The Ecosystem Approach

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Background and definition

Much of the recent interest in the Ecosystem Approach (EsA) can be traced back to the influence of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, which in 1995 adopted it as the ‘primary framework’ for action (Shepherd, 2004). Under the convention, the Approach is the basis for considering all the goods and services provided to people by biodiversity and ecosystems (Secretariat of the Convention for Biological Diversity, 2000). According to the CBD, the EsA:

“….places human needs at the centre of biodiversity management. It aims to manage the ecosystem, based on the multiple functions that ecosystems perform and the multiple uses that are made of these functions. The ecosystem approach does not aim for short-term economic gains, but aims to optimize the use of an ecosystem without damaging it” [1]

According to the CBD, the formal definition of the Ecosystem approach is:

“…. a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way. It is based on the application of appropriate scientific methodologies focused on levels of biological organization which encompass the essential processes, functions and interactions among organisms and their environment. It recognizes that humans, with their cultural diversity, are an integral component of ecosystems.”

A closely related concept is Ecosystem-Based Management (EBM).

Scope of the Ecosystem Approach

The EsA is taken to embody a core set of 12 principles that seek to encourage an understanding of how ecosystems function, how ecosystem integrity is important for sustaining the output of ecosystem services, and how ecological thresholds and limits need to be considered. The principles argue that management and policy must be undertaken at appropriate spatial and temporal scales. The principles also emphasise the need to identify the multiple benefits that ecosystems can provide to people, and the importance of assessing the value of these benefits so that they can be reflected in decision making. Finally, the principles explain the importance of trying to understand how ecosystem integrity may be threatened by stresses, and how cumulative impacts may arise, especially in the context of environmental change.

Relevance to Integrated Coastal Zone Management

The Table below has been developed in the Pegaso Project. It cross-references the principles of the Mediterranean ICZM Protocol to those of the CBD ecosystem Approach. Although there is no simple ‘read-across’ between the two sets of ideas there are clearly strong resonances between them reflecting, in part, their common origins, and the desire to overcome fragmented approaches to environmental management.

Mediterranean ICZM Protocol CBD Ecosystem Approach
1. The biological wealth and the natural dynamics and functioning of the intertidal area and the complementary and interdependent nature of the marine part and the land part forming a single entity shall be taken particularly into account.
  • Ecosystem managers should consider the effects (actual or potential) of their activities on adjacent and other ecosystems.(3)
  • The ecosystem approach should be undertaken at the appropriate spatial and temporal scales. (7)
2. All elements relating to hydrological, geomorphological, climatic, ecological, socio-economic and cultural systems shall be taken into account in an integrated manner, so as not to exceed the carrying capacity of the coastal zone and to prevent the negative effects of natural disasters and of development.
  • Ecosystem managers should consider the effects (actual or potential) of their activities on adjacent and other ecosystems. (3)
  • Ecosystem must be managed within the limits of their functioning. (6)
  • The ecosystem approach should be undertaken at the appropriate spatial and temporal scales. (7)
3. The ecosystems approach to coastal planning and management shall be applied so as to ensure the sustainable development of coastal zones.
  • Ecosystem must be managed within the limits of their functioning. (6)
  • Recognizing the varying temporal scales and lag-effects that characterize ecosystem processes, objectives for ecosystem management should be set for the long term. (8)
4. Appropriate governance allowing adequate and timely participation in a transparent decision-making process by local populations and stakeholders in civil society concerned with coastal zones shall be ensured.
  • The objectives of management of land, water and living resources are a matter of societal choices. (1)
  • The ecosystem approach should involve all relevant sectors of society and scientific disciplines. (12)
  • The ecosystem approach should consider all forms of relevant information, including scientific and indigenous and local knowledge, innovations and practices. (11)
5. Cross-sectorally organized institutional coordination of the various administrative services and regional and local authorities competent in coastal zones shall be required.
  • The ecosystem approach should involve all relevant sectors of society and scientific disciplines. (12)
6. The formulation of land use strategies, plans and programmes covering urban development and socio-economic activities, as well as other relevant sectoral policies, shall be required.
  • The ecosystem approach should be undertaken at the appropriate spatial and temporal scales. (7)
7. The multiplicity and diversity of activities in coastal zones shall be taken into account, and priority shall be given, where necessary, to public services and activities requiring, in terms of use and location, the immediate proximity of the sea.
  • Recognizing potential gains from management, there is usually a need to understand and manage the ecosystem in an economic context. (4)
  • The objectives of management of land, water and living resources are a matter of societal choices. (1)
  • Management should be decentralized to the lowest appropriate level. (2)
8. The allocation of uses throughout the entire coastal zone should be balanced and unnecessary concentration and urban sprawl should be avoided.
  • The ecosystem approach should seek the appropriate balance between, and integration of, conservation and use of biological diversity. (10)
  • Conservation of ecosystem structure and functioning, in order to maintain ecosystem services, should be a priority target of the ecosystem approach. (5)
  • The ecosystem approach should be undertaken at the appropriate spatial and temporal scales. (7)
9. Preliminary assessments shall be made of the risks associated with the various human activities and infrastructure so as to prevent and reduce their negative impact on coastal zones.
  • Management must recognize the change is inevitable. (9)
  • Ecosystem must be managed within the limits of their functioning. (6)
10. Damage to the coastal environment shall be prevented and, where it occurs, appropriate restoration shall be effected.
  • Ecosystem must be managed within the limits of their functioning. (6)

Source: Haines-Young and Potschin (2011) and Haines-Young et al. (2013)

A number of features are apparent from the Table. ICZM Principle 3 specifically requires the Parties to be guided by the Ecosystem Approach in coastal planning and management. However, the condition should not be looked at in isolation, and the Table demonstrates that the entire set of ICZM Principles mirror, encompass and extend the Ecosystem Approach defined by the CBD. This is evident in a number of respects.

For example, the holistic way the coastal zone is defined and applied in the Protocol (e.g. Principles 1 and 2), strongly echoes the ideas stated in the Ecosystem Approach that should be applied at appropriate spatial and temporal scales (EsA Principle 7) and that it should entail management of the cross links between ecosystems (EsA Principle 3). According to the Protocol the coastal zone lies between: ‘the seaward limit of the coastal zone, which shall be the external limit of the territorial sea of Parties’; and, ‘the landward limit of the coastal zone, which shall be the limit of the competent coastal units as defined by the Parties’. It is, therefore seen as, ‘the geomorphologic area either side of the seashore in which the interaction between the marine and land parts occurs in the form of complex ecological and resource systems made up of biotic and abiotic components coexisting and interacting with human communities and relevant socio-economic activities” (Article 2, Definitions). The implication is, as the EsA principles also argue, that the ‘management unit’ is highly context dependent; the coastal zone is not set by some arbitrary buffer along the interface between the terrestrial and marine parts, but a functional unit defined by the interactions between them; in this sense the definition is consistent with the principles of the Ecosystem Approach.

A corollary of this definition is that the ICZM Principles provide the basis for a coherent approach to coastal zone management at different scales. There is a requirement in the Protocol for a comprehensive and consistent ‘nested’ set of strategies, plans and programmes. At the macro, or pan-Mediterranean scale there should be a ‘common regional framework’ defined by taking into account the Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development (UNEP/MAP 2005). It is anticipated that, beneath this, national strategies for integrated coastal zone management and coastal implementation plans and programmes will be developed. In turn these will shape the design of local plans, interventions and measures. An important aim is therefore to encourage management that is consistent with the common regional framework and conforming to the Principles of the Protocol. This is a key requirement designed to overcome the previous fragmentary and inconsistent nature of ICZM in the region, by allowing the various ecosystem scales to be recognised. ICZM Principles 4 and 5 specifically emphasise the need to coordinate national and local actions. Such thinking resonates with that of the EsA, which also argues that policy and management should be decentralised, at the appropriate scale and involve all relevant sectors of society and scientific disciplines (EsA Principles 2, 7 and 12).

Also consistent with the Ecosystem Approach, is the fact that the Protocol requires measures to ensure the involvement in coastal and marine strategies, plans and programmes or projects, and the issuing of the various authorizations of the stakeholders, local communities and the public. Awareness raising, training and public education is also required. The notion of informed social choice is also a key component of the EsA (EsA Principle 1), together with the involvement of all relevant interest groups (EsA Principle 12) and the use of different forms of knowledge (EsA Principle 11).

The ICZM protocol and the Ecosystem Approach are also closely linked in their commitment to sustainable development (e.g. ICZM Principle 3), although it could be argued that the Protocol frames this idea more broadly than the EsA, whose focus is specifically on biodiversity. It must be accepted, however, the conservation of the biological wealth of the coastal zone (natural capital) is a core component of the Protocol (e.g. ICZM Principle 1). This Parties are required to ensure the ‘sustainable use and management’ of coastal zones to preserve the coastal natural habitats, landscapes, natural resources and ecosystems, in compliance with international and regional legal instruments. The need for a development free ‘set-back’ zone of not less than 100 metres is specifically required, along with other measures to restrict or prohibit coastal development, or to protect fragile habitats. These include: wetlands and estuaries; marine habitats; coastal forests and woods; and, dunes.

The keeping with its broader interpretation of the notion of sustainable development, however, the Protocol recognises the importance of ‘balanced development’ in the coastal zone (Principle 8). This goes beyond the recognition made in the EsA that decisions are made in an economic and social context (EsA Principles 1, 4 and 10). In addition to the requirement in the Protocol for protection of coastal ecosystems from economic activities including agriculture and industry, tourism and recreation, sand extraction and maritime activities, Parties must consider the carrying capacities of ecosystems and cumulative impacts of activities in the coastal zone. These must be taken into account in environmental assessments (ICZM Principle 9); both environmental impact assessments (EIAs) of projects, along with strategic environmental assessments (SEAs) of plans and programmes are covered in the Protocol (Article 19), both of which need take into account the inter-relationships between the marine and terrestrial parts of the coastal zone. Considering ecosystem services, EIA and SEA can focus attention on the cumulative effects on ecosystems and the services they provide identifying issues that may otherwise have been overlooked. They may also be key mechanisms for the broader consideration of risk (cf. ICZM Principle 9). Parties are also required to work across national boundaries by means of notification, exchange of information and consultation in assessing environmental impacts, along with cooperation in the formulation of ICZM guidelines.

The notion of balanced development in the coastal zone (ICZM Principle 8) represented a particular challenge in terms of interpreting what this means ‘on the ground’. Clearly it involves the needs to prevent urban sprawl, but given the way the other principles are framed, it must also take into account a number of other characteristics of development in the coastal zone. These include the idea that priority should be given to public services and activities requiring, in terms of use and location, the immediate proximity of the sea. It also implies the idea of restoration of ecosystem function and natural processes in the coastal zone (ICZM Principle 10), measures consistent with the EsA but not emphasised explicitly in its Principles. In the ICZM Protocol there is a significant move away from ‘hard’ engineering solutions to coastal erosion. Building on Principle 10, Article 23 of the Protocol which deals with coastal erosion, calls on Parties to adopt the necessary measures to ‘maintain or restore the natural capacity of the coast to adapt to changes, including those caused by the rise in sea levels’. This is a call to work with nature rather than defensive engineering.

Building on the Differences

There are therefore many similarities between the principles that underpin the ICZM Protocol and those of the CBD Ecosystem Approach, and the differences between them probably reflect nothing more than the emphasis that different groups have brought to the debate. They are, nevertheless worth considering side by side, so that the full range of issues that are relevant to the coastal zone can be taken into account. One point of interest, for example, is that the ICZM Protocol makes little explicit mention of the concept of ecosystem services, an idea that is included in the EsA framework. Similarly the issue of placing an appropriate value on environment resources (and ecosystem services) does not feature strongly in the set of ICZM Principles. Given current, widespread interest in the concepts of ecosystem services and their valuation, it is perhaps worth making more explicit reference to them in any future elaboration of the principles underpinning ICZM.

Similarly, while the EsA suggests that management should be at an ‘appropriate scale’, the approach embodied in the ICZM Protocol envisages more of a hierarchy of strategies operating at regional, national and local levels. In fact, could be argued that once we attempt to deal with problems in a holistic, cross-sectoral way, there is no ‘appropriate scale’ at which to operate, because different social and environmental components have different spatial and temporal footprints. Thus the ICZM framework is a more sophisticated treatment of scale issues than that implied by the EsA, and one that is more consistent with the needs to take account of processes in a cross-sectoral way.

Other differences between the two sets of principles that can be identified include the stronger emphasis that the ICZM protocol places on the processes of governance compared to the EsA. By contrast, the EsA tends to stress the role of ecosystems and biodiversity more explicitly than the ICZM framework. Some have argued that while the principles underpinning the Ecosystem Approach are valuable, the use of the term ‘ecosystem’ may mean that their relevance may not always be understood by the wider policy community or the public. In this respect, the notion of ‘integrated coastal zone management’ might be easier to communicate.

The Ecosystem Approach and the notion of ICZM are however, closely linked and will be promoted in tandem. In 2012 the Contracting Parties to the ICZM Protocol for the Mediterranean adopted the ‘Action Plan’ for its implementation (UNEP/MAP, 2012), designed to addresses the need to deliver the Protocol in comprehensive form, through a strategic approach at all levels and the building of capacity. The Action Plan was designed to be ‘coherent and synergistic’ with the application by UNEP/MAP of the Ecosystem Approach to the management of human activities roadmap as adopted by the Contracting Parties in 2008. As a result consideration of the Ecosystems Approach as one of the priorities of UNEP/MAP’s Programme of Work as decided by the Contracting Parties in 2009 and confirmed in 2012.

The ICZM Action Plan will therefore reinforce ‘ICZM’s key role for the implementation of the Ecosystem Approach’. The intention is that guidance will be developed to demonstrate how ICZM will achieve the aims of the MAP Initiative on the Application of the Ecosystem Approach in coastal areas (Objective 1.3). Reporting on the Protocol implementation in the Mediterranean will gather data and monitor ICZM Indicators for the Mediterranean ‘starting with those related to coastal management in the context of the application of the Ecosystems Approach’ (Objective 1.4).

This article has been drafted by UNOTT
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Haines-Young, R. and M. Potschin (2011): Integrated Coastal Zone Management and the Ecosystem Approach. PEGASO Task 2.1A Deliverable submitted on 10 March 2011. Download available as CEM working Paper no 7 at:

Haines-Young, R.; Potschin, M.; Škaričić, Ž.; Shipman, B.; Petit, S.; Ariza, E.; Breton, F. and Y. Henocque (2013) Common conceptual framework for the implementation of ICZM based on the review of current issues. PEGASO Task 2.1B Deliverable submitted on26 May 2013. Shepherd, G. (2004): The Ecosystem Approach: Five Steps to Implementation. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK, 30 pp.

UNEP/MAP (2005): Mediterranean Strategy for Sustainable Development. A Framework for Environmental Sustainability and Shared Prosperity. UNEP(DEC)/MED IG.16/7. Athens.

UNEP/MAP (2012): Report of the 17th Ordinary Meeting of the Contracting Parties to the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean and its Protocols. UNEP(DEPI)/MED IG.20/8. UNEP/MAP, Athens, 2012.