Whose ecosystem services? People and the future of biodiversity

Photo by Steve Davis

Photo by Steve Davis

Nature is in crisis, and humans are responsible. In September, WWF’s Living Planet Report announced that global vertebrate wildlife populations have declined by over 50% since 1970. A shocking statistic, yet the issue swiftly tumbled off the headlines, even as the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity looks increasingly unlikely to meet its 2020 targets for reducing our impact on wildlife. How do we keep the state of nature at the forefront of public and political interest?

The development of biodiversity science over the last two decades has vastly improved our understanding of human dependence on the natural world. This in turn has fed into the concept of ecosystem services, which describes the goods and benefits – both functional and in terms of wellbeing – that humans receive from the ecosystems surrounding us1. Ecosystem services and, framed as economic values, natural capital, now underpin many aspects of applied ecology, policy and environmental management. The rationale goes that financial valuation is the only way to keep nature on the agenda. This, unsurprisingly, has provoked intense and understandable criticism: is the best way to protect nature really to incorporate it into the same economic growth-led dogma that directly contributes to its destruction?

Nonetheless, like the idea of biodiversity itself, the concept of ecosystem services does represent an important step in contemporary thinking about the natural world. At heart, both are concerned with narrowing the increasing gap between nature and society; with emphasising that we too are part of the planet’s ecosystems, and that human activities have consequences beyond ourselves. The ecosystem services concept also acknowledges that arguments for protecting nature for its intrinsic values are subjective and, as history has shown, difficult to translate into action. So it does have the potential to form a useful bridge between fundamental science and policy. By estimating the value to humans provided by UK ecosystems through services such as food production, recreation and wildlife species diversity, a recent study in Science predicted how we could best use the UK’s land to maximise economic outcomes2. A current markets-focused viewpoint would probably argue for decreasing environmental regulation and farming all arable land to drastically increase food production. However, the study actually showed that future policy focused on varied landscapes and functional ecosystems – which in turn provide farmland with pollinators and natural pest control – could result in better economic outcomes and preserve biodiversity.

Ecosystem services: a selection of ecosystem services and the goods and values they create for people (reproduced from Mace, 2012, ref. 1)

Ecosystem services: the relationship between ecosystem processes, ecosystem services, and the goods and values they generate for people (reproduced from Mace, 2012, ref. 1)

However, consider whether (and how) studies like this might ever be practically put into action, and you reach unresolved questions about ecosystem services at the level of application and communication. Most central is the question: who exactly are ecosystem services for? One argument would say they are for everyone – that all humans benefit from what the natural world provides. Practically, ecosystem services and natural capital are actually mostly useful as research and policy tools. But the issues they address and communicate – habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss – are increasingly pressing and concern the wellbeing of all people. Even beyond the potential pitfalls of ‘pricing nature’, one potential risk of translating the natural world into the language of the market – of stocks, flows and capital – is the possibility of alienating the main stakeholders that conservationists and ecologists need to inspire: the wider public.

An excellent recent article by Georgina Mace in Science3 discusses the current shift from a utilitarian, services-centred view of conservation towards what she describes as a ‘people and nature’ approach, characterised by awareness of the complex, two-directional relationships that exist between human society and biodiversity. She also emphasises the importance of economic valuation. “If the benefits provided by nature are assigned no value, they are treated as having no value,” she warns, “and current trends in the decline and deterioration of natural systems will continue.”

Yet for biodiversity conservation action to be consistent and effective, public and policy interest must be engaged for the long-term, and that will take more than economic arguments. We live in a global political climate that is unstable and shaped by agendas and ideologies, and may become more so in future. In the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) represents a range of often-conflicting interests, reflecting the complexity of mediating issues involving people and environment. Yet public pressure can drive action. For any chance of an ecosystems-centred policy agenda being sustained in the long term, biodiversity must remain a pressing, mainstream public topic. One good example of this sort of approach is the IPCC, who have kept the climate a subject of political and public concern. An equivalent scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPBES), was established in 2012. This is one possible promising step for the future, though admittedly, as intergovernmental climate inertia has shown, it still may not be enough.

Amazon deforestation (image by Leonardo F. Freitas)

Amazon deforestation (image by Leonardo F. Freitas)

As importantly, researchers working on ecosystem services tools and approaches need to be aware of, and take into account, the way these are applied on the ground. Incorporating biodiversity into a market framework inevitably leaves that framework open to the sort of abuses that underpin the valid concerns of those opposed to natural capital. A new article in Bioscience highlights some of the problems with payment for ecosystem services (PES) schemes, which are adopted globally to encourage sustainable use of the environment4. These include schemes preferentially working with large landowners to maximise cost effectiveness in developing regions, and as a result excluding indigenous people or poor farmers – a stark reminder that social equity must be considered when designing conservation programmes, and that this remains, at heart, a human issue.

A successful future model for biodiversity conservation may need to use economic arguments as triggers for political action. But these should be one aspect of a larger movement that simultaneously drives towards public engagement and empowerment. The IPBES may play a role, especially if it pushes to keep biodiversity an issue of consistent global attention. This is also where the IUCN’s proposed Red List of Ecosystems could be useful. International organisations like WWF and IUCN, with its iconic Red List of Threatened Species, have helped maintain public interest in species conservation science. The proposed Red List of Ecosystems framework has been strongly criticised for its ambiguities; ecosystems are dynamic and ever-changing entities, and thus challenging to define5. But if these can be ironed out, the idea remains promising: an international, public-facing initiative, focused on conserving and highlighting the value of entire ecological communities – potentially a powerful tool for raising awareness.

Rory Gibb


1. Mace, G.M., Norris, K., Fitter, A.H. (2012). Biodiversity and ecosystem services: a multilayered relationship. Trends In Ecology & Evolution, 27, 19-26.

2. Bateman, I.J., Harwood, A.R., Mace, G.M., et al (2013). Bringing ecosystem services into economic decision making: land use in the United Kingdom. Science, 341, 45-50.

3. Mace, G.M. (2014). Whose conservation? Science, 345, 1558-1560.

4. Pascual, U., Phelps, J., Garmemdia, E., et al (2014). Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services. Bioscience, 64, 1027-1036.

5. Boitani, L., Mace, G.M., Rondinini, C., (2014). Challenging the scientific foundations for an IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. Conservation Letters. Available online at: doi: 10.1111/conl.12111


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