Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Natural Environment White Paper 3

I’ve mentioned the idea of “ecosystem services” in previous blogs. It is now a concept that should be very important in the design and implementation of a white paper. Perhaps it might be worth saying a little about what this actually means.

What are ecosystem services?

It is not a new concept, but at present it is perhaps best articulated by the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, which I’ll be talking about in future blogs, so for a good description I suggest you go to:

However, in brief, an ecosystem is a natural unit of living things (animals, including humans, plants and micro-organisms), and their physical environment; ecosystem services are the benefits provided by ecosystems that make human life both possible and worth while. So, it may sound like jargon, but it does what is says on the tin – it’s all the essential stuff that nature gives us.

This is a very high level definition, however, so in order to be useful ecosystem services are broken down into 4 main types:

Provisioning services; the products we obtain from ecosystems such as food, wood, drinking water, energy and pharmaceutical products.

Regulating services; the benefits we get from the regulation of ecosystem process such as flood control, influence of the global and local climate and disease control.

Cultural services; the non-material benefits from ecosystems such as spiritual and religious enrichment, cultural heritage, recreation, tourism and a sense of place.

Supporting services; these are the ecosystem functions that support all other ecosystem services, things like soil formation, nutrient cycling, plant growth and ecological interactions.

The problem is that very few of these essential ecosystem services are financially valued so we tend to emphasise some and forget about the others. This point may link in with comments made by Mark Fisher after my last blog. We have so over-emphasised provisional services (ie food) that we have skewed our ecology, left it degraded with much loss of biodiversity, and our ecosystems are now delivering other services less well.

There are dangers in focusing too much on ecosystem services (or rather from allowing its description to be perverted), especially when attempts are made to put a financial value on them. Ecosystem services may have a value but that does not mean you can trade in them – you can’t always buy or sell ecosystem services. Also, financial valuing sometimes implies choice (you can have it if you can pay for it) – a difficult leap as these are essential services. I also worry when people talk about trade-offs between ecosystem services – again are they looking for an excuse to over-emphasis some whilst forgetting about others (business as usual)?

These dangers are real but the concept is valuable in that it is making large numbers of policy-makers take notice of the environment when they didn’t before.

I will take this idea of ecosystem services a little further in my next blog.

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