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However, the appropriateness of discounting in cases affecting natural capital with potentially profound influences on future generations is controversial and entails ethical as well as economic considerations. Debates on discounting in the context of climate change policy highlight the importance and lack of agreement on how society should aggregate benefits and costs over time 71 , Natural capital is degraded and ecosystem services are underprovided in large part because of a failure of markets and other institutions to provide proper incentives to conserve and value them Reform of policies and institutions can help correct the fundamental asymmetry that rewards production of marketed commodities but fails to reward ecosystem service provision.

Incentives to maintain or enhance natural capital and increase provision of ecosystem services can be provided in a variety of ways, including PES, environmental taxes, cap-and-trade schemes, environmental laws and regulations, product certification, and encouraging social norms for stewardship. Social-ecological systems are complex, characterized by multiple interacting processes with nonlinear and stochastic dynamics Multiple scales local to international and forms of governance e.

Policy design for governance of social-ecological systems should reflect the underlying complexity of such systems 75 and should account for the complex spatial patterns of ecosystem service supply and the spatial patterns that link supply with beneficiaries [ 76 ; see also Bateman et al. The integration of behavioral economics, psychology, and resilience theory offers potential for more effective policy design.

A growing body of literature has analyzed approaches for adaptive management, comanagement, and governance 25 , 30 , A better understanding of human motivations, preferences, and cultural norms surrounding nature and its benefits is a prerequisite for changes in human—nature interactions. Anthropology, behavioral economics, psychology, sociology, and other social sciences are directly relevant. Assessing the impacts of policies and decisions on the sustainable use of natural capital and the provision of ecosystem services is essential for testing assumptions, and enabling on-going learning and adaptive management.

Impact evaluation of conservation actions on aspects of human well-being is significantly behind other fields e. Evaluating impacts requires monitoring of relevant biophysical and socioeconomic measures. Most current monitoring data are inadequate. The obvious solution is more comprehensive or more relevant data collection, but this is costly. Analysts must often try to make clever use of whatever data exist. Assessing policy impacts is complicated by confounding factors, complex feedbacks, and potentially long lags between action and impacts.

Accurately assessing impacts of a program requires comparison of conditions postimplementation and a counterfactual of conditions had the program not been instituted 84 , Because it is often difficult to design experiments at landscape scales, careful control both of the factors going into selection of areas for program implementation and for potential confounding factors is needed for relatively unbiased estimates of program impact Attribution of impacts from a policy intervention often involves trying to trace through a complex chain of causation.

Understanding complex causal links is often incomplete and likely to remain so with emerging novel climate and ecosystem conditions. Complexity regarding causation of impacts can complicate implementation of policies such as PES, with disputes likely over who should pay for services, how much, and who should bear the risks of underprovision.


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Shared understanding of social-ecological dynamics can reduce, but is unlikely to eliminate, disputes [e. For many recently instituted interventions, it is simply too early to see significant impacts. For example, habitat destruction or restoration can lead to eventual biodiversity loss or increase but the effect may take decades to centuries However, program evaluation—even if interim and incomplete—offers immense value for the design and ongoing improvement of effective policies [e. National governments, international organizations, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations have begun to incorporate natural capital and ecosystem service information into policy and management, but it is not yet standard practice.

Progress on biophysical objectives is being achieved 89 but progress on social objectives of poverty alleviation and sustainable livelihoods is mixed The program also conserved and regenerated forest on other lands to provide watershed services, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration It is difficult, however, to fully disentangle the effects of PES from other policy measures and broader economic trends Other countries are moving ahead as well. In South Africa, ecosystem service planning is linked with development planning to inform decisions in water management and allocation processes, poverty alleviation 94 , disaster management 29 , and land-use planning 95 , Belize incorporated the value of ecosystem services in coastal zone management to identify the preferred balance of tourism, fisheries, and coastal protection goals for the country The United Kingdom conducted a national-scale assessment of status and trends of ecosystems, services, and impacts In Sweden, ecosystem services are incorporated into urban planning and green area management In the United States, federal agencies have begun to incorporate ecosystem service information into decision-making and natural resource damage assessment A White House interagency committee is exploring further steps and recent legislation directs consideration of ecosystem services in decision-making Across Latin America there is movement to use payments to secure water for cities.

Since , more than 40 water funds, systems of payments from downstream water consumers to upstream communities to alter land management and improve water quality and quantity 32 , have been established or are under development. Standardized approaches for targeting investments, designing finance and governance systems, and on-going monitoring are being developed and shared 98 , New policies provide incentives to the private sector. Cap-and-trade for carbon emissions, taxes on activities with negative impacts on ecosystems, PES, and certification schemes that provide consumers with information are all ways to realign incentives in the private sector to protect and enhance natural capital and provide ecosystem services.

Ruckelshaus et al. The InterAmerican Development Bank, through its Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Program, aims to integrate ecosystem services into infrastructure investments. For all loans, the International Finance Corporation requires assessment of ecosystem service impacts in its environmental impact assessments Similarly, the United Nations has advanced the accounting of ecosystem services and natural capital. The Statistics Division has created experimental ecosystem accounts as part of the revision of the System of Environmental and Economic Accounts.

The Inclusive Wealth Report provides information for countries on changes in natural capital over the past 20 y However, significant data gaps remain. Most nonmarket values are not included in these efforts.

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Evidence that such information is being used in policy is also needed. GDP, by comparison, is regularly calculated, reported, and cited for almost all countries. Despite this progress, incorporation of natural capital and ecosystem service information into diverse decisions remains the exception, not the rule.

In the next section, we suggest a strategy for building on progress to bolster real-world implementation. A strategy for future success includes: i developing solid evidence linking decisions to impacts on natural capital and ecosystem services, and then to human well-being; ii working closely with leaders in governments, businesses, and civil society to develop and make accessible the knowledge, tools, and practices necessary to integrate natural capital and ecosystem services into everyday decision-making; and iii reforming policies and institutions and building capacity to better align private short-term goals with societal long-term goals.

A growing number of cases suggest that incorporating natural capital and ecosystem service information into decisions is practical and can lead to decisions that secure a broader set of desired outcomes e. Making better decisions requires solid evidence that demonstrates how incorporating natural capital and ecosystem service understanding can lead to outcomes that improve human well-being in the short and long term.

This evidence will necessarily combine biophysical, economic, and social data.

Spirit, land, energy

Most compelling will be a robust portfolio of well-documented studies that include both successes and failures, allowing the next generation of policy design to learn from past efforts. Conducting ecosystem service science linked to specific decision contexts will provide invaluable learning opportunities. Some examples of promising decision contexts include: securing water for cities, national and coastal development planning, fishery management and ocean conservation, corporate supply chains, and infrastructure investment Table 1. Refining and replicating these approaches to bring them into the mainstream can spur innovation and action that may drive deep, systemic change for sustainability.

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Some promising opportunities to effect large-scale transformative change in the near future. Engaging with leaders will help move from vision to action. Such engagement within decision-making processes improves the salience, credibility, and legitimacy of the science and its uptake 63 , Furthermore, leaders can encourage greater uptake of ecosystem service information by improving accessibility of science and data.

A platform that reduces the time and cost associated with sharing useable biophysical and social data could greatly enhance transparency and trust needed among parties striving to balance multiple development and environmental objectives. Perhaps the most difficult challenge in the path of success is removing the fundamental asymmetry at the heart of economic systems, which rewards production of marketed commodities but not the provision of nonmarketed ecosystem services or the sustainable use of natural capital that supports these services.

As mentioned above, numerous policy approaches exist to correct this market failure PES, environmental taxes, cap-and-trade schemes, environmental regulations, product certification. Implementing these policy approaches requires the other two conditions for success: evidence on outcomes under alternative strategies, and engaged and committed leadership that will reform institutions and implement governance. The eight Millennium Development Goals established by the United Nations in were one mechanism through which the international community hoped to encourage integration of well-being, poverty alleviation, and environmental objectives.

In , the MA concluded that policy interventions to improve human well-being through development rarely considered sustainable use of natural capital and had achieved only mixed success 2. Actionable, easy-to-communicate goals, targets, and indicators that include connections between nature and human well-being are needed.

As demonstrated by the papers in this Special Feature, the data, methods, technology, and body of evidence on the value of natural capital and ecosystem services have advanced rapidly over the past decade and are ripe for inclusion in the implementation of the SDGs and the country plans to follow. Many important building blocks are in place for achieving sustainable development by active stewardship of natural capital alongside human, manufactured, built, financial, and social capital.

Progress since the MA—in increasing awareness, advancing science, and beginning the long and difficult road to implementation—suggests that we can indeed go beyond promise to inspire and empower leaders to include natural capital and ecosystem services in their decisions. As human populations grow, and grow increasingly disconnected from nature, sustainability requires no less. Author contributions: A. NOTE: We only request your email address so that the person you are recommending the page to knows that you wanted them to see it, and that it is not junk mail. We do not capture any email address.

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Skip to main content. Natural capital and ecosystem services informing decisions: From promise to practice Anne D. Kareiva , Bonnie L. Anne D. Paul, MN ;. This article has a Letter. Please see: Environmental liability: A missing use for ecosystem services valuation. See related content: Reply to Phelps et al: Liability rules provide incentives to protect natural capital - Sep 29, Abstract The central challenge of the 21st century is to develop economic, social, and governance systems capable of ending poverty and achieving sustainable levels of population and consumption while securing the life-support systems underpinning current and future human well-being.

Taking Stock: Progress and Remaining Challenges There has been remarkable progress in elevating these concepts over the past decade. Increasing Awareness of the Interdependence of Nature and People. Advancing Science. Understanding the provision and resilience of ecosystem services. Understanding the value of ecosystem services and natural capital. Ecosystem service valuation. Natural capital accounting. Understanding governance: Social norms, policy, incentives, and behavior.

Understanding impacts of policy and management. A Path Forward: Accelerating Progress Toward Sustainable Development A strategy for future success includes: i developing solid evidence linking decisions to impacts on natural capital and ecosystem services, and then to human well-being; ii working closely with leaders in governments, businesses, and civil society to develop and make accessible the knowledge, tools, and practices necessary to integrate natural capital and ecosystem services into everyday decision-making; and iii reforming policies and institutions and building capacity to better align private short-term goals with societal long-term goals.

View this table: View inline View popup. Table 1. Email: anne. The authors declare no conflict of interest. Available at www.

Accessed May 21, Available at riskybusiness. Steffen W , et al. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science : Kinzig AP , et al. Paying for ecosystem services—Promise and peril. Science : — Available at catalog. Ecol Econ 68 3 : — OpenUrl CrossRef. Ecosystem Services 1 1 : 16 — Carpenter SR , et al. A proposed foundation for moving ecosystem service concepts into practice. Ecol Econ 77 : 27 — Barner A , et al. Oceanography 28 2.