What are Ecosystem services?

You may have heard of the term ‘ecosystem services’ – very much a buzz phrase at the moment in Government circles and a mainstay of recent documents, like the Welsh Environment Framework or the upcoming Scottish Biodiversity Strategy. You may even have got slightly confused as ecosystem service seems to be used in the same part of the sentence that in previous years would have been filled by the term biodiversity.

So here is the first thing; ecosystem service is not a synonym for biodiversity. The expression ‘biodiversity’ has been around for twenty years and is used to describe the variety of all life on the planet from genetic variation within species to the different species and the various habitats that populate the world. More than that was the recognition that biodiversity in all its myriad forms was important to the world and we should worry when we lost it. From here sprang biodiversity conservation, biodiversity action plans and targets to achieve.

But internationally, many of those targets have been missed and species and habitats are still declining, even becoming extinct. There was a need to understand more about what was causing biodiversity loss, and how it could be addressed.

One method developed to help this meant looking at things at an ecosystem level, where ecosystem is taken to mean a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. So rather than at than look at an individual species or habitat, exploration starts with the understanding that the individual elements of the ecosystem – the great tit that ate the hover fly that fed on the nectar of the corncockle – were all interconnected and the system would break down if one or the other were removed. 

Image: WTPL/K.Jaiteh

A corncockle

International analysis, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, led to national with the launch of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) in 2011. The UK NEA aims to provide an assessment of the natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to society and the nation’s continuing prosperity. People may not like the way that the environment is being looked at in how it can deliver a monetary service to society, but it is an interesting technique and has provided a new way at looking at things as well as a different means to communicate biodiversity issues to audiences that have not been listening before. 

To quote from the UKNEA:

“the concept of ecosystem service is based on an understanding that sustainable human life depends not just on the raw products that different types of ecosystems produce (such as food and timber) but on a much wider range of goods and services. Many of these are unseen, many go unnoticed and many are unrewarded.” 

Ecosystem services are divided in the NEA into four types.

Supporting services: the basic infrastructure of life including primary production of energy from the sun or the formation of soil, all other ecosystem services ultimately depend on them. Underpinned by biological, physical and chemical interactions, may take centuries to develop.

Regulating services: for example the impact that pollination has on the provision of food. Water regulation in terms of quality and quantity is another regulating service.

Provisioning services: the goods people obtain from the ecosystem such as food or fuel. This has historically been the major relationship between people and their surroundings.

Cultural services: the way that we use the land for recreation or learning, the impacts areas can have on health or fitness. 

This analysis can be used in a number of ways. Having divided the ecosystem services into different categories you can then look at a habitat or species and see how they deliver. But at a strategic level you can also look at trends in service provision and assess impacts of legislation or cultural changes. None of this will work, however, if we forget that underpinning all these services is biodiversity. Without the biodiversity there will be no soil, no food and no water regulation, but there could be a time lag between loss of biodiversity and failure of the ecosystem service – for example, trees are cut down to grow food but it is only two years later when the rain is heavy and washes away the crop and floods nearby houses that the realisation comes that those trees were stabilising the soil and allowing the water to disperse effectively.

At present, the Trust’s view is that ecosystem services can be a really useful method of assessing the environment – but the underlying processes that form the services must be properly understood, and outcomes must not be the only thing that’s being measured. What do you think?

Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Officer

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About Kaye Brennan

Senior Campaigner (Policy & Advocacy) for the Woodland Trust and Administrator, 'Woodland Matters' blog
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7 Responses to What are Ecosystem services?

  1. Pingback: Fish live in trees too | Woodland Matters

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  3. Hung Liu says:

    Thanks Kaye for starting this interesting discussion! Ecosystems can only provide us their services if we pay attention and protect biodiversity because both are closey linked. One of the problem in my opinion is, that people don’t think in the longterm and try to make fast money by destroying and reclaming habitats for other purposes. By doing so, the ecosystem can not provide these services (supply of groundwater, detain nutrients, remove pollutants, etc.) anymore and have to be replace by other cost expensive means. The awareness is not there yet I think.

  4. James Lovelock of gaia infamy once suggested ( I believe correctly) that ecological scientific study was too concerned with the minute, that the dots were not being connected and the overall picture was missing.So as a landscape ecologist it is good to see an ecosysten approach being adopted. However that does not mean we start ignoring the detail. In the UK we seem to have great difficulty striking the right balance between detailed study and overall understanding.
    Finally as a world weary cynic I sincerely hope this ecosystem services approach is not just another politically motivated sound bite, that disappears into the ether as have so many others before them.
    I care passionately about our countryside, woodland in particular, and champion its cause whenever I am able, hence my rather pithy comments above. I have seen too many good projects go to the wall as political will (and funding) fade away ( the forest of Bere Project springs to mind). Thats why organisations like the woodland trust, which can operate outside election parameters are so important in maintaining project continuity.
    However in order to do so you need to flirt with the politicians whilst being strictly apolitical – a difficult balancing act.
    Sorry to go on, needed to vent a bit, your blog was very informative. Thank you

  5. Very interesting and useful for Environmental Education purpose,congratulations and keep it up!

  6. Katy Malkin says:

    Interesting way of thinking. It will certainly help bridge the gap between ‘environmentalists; and people who need persuading. Unfortunately in this day and age everything has to be put in termsof money and usefulness. Thank you for the information!

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