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From principles to practice in paying for nature’s services

Matters Arising to this article was published on 01 June 2020


Payments for Environmental Services (PES) constitute an innovative economic intervention to counteract the global loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functions. In theory, some appealing features should enable PES to perform well in achieving conservation and welfare goals. In practice, outcomes depend on the interplay between context, design and implementation. Inspecting a new global dataset, we find that some PES design principles pre-identified in the social-science literature as desirable, such as spatial targeting and payment differentiation, are only partially being applied in practice. More importantly, the PES-defining principle of conditionality—monitoring compliance and sanctioning detected non-compliance—is seldom being implemented. Administrative ease, multiple non-environmental side objectives and social equity concerns may jointly help explain the reluctance to adopt more sophisticated, theoretically informed practices. However, by taking simplifying shortcuts in design and implementation, PES programmes may become less environmentally effective and efficient as economic incentives, thus underperforming their conservation potential.

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Fig. 1: Payment diversification and PES design in public and private programmes worldwide.
Fig. 2: ES focus, spatial targeting and enforced conditionality of PES programmes.


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This work resulted from workshops held at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the Basque Centre for Climate Change (Bilbao) in 2015. We appreciate the assistance provided by C. Caro with the maps, and funding from CGIAR’s Forest, Trees and Agroforestry programme, the European Commission (SINCERE, H2020 GA 773702), the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation, the Basque Foundation for Science, Ikerbasque and the Agence Nationale de la Recherche. S.E. is the recipient of an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship in Environmental Economics. U.P. acknowledges research grants PI_2015_1_103 from the Education Department of the Basque Government and CSO2015-71243-R from the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness.

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Two workshops were organized by R.B., U.P. and S.E., where the concepts were laid out by R.B., U.P., S.E., R.M and S.W. Case study data were adapted and processed by R.B., D.E.-d.-B., R.P. and S.W. Maps were prepared by R.P. and R.B. Finally, S.W. wrote the paper, assisted by all co-authors.

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Correspondence to S. Wunder.

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Wunder, S., Brouwer, R., Engel, S. et al. From principles to practice in paying for nature’s services. Nat Sustain 1, 145–150 (2018).

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