4. Ecosystem Services: The Benefits People Receive from Nature

Ecosystems support the processes that cleanse air and water, pollinate crops, decompose waste, control noxious pests and diseases, and regulate extreme natural events. Water, food, fibres, fuels, and medicines are all produced by the intricate web of life. Inspiration for arts, cultures and religions have come from nature, which also provides recreation and spiritual enrichment.

Life on Earth has persisted for more than two billion years, forming ecosystems that have provided the functions of nutrient flow, the predator-prey interactions that helped drive evolution, and even the current atmosphere that supports life on Earth. As humans evolved, our ancestors benefited from many of these basic functions that enabled our species to reach its current levels of cultural diversity. With the emergence of civilization through the establishment of irrigated agriculture, humanity began to realize the benefits of a much broader spectrum of ecosystem services and the hazards of undermining them. For example, Plato in 400 BC recognized that deforestation caused erosion and drying springs (Goldin, 1997). The Arabic medical treatises of the 9th century recorded sophisticated thinking concerning agricultural techniques including irrigation and crop rotation, as well as pollution control (Watson, 1983).

The civilizations of India, China, and Southeast Asia mobilized water and nitrogen-fixing algae to create irrigated rice-growing ecosystems that produced the world's richest cultures of those ancient times (McNeely and Wachtel, 1988).

More recently, the marriage of science and technology mobilized energy from fossil fuels and applied them to agriculture and manufacturing, producing sufficient food and other products to support a quadrupling of the world's human population during the 20th century. As human population growth accelerated, however, possible limits to growth became an increasing concern (Malthus, 1798; Meadows et al., 1972). More recently, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) brought together more than 1,300 scientists to report on the status of a wide range of the world's ecosystem services and the consequences of changes in ecosystems to people now and into the future (MA, 2005b). Its conclusion that 60% of the ecosystem services it assessed were being degraded or used unsustainably at global scales provided a sound scientific basis for the urgency of conserving biodiversity and ecosystems.


So what, exactly, are ecosystem services? Simply, they are the benefits that ecosystems provide to people. The concept of “ecosystem” highlights the interactions between components of biodiversity at a range of scales and interactions between living species and the abiotic environment. Indeed, those interactions support, regulate, and provide the benefits that people derive from biodiversity. People do not derive services from a range of scales of biodiversity independently; rather, services are delivered from ecosystems and elements of them functioning as a whole. When the system is degraded, fewer services are delivered. This provides powerful justification for IUCN's focus on conserving ecosystems, the services they provide, and the biodiversity that supports them.

People often degrade ecosystems but we can restore them and we can intervene meaningfully in their management to change the balance and supply the multiplicity of services. Whether forest managers, wetland managers, farm managers, or backyard gardeners, people realize that they are managing an ecosystem. Even those who focus on species conservation in the wild recognize that no species is an island, independent unto itself; rather, its survival depends on its relations with the other components of the ecosystem of which it is part.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA, 2003) classified ecosystem services into four groups: supporting services; regulating services; provisioning services; and cultural services (Figure 4.1).



Supporting services include primary production, nutrient cycling, water cycling, pollination and the provision of habitats. Their benefits to people are indirect, and enable ecosystems to supply cultural, regulating and provisioning services. For example, the provisioning service of producing food depends on the supporting services of nutrient cycling, soil formation, water cycling, and pollination. From an economic perspective, it does not make sense to value supporting services directly, as the value of these services should be captured (but often is not) by the value of the direct benefits that we obtain from ecosystems (for example, food or water).


Provisioning services are the goods produced by ecosystems. They are the most immediately recognizable of the ecosystem services to most people, and are the most tangible benefits derived from ecosystems (though, as mentioned above, they are totally dependent on the supporting services). From the genetic resources of wild species, to the domesticated plants and animals on which we depend for most of our food, provisioning services also provide a livelihood beyond their direct consumptive benefits, because they are readily valued and exchanged in markets. Although the process is rarely recognized as such, people engage in payments for ecosystem services schemes each time they buy food, firewood, or natural medicines. Provisioning services meet the global population's needs for food, natural fibres, medicines, and genetic resources, and meet the fuel needs for the one-third of the world's population who do not have access to fossil fuels.


Regulating services are those benefits that arise from the ways ecosystems influence the environment in which we live. These include the regulation of air quality and climate, water quality and quantity, pests and disease, and storms and other natural hazards. Regulation services operate at a wide range of scales; for example the regulation of the climate system operates at global scales, the regulation of water flow at river basin-scales, and the regulation of wind and storm surges at very local scales. Regulating services are challenging to value in economic terms, and are rarely recognized in national accounting systems. Some regulating services can also be considered to be supporting services, depending on how changes in the service affect people. For example, while soil retention and formation directly regulate water quality, people also indirectly benefit from soil formation, for example again through the provisioning service of food production. Economists are now working on approaches to enable these services to be given value, leading to new forms of payment for ecosystem services (PES).


Cultural services are the non-material and sometimes intangible benefits that people derive from ecosystems. These include benefits people derive from aesthetics and inspiration, spiritual and religious aspects of ecosystems, education and science, and the cultural affinity and heritage values that many people associate with landscapes and species, especially in the areas in which they live. Cultural services are tightly linked to human values and behaviours, and can vary significantly across social, economic and political perspectives. Although cultural values and other intangible benefits from ecosystems are often difficult to value, they nonetheless provide fundamental benefits to individuals and societies across the world. Whatever the value we might put on the existence of individual species such as pandas and whales, the scientific insight we derive from observing nature, or the spiritual and cultural affinities that many people have with sacred groves or iconic species, the cultural services of ecosystems benefit our bodies, minds, and souls. The recreational and tourism benefits deriving from nature and biodiversity, in contrast to many of the other cultural services, are readily measurable and quantifiable in economic terms. They have become a major source of income at local, regional and national levels, and have contributed significantly to improved quality of life for local communities, though some trade-offs are involved.


Growing understanding of the importance and value of ecosystem services over the past 20 years has stimulated a series of key events and, emerging from these, important policy initiatives. The most notable of these was the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992. One major outcome of the Earth Summit was the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which now has 191 State Parties. The notion of ecosystem services is deeply embedded in the CBD through the concepts of “sustainable use” and “benefits” specified in its objectives.

Ecosystem services were also recognized when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG) in 2000. The seventh of these, “Ensuring Environmental Sustainability”, explicitly targets the maintenance of ecosystem services and the conservation of biodiversity (Melnick et al., 2005). Two years later, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), held in Johannesburg, South Africa, endorsed the Millennium Development Goals, consolidating the theme of progress towards these as a central component of intergovernmental policy.

“The roots of appreciation of the intrinsic value of biodiversity run very deep in many cultural and religious worldviews.”

At national levels, too, policies to maintain the supply of ecosystem services have been adopted. A search of the ECOLEX database (a joint effort by IUCN, FAO and UNEP) yields no less than 602 mentions of “ecosystem services” within national legislation. Provisioning services are the most common focus, perhaps because they are the most obvious, easiest to measure, and bring in the most tax revenue.

The other major policy response to the recognition of the values of ecosystem services has been the development of markets for them. Costa Rica is a good example of a country that has taken the first steps to develop markets for ecosystem services (Rojas and Aylward, 2003). The country has long been a global leader in the ecotourism industry – in effect selling recreational ecosystem services. During the 1990s it pioneered systems by which downstream communities and companies paid upland dwellers for the maintenance and restoration of forests for water provisioning. Most recently, Costa Rica has been active, alongside other tropical countries, in developing incentives and finance for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD), as one approach to capture the economic benefits of carbon sequestration and storage in biomass, for climate regulation.

Given the emerging importance of ecosystem services in policies and markets, states, local governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are seeking approaches to best deliver ecosystem services. The key to effective planning is a clear statement of objectives. For example, the objective of a given agency might be to halve the proportion of people with no access to clean water (part of the Millennium Development Goal 7). Data can then be collected, and models constructed, to inform options that could help to achieve this goal, such as installation of infrastructure (for purification or desalination), improvements in sanitation, and maintenance of forest habitat within watersheds. Different combinations and spatial configurations of these options will have different costs and benefits. Costs will include not only straightforward construction and maintenance, monitoring and evaluation, but also opportunity costs (e.g. maintaining forest habitats may require foregoing some timber harvests). Benefits will be both direct, in contributing towards the stated goal, and indirect, where ecosystem services can be “bundled” or “unbundled” to attract others to invest in the plan (e.g. maintaining forest habitats will also deliver REDD). With these data in hand, spatial cost-benefit analysis and/or reverse auction systems can then be used to derive a plan that will deliver the goal at minimum cost (or deliver as close to the goal as possible for a given budget).


The concept of ecosystem services seeks to highlight the present imbalances in market forces, which give greater weight to traded goods and services but tend to neglect ecosystem values and other non-market benefits. By promoting awareness of the full value of ecosystem services, conservationists hope that policy makers will take action and markets can be reformed to better reflect the real relationship between human wellbeing and ecosystem health, and consequently support the conservation of nature. This often involves estimating the monetary value of well-defined ecosystem services, in order to make the economic case for change, followed by the introduction of mechanisms such as payments for ecosystem services, which can transform potential value into real cash-flow and behaviour change.

The first step is to value ecosystem services. The study of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) is poised to do just that. An interim report of the study (EC and BMU, 2008) states that human well-being is totally dependent on “ecosystem services”. However, because these services are predominantly public goods, with no clear property rights, markets or prices, they are neither recognized nor adequately integrated into our economic policy and decisions. As a result, insufficient appreciation of the full costs and benefits of conservation leads to continuing biodiversity loss. TEEB, through the development and dissemination of economic tools to support the valuation of ecosystem services, hopes to rectify this situation.

At the same time, many people reject a purely utilitarian view of nature, emphasizing the moral or intrinsic values of biodiversity. While such values are notoriously difficult to measure, there are well-established approaches to reflect them in policy (e.g. through legislation relating to the protection of endangered species). The intrinsic value of nature may be considered in the same light as other moral or cultural values – of great works of art, perhaps, or of human rights.

The roots of appreciation of the intrinsic value of biodiversity run very deep in many cultural and religious worldviews. All of the world's religions have embraced notions of stewardship or caring for the natural world (Gardner, 2002), as have leading political philosophers, although such values are not equally distributed among components of the natural world (e.g. charismatic animal species are afforded considerably more intrinsic value than plants or micro-organisms in most cultures). Among contemporary thinkers, E.O. Wilson (1984) has most powerfully communicated intrinsic value, including detailed exploration of its evolutionary basis.

The place for the intrinsic value of nature in the world of economic development and ecosystem-service valuation can be identified through clarity of objectives. The objective of development is to improve human well-being. The objective of biodiversity conservation is to maintain and restore biodiversity and ecosystems, above all through ensuring that irreversible species extinction rates do not exceed natural levels. Valuing ecosystem services can help to deliver both human well-being and biodiversity conservation, a means to two ends, but is not an end in itself.

The concept of ecosystem services has drawn some criticisms (McCauley, 2006) but these can all be addressed (McNeely et al., 2009):

Oates (1998) adds a fifth fundamental concern: the “corrupting” influence of economics on the enterprise of conservation itself. But the concept of ecosystem services is useful for many resource management issues. Reid et al. (2006) point out that “our planet is a mosaic of systems providing people with different bundles of ecosystem services and disservices. We cannot manage these systems effectively if we do not actively seek to measure the flows of these services, examine who is benefiting from them, and consider a range of policies, incentives, technologies and regulations that could encourage better management and sharing of the benefits”.

Any tool can be used improperly, but recent analyses indicate that proper use of valuation and payments for ecosystem services can greatly benefit conservation. In particular, new evidence suggests high (Turner et al., 2007; Polasky et al., 2008) or at least mixed (Chan et al., 2006; Naidoo et al., 2008) spatial correspondence between biodiversity-conservation priority and ecosystem-service value. This indicates that investment in conserving regions of high priority for biodiversity can often deliver at least some high ecosystem-service values as well. Given the concentration of priority areas for both biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation needs in the tropics, conservation based on the concept ecosystem services provides a productive path for IUCN and other conservation organizations to follow into a sustainable future.

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