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The University of Southampton
Sustainability Science

Development and Ecosystem Services

Our Development and Ecosystem Services research focuses on the interdisciplinary science that underpins sustainable development within the context of strong and sustainable ecosystem services, the benefits people gain from the natural environment.

Northern Madagascar
Agriculture farmer

Current Development and Ecosystem Services research projects

The University leads five projects within the NERC/DfID/ESRC funded Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme. The latest two international consortium research projects followed a world-wide competition that attracted over 320 bids.

1. ESPA Assets Project: Attaining Sustainable Services from Ecosystems through Trade-off Scenarios 2012-2016

Academics from across the University in Biology, Environmental Sciences, Social Sciences, and Medicine will join together to deliver the £2.5m ASSETS Consortium project. The study aims to quantify the linkages between the natural ecosystem services that affect - and are affected by- food security and nutritional health for the rural poor at the forest-agricultural interface. The study will investigate the ecosystem services at the forest-agricultural interface in Amazonia and Africa. Professor Guy Poppy, Director of Multidisciplinary Research at the University of Southampton will lead the ASSETS study in Colombia and Malawi.


A sample lecture by Dr kate schreckenberg at World Water Day 2013:

2. ESPA Deltas project: Assessing health, livelihoods, ecosystem services and poverty alleviation in populous deltas 2012-2016

Academics from Civil Engineering, The GeoData Institute, Geography and Environmental and Social Sciences will work on this second ESPA Consortium project, which will assess the changing ecosystem services deltas provide, mainly focusing on the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta in Bangladeshi and India. Robert Nicholls, Professor of Coastal Engineering at the University of Southampton, will lead the £3.4m project in Bangladesh where his team aims to understand the relationship between ecosystem services and human wellbeing and health in deltas. They will develop methods to predict how deltas around the world may evolve to ensure future policy can maximise the ecosystem services to the benefit of the local population.


A sample lecture by Dr Craig Hutton at World Water Day 2013:


3. Safe operating spaces for regional rural development: a new conceptual tool for evaluating complex socio-ecological dynamics, 2012-2013

This Evidence and Impact Research Grant (£50K) led by John Dearing with Peter Langdon (Geography), Felix Eigenbrod (Biological Sciences) and Helmut Haberl (Vienna) develops the idea of 'safe operating spaces' for development: defining the regional boundaries that can help inform optimum development pathways so as to avoid 'tipping points' that lead to irreversible change. We draw on results from our ongoing ESPA Programme Framework project in the lower Yangtze basin and another project in Yunnan Province that combine conventional socio-economic records with reconstructed data for ecosystem services to show how close the modern regions are to tipping points. An historical context is key to identifying the trends of different ecosystem services and how they may be driven towards or away from their limits. We use newly mapped information for rural livelihoods and ecosystem services across China to help define the combinations of low poverty levels and stable ecosystem services that may constitute 'safe operating spaces'. The research will provide significant findings about the complex dynamics of ecosystem services in two major regions of China and to develop a methodology that can be applied across ESPA regions and the world.

4. Poverty and ecology: developing an evolutionary approach 2011-2013

This Programme Framework Grant (£250K) led by John Dearing with Richard Treves (Geography) and Terry Dawson (Dundee) aims to develop a novel evolutionary framework for the study of ecological services and their pathways to delivery through the regional integration and analysis of multi-decadal records of social and ecological records. A suite of research methods will be developed to enable a full assessment of process vulnerability, path-dependency, resilience, model development and model validation in rural landscapes within the rural lower Yangtze river basin, China. Such methodologies include integration of instrument, document, palaeo-environmental, socio-economic and indigenous knowledge data sources, and development and application of visualisation, network analysis, numerical and agent-based modelling approaches over annual-decadal timescales with validation against historical records. The outcome is a tool-kit of quantitative and qualitative approaches for providing insight into ecological services in complex socio-ecological systems – but with novel development of practical approaches to allow generic application elsewhere. The first results have recently been published in a PNAS article, Dearing et al (2012).


5. Safeguarding local equity as global values of ecosystem services rise, 2010-2012

The dominant global narrative surrounding ecosystem services assumes that better valuation of ecosystem services will simultaneously contribute to environmental sustainability and poverty reduction. This narrative is shaping the global architecture on payments for ecosystem services (PES), particularly in relation to REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). Yet we know very little about how putting a value on ecosystem services will affect different stakeholders, leading to growing concern about ‘equity’ impacts. This programme framework grant (£250k), led by Kate Schreckenberg (Environmental Sciences), brings together an international team of collaborators to develop a rigorous definition of the different dimensions and types of equity in the context of ecosystem services together with a conceptual framework that describes how changes in global values of ecosystem services (e.g. carbon prices) affect equity at local level (e.g. in terms of how costs and benefits of associated land use systems are distributed among different stakeholders). This framework should contribute to achieving the critical challenge of the equitable management of ecosystems in a manner that benefits poor people. In particular, it will help decision-makers in REDD+ and PES programmes minimise negative impacts on equity and maximise positive impacts on poverty alleviation.




Video: Dr kate Schreckenberg ESPA ASSETS Project Lecture (World Water Day 2013)
Video: Dr Craig Hutton ESPA Deltas Project Lecture (World Water Day 2013)
ESPA: Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation Funder Website
Northern Madagascar
Coastal Community

We know that collectively nearly one billion people around the world live in poverty in the types of environments we see in Colombia and Malawi and the deltas of Bangladesh. By assessing these areas to understand why people act the way they do there and how the environment changes over time, we can begin to determine how to manage that change to improve ecosystems management policies. This will help alleviate poverty in the developing world.

A large proportion of delta populations experience extremes of poverty and are severely vulnerable or exposed to vulnerability from environmental and ecological stress and degradation. Rural livelihoods are inextricably linked with the natural ecosystems and low income farmers are extremely vulnerable to changes in ecosystem services.

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