Ecosystem-based approaches to climate change adaptation: progress and challenges

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Journal Article
International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 2014, 15 (1), pp. 17 - 41
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The concept of 'ecosystem services' aims to encapsulate the reliance of human lives and wellbeing on nature, in order to inform decisions about how humankind interacts with and uses the natural environment. The now well-recognised term underpins various frameworks for identifying, quantifying and linking the health of ecosystems and social and economic outcomes. However, operationalising this apparently fundamental concept in a useful way is far from straightforward in the complex situation of allocating water resources between apparently irreconcilable demands in Australia's Murray-Darling Basin. The Water Act 2007 (Cth), which forms the basis for the latest water reforms in the MDB, includes express reference to the importance of ecosystem services. However, there is much uncertainty as to whether and how analysis of these benefits has influenced water allocation planning and decisions. This article critically examines whether legislative arrangements support the integration of ecosystem services analysis into water resources planning in the Basin, examining in tum the National Water Initiative, the Water Act 2007 (Cth), and state water planning arrangements. It finds that there is limited specific guidance about how to reflect ecosystems in water planning, and that in practice ecosystem services are generally analysed as an outcome of, rather than an explicit input to, decision-making. The article concludes that the greatest potential for the ecosystem services concept to inform decision-making lies in its role as a tool to inform an earlier stage of planning for water resource areas: as a taxonomy and 'language' to articulate and describe the range of potential benefits and beneficiaries of water resources and water-dependent ecosystems.
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