We are proud to announce that Bart Immerzeel (NMBU, Norway) defended his thesis successfully on 24 September 2021, and he is thereby the third Biowater PhD student to achieve his degree. Bart has studied how societal benefits of catchment ecosystems may change under a green shift. A transition to bioeconomy can change the land cover and management systems of Nordic river basins, and Bart’s mission has been to assess how this may affect the benefits that people gain from these ecosystems. His PhD has been funded by NordForsk.

Six catchments in four countries

By using six catchments in four Nordic countries, Bart covered a wide variety of landscapes.

Bart has conducted his studies in Denmark (River Odense), Finland (River Simojoki), Norway (River Orrevassdraget and Haldenvassdraget) and Sweden (Sävjaån and Vindelälven). This ensures a broad representation of different Nordic catchments, with a variety of land use and geographical qualities. 

How do people value the landscapes that surround us?

In the first part of his study, Bart and co-authors explored the relationship between landscape qualities and people’s preference for recreation. More than 1600 respondents in four countries were asked to choose between a selection of alternative future states of the landscape. He sometimes employed locals to help with the interviews, see the puzzled account of a biologist gone interviewer.

On average, the respondents preferred a balanced mix between agriculture and forestry, meaning that they wanted neither more intensive nor more extensive land management. They also preferred clearer water, an increase in nature reserve areas, more local employment from agriculture, forestry and fishing, and a decrease in flood frequency.

Interviewing people on their preferences for landscape qualities (Photo: Bart Immerzeel)

However, the results varied among catchments as well as among different types of respondents, pointing to a range of preferences depending on landscape type and what people at different locations prefer. Nevertheless, Bart explains: “What stood out across the Nordic countries, was that those living in and visiting rural and peri-urban landscapes appreciate them most for their variation in natural environment, and for their access to clean water.”

Can we set a price on nature?

As discussed in the opinion paper by Bart’s main supervisor, Jan Vermaat (NMBU), it is not easy to set a price on benefits that lack a monetary value to begin with. However, this is an important task, since natural ecosystems tends to compete against values that are much easier to put a price tag on.

Hence, Bart’s second paper presents an estimate of the current total societal value of ecosystem services generated in the six Nordic catchments, and an analysis of its variability. This includes the value of income from agriculture and forestry, peat extraction, and hydropower generation, as well as benefits from foraging of berries and mushrooms, hunting, water for drinking and processing, climate regulation and recreation. In other words, a wide variety of services that ecosystems provide us with, but that are not always found in the calculations that policy makers use when they weigh different goods against each other.

Bart and co-authors revealed that the average total value ranged from roughly €400 per ha and year in the Finnish Simojoki catchment, to €7,000 per ha and year in the Norwegian Orrevassdraget catchment. Most of the value was generated by active nature appreciation, such as recreation, but there was large spatial variability among and within catchments. Other major ecosystem services were the supporting environment for agriculture, forestry and carbon sequestration. Soil type, slope, landscape diversity, population density and access to water all showed significant correlations to the value of ecosystem services.

How will a bioeconomy change the value of ecosystem services?

Bart’s third paper presents an analysis of the effects of transitioning to a bioeconomy on the value of ecosystem services. It applied five bioeconomy scenarios and for each assessed its effects on land use change, socio-geographic change and subsequently on the ecosystem services generated in each catchment.

Bart and co-authors found that a developed bioeconomy is likely to increase the value of ecosystem services as a whole, with the sustainability-focused scenario and the scenario aimed at maximising economic output generating most benefits. However, the effects vary among catchments, as well as among stakeholder groups benefiting from ecosystem services. This suggests that bioeconomy will not only affect total societal value, but also the distribution of value within society.

How do we value different qualities of landscapes? Photo: Bart Immerzeel.

The thesis has tree papers, of which one is already published, and two are in the pipeline. The published paper is:

Immerzeel, B., Vermaat, J.E., Riise, G., Juutinen, A. & Futter, M. 2021. Estimating societal benefits from Nordic catchments: An integrative approach using a final ecosystem services framework. – PLoS ONE 16(6): e0252352, 24 pp.

Feature photo: Bart at Besseggen, a much visited landscape in Norway. Photo: Andreas Leirvik.

Bart’s PhD can be found here.

See also NMBU’s news item on Bart’s PhD in English and Norwegian.

Ecosystem services: Freshwater ecosystems can serve us in many ways, for example as providers of food and energy, drinking water supply, or serve as sites for recreation, sports, or just pure nature experience. The concept of “ecosystem services” captures these different benefits. See also Jan Varmaat’s opinion paper on the topic here.