The ecosystem service concept aims to give a voice to nature in policy and management decision making. This can include a recognition that humans benefit from ecosystem processes such as pollination, water filtration, and regulating climate change.
To be considered an ecosystem service, a particular ecological condition or process must directly affect the welfare of identifiable beneficiary groups.
Ecosystem services are a broad category of benefits people obtain from natural systems. They include the tangible, harvestable goods a forest produces like timber and fish for food; the regulating effects of ecosystems like coastal protection and erosion control; and cultural services including recreational, spiritual and educational experiences with nature.
Often these services work together, creating complex causal chains that are hard to identify and value. For example, a forest’s ability to provide water purification may depend on dung decomposition provided by dung beetles (a supporting service), soil formation provided by fungi and microbes in the soil, and photosynthesis that provides oxygen needed by plants for growth (a regulating service).
A growing number of researchers use an approach known as contingent valuation to measure how much people are willing to pay to maintain or increase specific ecosystem services. However, this method has been criticised for prioritising the logic of economic self-interest over ethical imperatives of environmental stewardship, especially among black, Indigenous and people of colour communities who face inequitable access to nature’s services.
Whether it's keeping water clean, preventing flooding or disease, controlling greenhouse gases, reducing wind erosion, providing tradable environmental credits to carbon-conscious consumers or protecting endangered species, ecosystems provide a variety of regulating services. These invisible services are often taken for granted, until they are threatened or disrupted.
Most formal evaluations of ecosystem services rely on economic valuation techniques that are based on neoclassical economic theory. These methods quantify the value of a service in commensurable units, typically monetary units.
To be a true ecosystem service, a condition or process must be linked to the welfare of identifiable beneficiary groups. Also, benefits resulting from the use of a service must be accessible to those beneficiaries physically and institutionally. Thus, only a small proportion of the services humans receive are considered ecosystem services. This approach is criticized for being human-centered, and may overlook the importance of natural services to nonhuman life. It is also criticized for prioritizing human self-interest over the ethical imperative of environmental stewardship.
Many people value ecosystem services like water filtration, carbon sequestration and habitat for native species. These services provide us with benefits like nutrient cycling, biodiversity and oxygen production that make it possible for humans to exist.
These functions are commonly categorized into four groups: provisioning, regulating, cultural and supporting services. For example, a forest ecosystem provides provisioning services such as food, wood and fibre; regulating services such as climate regulation and waste treatment; and cultural services such as inspiration, recreation and tourism.
Ecosystem services can be local or global in scope. The value of a service may also depend on whether it is accessible or not. For instance, an ecological process that moderates natural phenomena like a flood control or drought will be most valuable to those who live nearby. In addition, a service’s value can be measured by its capacity and flow. For example, a forest’s ability to absorb and filter water will be dependent on the soil biodiversity, micro organisms and tree roots in that area.
Many people use nature for non-material benefits, including aesthetic, recreational, spiritual and cultural experiences. Although these are not directly derived from ecosystem services, they are nonetheless important to many individuals and societies.
This is why the TEEB tiered valuation framework includes cultural ecosystem services. However, the monetization of cultural benefits remains a challenge. While there is increasing recognition of the value of nature for recreation, landscape aesthetics and cultural heritage, the inclusion of these in a monetary ES analysis requires a thorough understanding of individual human preferences and values as well as societal perceptions.
It also means incorporating cultural values into the assessment of environmental goods and services, such as through contingent valuation techniques. These involve presenting people with hypothetical scenarios about the future of an environment in which they are asked to state how much they would be willing to pay for it to remain unchanged. This allows researchers to calculate the economic value of these services.