Key Messages

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PES research as a booming academic industry

The number of academic studies on PES has exploded in the last two decades

The database comprises 1067 peer-reviewed articles that mention PES in their title, abstract or keywords from only 6 articles in 2005 to 155 articles in 2019.

At the same time, a growing number of these 1067 articles, corresponding to 30% of the database, do not directly theoretically or empirically engage with PES to any extent; they only name drop PES as a potential solution to address political ecological challenges.

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The uneven geographies of knowledge production and data extraction in PES research

The expertise and scientific knowledge is predominantly assembled by researchers in the Global North collecting data in the Global South. It very rarely goes in the opposite direction.

  • Knowledge Production:
    • 73% of studies are produced by Global North institutions
    • 46% of studies are produced by only 3 countries: The USA, Germany, and the UK
  • Data Extraction:
    • 81% of all empirically-focused studies collect data in the Global South.
    • Most data on PES is collected in Latin America (37%)
    • China, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Indonesia, Vietnam and Kenya are the PES "darling" countries, where most data is collected
  • Uneven Geographies:
    • Global North institutions focus their attention almost exclusively on PES cases in the Global South
    • 93% of articles authored by Latin American research institutions focus on Latin American contexts.
    • A similar pattern is found for Africa (93%), ‘developing’ Asia (86%), and China (98%)
    • Only 2 out of 1,067 PES studies are Global South institutions focusing on cases in the Global North.

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The lenses through which scientific knowledge on PES gets produced.

PES research is largely homogenous in its approach. Most studies on PES use quantitative approaches and make minimal reference to situated circumstances, priorities or local needs, largely dismissing the cultural and political histories or relationships to territory where PES is being implemented.

41% of all PES studies use quantitative approaches (including randomized control trials, geospatial analyses, framed-field experiments, and contingent valuation or choice experiments).

Externally-driven research approaches, with minimal attention to cultural or grounded realities of the territories where PES gets implemented, have consistently dominated PES research.

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The making of success in PES

The lenses used to analyze PES largely precondition success.

  • Studies that use strictly quantitative methods are more likely to give a positive evaluation of PES
  • 26% of qualitative studies claim that PES is unsuccessful in achieving its intended objectives, while only 4% of quantitative studies come to a similar conclusion.
  • 85% of research informed by situated circumstances, priorities or local needs suggests negative or mixed evaluations
  • In contrast, only 3% of studies that do not take into account situated circumstances, priorities or local needs claim that PES is unsuccessful

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The hyping of success in PES

TPES is also being advocated by researchers that are not analyzing it to any extent. In doing so they contribute to hyping success, which reflects a gap between expectation and reality on the ground. This feeds into speculative narratives around the potential of PES as a solution to addressing ecological problems and ensures a continuation of research and practice, even when PES may not be relevant in particular settings.

  • Hype is demonstrated by the number of studies that name-drop PES as a potential solution, without any empirical or theoretical engagement with the concept.
  • 295 articles (28% of all assessed studies) 'name drop' PES as potential solution without substantiated evidence

In some countries like India, Brazil, South Africa, and Spain there is more hype around the potential of PES schemes than any evidence would justify for those countries

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Main implications of this study

  • Despite the use of PES as a flagship strategy to address ecological crises, there remains no evidence that it has resulted in halting habitat loss, greenhouse gas emissions, or resulted in ecologically less harmful livelihoods over the long-term. Ecological breakdown continues to advance worldwide, with drivers of deterioration only accelerating over time. While positive outcomes might be temporarily or locally bounded, PES has not shown any impact on the scales that matter to halt and reverse ecological breakdown.
  • Reversing inequalities in knowledge production around PES requires breaking with selling PES success through speculative ‘hype’ to justify further rounds of financing where it may not be fit for context to begin with.
  • Amidst increasingly urgent ecological crises and growing net-zero pledges for “nature-based solutions”, maybe it is time to ask uncomfortable, yet vital questions about the historical and structural roots of ecological problems and the role of PES in realistically responding to them.