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What is the ‘ecosystem services’ concept?

June 20, 2013

Within the past three decades, ecosystem services have risen to prominence within policy and academic circles. In this guest post, James Thomas Erbaugh from the University of Oxford talks about what ecosystem services are and introduces some of the tensions between an ecosystem services framework and biodiversity conservation.

Bee - Ecosystem services

The progression of ecosystem services within policy and academic writing has resulted in many redefinitions of what ecosystem services are. However, the current understanding of the ecosystem services concept is based on some common themes. As the UK Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) guide to ecosystem services notes:

“There is no single way of [sic] categorising ecosystem services, but they can be described in simple terms as providing:

  • Natural resources for basic survival, such as clean air and water
  • A contribution to good physical and mental health, for example, through access to green spaces, both urban and rural, and genetic resources for medicines
  • Natural processes, such as climate regulation and crop pollination
  • Support for a strong and healthy economy, through raw materials for industry and agriculture or through tourism and recreation
  • Social, cultural and educational benefits, and welling and inspiration from interaction with nature”

Thus, ecosystem services provide anthropogenic value, for example: pollination, fiber production, and water filtration. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), one of the most important projects to the proliferation of the ecosystem services concept, uses four categories when defining specific ecosystem services:

MEA categories of ecosystem services

MEA categories of ecosystem services

Provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting services help categorise what various ecosystem functions or components do that is of value to people. The conceptual definition and the categorisation of ecosystem services illustrate the primary function of the entire ecosystem services concept: translating ecosystem functions and components into commodities using economic or market-based logics. It is this translation that both confounds and permits the connection between ecosystem services and biodiversity conservation.

Biodiversity is considered necessary for providing ecosystem services while biodiversity is also an ecosystem service itself. Maintaining a level of biodiversity is required for a functioning ecosystem to provide economically valuable services (provisional service). This was the original reason for advancing the ecosystem service concept; ecosystem services were introduced as an educational tool to raise awareness for biodiversity conservation. In this portrayal, biodiversity is a component of ecosystems that must be considered and protected if we wish to benefit from all other ecosystem services. The role of biodiversity is still important in the framework, but ecosystem services are seen as more than just an educational tool to promote biodiversity conservation.

Ecosystem_Services_PeopleCurrently, those who use the ecosystem services framework seek to highlight how ecosystems contribute to commodities, markets, and how land should be valued. Ecological economist Robert Constanza and others, by demonstrating the economic value of ecosystem services, have been influential in promoting the concept. See here and here for key papers that introduce economic value to nature. These papers, and those related, sought to promote ecosystem services or payment for ecosystem services as a tool for economic valuation, policy-making, and conservation. Thus, in terms of biodiversity conservation the species diversity and richness of a particular area, or the existence of a charismatic species in a particular area, becomes a service that ecosystems provide, and can be valued within the market. Biodiversity is no longer a foundational cause for the ecosystem services concept, but one of the many anthropogenic benefits ecosystems provide. The problem is, if biodiversity is a functional component of all ecosystems, and if biodiversity is not conserved, then those ecosystems which provide a multitude of services could cease to function.

The difficulty of classifying biodiversity conservation within the ecosystem services agenda establishes the basic tension between these two concepts. This tension is philosophical: should biodiversity conservation be for its own sake, or is the utilitarian valuation of payment for ecosystem services the only important consideration? It is practical: how does biodiversity fit in the policy arena if ecosystem services is the dominant language? And it is personal: how should scientists, policy-makers, economists, or citizens best account for biodiversity conservation? And, for those of us compelled to promote biodiversity conservation throughout freshwater landscapes, determining how to navigate within the ecosystem services agenda is, above all, essential.

Works Cited:

Cardindale et al. 2012: Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Nature 486: 59-67.

Costanza, R., and Daly, H., 1992: Natural Capital and Sustainable Development. Conservation Biology6, 1, 37-46.

Costanza, R. et al., 1997: The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature387, 253-60.

DEFRA, 2007: An Introductory Guide to Valuing Ecosystem Services. London, Crown Copyright. Found at: [Accessed on: 29 April 2013]

Gomez-Baggethun, E., de Groot, R., Lomas, P., and Montes, C., 2010: The history of ecosystem services in economic theory and practice: From early notions to markets and payment schemes. Ecological Economics69, 1209-18.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005.  Found at: [Accessed on 29 April 2013]

Petchey, O. L. and K. J. Gaston (2006): Functional diversity: back to basics and looking forward. Ecology Letters, 9(6): 741-758.

Tilman et al. 1997: The influence of functional diversity and composition on ecosystem processes. Science, 277:1300-1302.

Read other articles in our Special Feature on Freshwater Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

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