Gary Luck and colleagues’ paper Protecting ecosystem services and biodiversity in the world’s watersheds is a novel approach to an admittedly problematic aspect of conservation biology – global prioritisation schemes. While certainly coming in as a Conservation Classic, the first real global conservation prioritisation scheme (Myers and colleagues’ global biodiversity hotspots) was rather subjective in its approach, and many subsequent schemes have failed to reproduce the same kinds of priorities (the congruency problem). I’m certainly not knocking biodiversity hotspots because I believe it was one of the true paradigm shifts in conservation biology, but I am cognisant of its limitations.
Another big problem with conservation prioritisation schemes is that they are a hard sell to governments – how do you convince nations (especially poor ones) to forgo the immediate gains of resource exploitation to protect what many (incorrectly and short-sightedly) deem as irrelevant centres of biotic endemism?
Well, Luck and colleagues have taken us one step closer to global acceptance of conservation prioritisation schemes by basing this latest addition on ecosystem services. In their paper they divided the world by catchments (watersheds) and then estimated the services of water provision, flood prevention and carbon storage that each provides to humanity. Water provision was a estimated as a complex combination of variables that together can be interpreted as the capacity of ecosystems to regulate water flows and quality that benefit humans (e.g., influencing seasonal water availability or nutrient levels). Flood mitigation was estimated as the system’s capacity to reduce the impact of floods on communities, and carbon storage was estimated as the system’s capacity to uptake carbon in soils and vegetation.
In general, the catchments in need of the highest priority protection were found in the poorest areas (namely, South East Asia and Africa) because their protection would be the least costly and benefit the most people. Luck and colleagues are therefore the first to incorporate cost–benefit trade-offs explicitly in developing global priorities for protecting ecosystem services and biodiversity. I take my hat off to them for a modern and highly relevant twist on an old idea. Great paper and I hope people take notice.