Ecosystem services: an idea with enormous value

And CEED is active in realising that potential

Ecosystems provide life-supporting services.

The idea of ecosystem services emphasizes the benefits that nature provides – benefits that are both tangible and intangible. This, among other things, includes the production of food and clean water, the regulation of floods, the provision of recreation and scenic beauty, a connection to place, and inspiration. These are things that make life possible and worthwhile.

Ecosystem-service assessments have become very popular within both scientific and policy circles as a means of documenting the values that humans place on ecosystems and of evaluating the benefits arising from nature.

Not everyone is happy with this approach. A recurring critique is that the ecosystem-services concept reduces nature to a dollar value that can be sold, used and (sometimes) abused. We appreciate this concern, but also see that quantifying and valuing the benefits that nature provides people gives us another data point for use in appraising solutions.

CEED is active in the field of assessing ecosystem services. Our particular focus is on using the information provided by such assessments to improve environmental decision-making. Our researchers were involved in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (over a decade ago), have been active contributors to GEOBON (Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network) processes, and are lead authors in several IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) initiatives (see Decision Point #61).

This special issue of Decision Point brings you a selection of our work in this area. Up front we have Vanessa Adams describing how sustainable development and the protection of ecosystem services is all about respecting the different values people have for a region (in this case the Daly Catchment in the Northern Territory). She uses a scenario-based approach to evaluate options.

Jessie Wells assesses flood events and its impacts on local people in Indonesian Borneo. Given how data sparse this region is she uses novel sources of information, villager interviews and newspaper reports, to deliver insights on how landscape changes have influenced the regulating service of flood mitigation. Still on Borneo, Elizabeth Law shows that it is possible to achieve both biodiversity conservation and ecosystem-service benefits in mixed tropical forests and thereby meet production expectations and conservation targets simultaneously.

Fleur Maseyk then takes us across the ditch to present farmers’ perspectives on the costs and benefits of replanting riparian margins in the Taranaki ring plain in New Zealand.

Rebecca Runting reviews a large body of ecosystem-service studies to see how climate change is affecting the benefits provided by nature. She provides guidelines on how to integrate climate change into ecosystem-service assessments.

Nooshin Torabi determines factors most likely to influence program participation in biodiverse carbon planting and Marit Kragt complements this with the results of an Australia-wide choice experiment on the public’s willingness-to-pay for climate change mitigation by farmers.

Brett Bryan then discusses designer policies and assesses the mix of regulations, targeting, levies and incentive payments that will deliver the best outcomes for biodiversity benefits and carbon sequestration.

The central challenge of the century ahead is to develop economic, social, and governance systems capable of ending poverty and achieving sustainability while securing the life-support systems underpinning human well-being. Essential to meeting this challenge is the incorporation of ecosystem services into decision-making. We hope the stories presented here in this issue of Decision Point provide some insights into what this means and how it might be achieved.

Accounting for ecosystem services may not be the complete solution to meeting the conservation challenges facing us but it is another important tool that promises to improve our capacity to make more informed environmental decisions.

More info: Maria Martinez-Harms

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