view of transforming so-called “unimproved land” into “economically productive land” – at the same time, perhaps unwittingly, it transforms productive ecosystems into wastelands. When development crowds in on ecosystems it upsets the balance and continuity of natural systems.
How can we place a ‘tradable’ value on ecosystems as a resource? A resource that is worth protecting and that can be traded for its beneficial use? For example, where forests serve to sequestrate carbon dioxide, could – or should – the landowners be compensated for the service their land provides?
Payment for ecosystem services
O’Rourke highlighted that in some countries resource rights are legally recognised and protected and the concept of ‘payment for ecosystem services’ – PES – is at work. Although it is not framed in these terms, South Africa’s own Working for Water programme is one example. In the United States, the Conservation Reserve Program provides technical and financial assistance to eligible farmers and ranchers to address soil, water, and related natural resource concerns on their lands in an environmentally beneficial and cost-effective manner. In Costa Rica’s forest protection programme , revenues sourced by the government through fossil fuel taxes are used to pay for the ecosystem services provided by communities who live in or near the forests and protect the forests from illegal logging. In this framework, the community obtains property and access rights in exchange for the protection services it provides.
These examples illustrate some of the innovative approaches that have been developed to recognise the value of ecosystems and the value of protecting them. They offer some fresh alternatives to the standard cost-benefit analysis that O’Rourke described as “the default tool used to measure value”. The cost-benefit analysis that is typically used to determine economic value – in land use or development – debases all other value systems and negates the true value of ecosystems.
What constitutes green building?
In closing O’Rourke made some brief comments on ‘green’ developments and ‘green’ buildings. Generally, when we develop land or buildings, we turn greenfield sites into brownfield sites and we eradicate the ecosystems. O’Rourke suggested that in developing green buildings property owners can, and do, to a greater or lesser extent, move rather from brown towards green. Some green projects, for example, contribute to revitalising blighted urban areas by reintroducing ecosystems or by restoring and protecting ecosystems.
Various steps along the way can contribute further to the move from brown towards green. In site selection, the use of an already disturbed site rather than a greenfield site is already a positive. An understanding of existing ecosystems and the natural environment, such as it is, on a brownfield site and working to integrate the building within that environment will also improve the ecological value of the site. Green roofs and walls, indigenous water-wise planting, appropriate storm-water management using ecological processes, restoring and maintaining the health of the soil, reducing the physical sealed footprint, zero emissions, waste management, all contribute to improving the ecological value of the site and the building.
O’Rourke left delegates with another question to consider: “Is a green building on a greenfield site really green?”
SIDEBAR: Strategic Environmental Focus
Strategic Environmental Focus (SEF) is one of Africa's largest multidisciplinary consultancies and offers sustainable development solutions to private and public sector clients.
With its integrated services approach in the management of natural, built and social environments, and with over a decade of experience, SEF brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to each project.
SEF is strongly focused in South Africa with a number of offices around the country.
O’Rourke is a project manager at SEF, managing landscape architectural projects and environmental impact assessments and is an experienced practitioner in this field. He is a registered professional with SACLAP (South African Council for the Landscape Architectural Profession) and is a professional member of ILASA (Institute for Landscape Architecture in South Africa). He has also been involved in the development of the Land Use and Ecology credits in the GBCSA’s Green Star SA Office v1 and Multi Unit Residential Pilot rating tools, while sub-consulting to Arup.