Along the coastline, deep-rooted mangroves and corals protect the ribs erosion, floods and storms.
These gifts of nature are what we call, in our scientific jargon, “ecosystem services”.
While specialists document more and more precisely the ongoing “sixth mass extinction” (see the IPBES reports on biodiversity collapse), politicians are preparing to set new goals and plans for ecosystem conservation in 2020.
But effectively protecting nature requires a keen understanding of the processes – diverse and very local – through which it benefits humanity.
Our team – from Natural Capital Project at Stanford University – modeled some of these processes to establish a interactive world map ; it is about showing nature’s capacity – in decline – to provide pollinators for our crops or protect people from coastal storms and polluted waters.
It is now estimated that five billion people could be exposed to an increased risk of pollution, coastal storms or malnutrition (due to a lack of pollinators) by 2050. The impacts vary according to the scenarios adopted. While they are less in the event of moderate climate change, they are still unequally distributed. Africa and Southeast Asia are particularly affected, especially in terms of water quality and decline of pollinators.
Globally, hundreds of millions of people living on coastlines would become more vulnerable to coastal storms.
In France, where a lot of fertilizer is used – especially in the North and West (see the map on the left below which shows the amount of nitrogen applied as fertilizers) – the soils absorb a majority of it ( it is the “contribution of nature”), but the rest (see the middle map) trickles down and will pollute the waterways.
According to a scenario that portrays a rather sustainable future on a global scale (right map), these pollutants are likely to increase by 2050 in most of the country – with the exception of the Southwest.
What do these cards say?
Where is nature most crucial for humanity? What are the key areas to protect? The mapping of local natural processes carried out on a global scale allows us to answer these questions.
To identify the most vulnerable areas, for example, we analyze both the services provided by ecosystems and the needs of local populations. These spatial data are fascinating, incredibly rich and complex, even almost indigestible.
Take the example of pollination. When it is effective, a certain level of agricultural production is obtained (called the “maximum potential benefit”). If it is insufficient, production is less. We can measure the gap related to this insufficiency (the “shortfall” or Benefit Gap) or the ratio between the production allowed by sufficient pollination and that which will be obtained (the “contribution of nature”).
The human consequences of the loss of earnings linked to the degradation of ecosystem services depend on the needs of local populations; we will then consider the contribution of nature to humanity (nature’s contribution to people), if it occurs where there is a need (in this case, if the local populations have no alternatives such as crops that do not depend on pollination).
In the case of the retention of pollutants by the soil, the shortfall corresponds to the quantity of pollutants not absorbed by the soil, flowing into waterways. In the case of coastal protection, it is the increased coastal risk due to the loss of protection of a habitat (mangrove for example) that will be concerned.
Big data innovation
These analyzes and mapping have been made possible thanks to recent technological advances, in particular the capacities for processing massive data, or the availability of high-resolution satellite images.
We have “carved” the planet into more than a billion squares approximately 300 meters across (or 9 hectares, or barely the size of a tenth of the smallest arrondissement in Paris). For each of these squares, we analyzed the variables conditioning the efficiency of three ecosystem services (crop pollination, soil pollutant retention and coastal protection), and their evolution for various climate and societal change scenarios.
A few billion small squares that the magic of interactive data visualization allows us to explore …
Quantifying the contributions of nature, to better protect it
For more than ten years, territorial management policies have been based on the open-source tools that we are developing as part of the Natural Capital Project to better understand the benefits of natural goods.
In 2020, the main lines of international conservation objectives for the coming decades will be decided, in particular during the COP26 (in Glasgow, UK) and the Convention on Biodiversity (in Kunming, China). As these summits approach, IPBES reiterated the urgency of a deep understanding of nature’s contributions to humanity.
In a world facing climatic upheavals, the decline of life and rising inequalities, policymakers will need increasingly detailed maps to meet the challenges of nature conservation. It is therefore for us scientists and data scientists to be able to integrate an ever greater variety of ecosystem services into our maps.