Ecosystem Service Approach

What is an ecosystem service approach?

Productive and functioning ecosystems are fundamental to human livelihoods. However, many of the services ecosystems provide to humans – food and fuel production, flood regulation and water supply to name a few – may be undervalued in political and economic decision-making.

As such, there is growing recognition that ecosystem services should be better accounted for in policy decisions, both to maximise their benefits to humans, and to ensure their ongoing provision. This is a particularly acute issue in freshwaters, which are often hotspots for ecosystem services, biodiversity and human pressures (Strayer and Dudgeon, 2010, Ormerod et al 2010).

The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment gave the first comprehensive categorisation of ecosystem services. These have since been standardised by the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES, 2012) developed by the European Environment Agency into three categories:

  • Provisioning services: all the outputs of materials, nutrients and energy from an ecosystem. These might include food and water supplies, raw materials for construction and fuel, genetic resources, medicinal resources and ornamental resources.
  • Regulating and maintaining services: these regulate and maintain ecosystem processes, and in so doing, support ecosystem functioning and productivity.  Regulating and maintaining services describe the ways in which living organisms can mediate or moderate their environments in ways that benefit human well-being.
  • Cultural services: the non-material benefits that people obtain from ecosystems through recreation, tourism, intellectual development, spiritual enrichment, reflection and creative and aesthetic experiences.

What are the aims of an ecosystem service approach?

The ecosystem service approach to environmental policy and management is a means of convincing the public, institutions and governments of the value of the natural world. It prioritises the logics of economic and social self-interest over any ethical imperatives for environmental stewardship.

There are ongoing debates over the appropriateness and ethics of such a human-centred framework which doesn’t account for ecosystem benefits to non-human life, and which may not promote the conservation of ecosystems that aren’t productive for humans (see Jax et al, 2013).

However, the ecosystem service approach has gained traction in recent years to become a dominant theme in environmental policy. Examples include the European Commission ‘Biodiversity Strategy to 2020’ and the United Nations Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Characteristics of an ecosystem service approach

In a 2015 review, Julia Martin-Ortega and colleagues define an ecosystem service approach as “a way of understanding the complex relationships between nature and humans to support decision making, with the aim of reversing the declining status of ecosystems and ensuring the sustainable use/management/conservation of resources.” (2015: 8)

Martin-Ortega and colleagues outline four linked characteristics of an ecosystem service approach: 

  • A focus on the impacts that an ecosystem’s health and status has on human well-being. Ecosystem services are valued in terms of the benefits they provide to humans.

    A wetland might be valued in terms of its ability to filter drinking water (a provisioning service), buffer flood waters (a regulating and maintaining service), or provide a site for birdwatching (a cultural service).

  • An awareness that ecosystem functioning underpins service provision.

    Ecosystem processes such as nutrient cycling are likely to increase a freshwater ecosystem’s resilience to pollution, and as such its ability to provide drinking water.

  • A holistic approach which addresses the linked components of ecosystems at different scales and requires interdisciplinary collaboration from experts, stakeholders and the public.

    Bringing together knowledge from the natural sciences, the social sciences and local stakeholders to understand the distribution and importance of ecosystem services.

  • Ecosystem services are incorporated into policy and management decision making to better represent the benefits provided to humans by the natural world.

    In both quantitative (i.e. numerical) and qualitative (i.e. descriptive); and monetary and non-monetary terms. This approach potentially gives a stronger ‘voice’ for ecosystem health and status in decision making.

Indicating ecosystem service capacity, flow and benefits

Ecosystem structure and function can be linked to service provision using a "cascade model" (such as the MARS "Cookbook", 2015). The model uses indicators to asses the capacity of an ecosystem to provide a service; the actual flow of the services used by humans; and the benefits that ecosystem services provide.

Indicators are used to simplify information in order to reveal complex patterns of ecosystem service provision across different scales.

Indicators for ecosystem services use biophysical data such as biodiversity, ecosystem status, water flow and quality.

Indicators also require socio-economic data on the beneficiaries of ecosystem services (e.g. the public, industry, local authorities) as valuations depend on service flow as well as potential capacity. Often, data to directly indicate ecosystem service capacity or flow are unavailable, thus proxy indicators are used that measure driver, pressure or state parameters related to service capacity or flow.

quantify the potential of an ecosystem to deliver services (e.g. biomass of commercial fish species);

Flow indicators quantify the extent to which the ecosystem service is used by service beneficiaries (e.g. amount of fish caught by fishermen).

These two indicators allow for assessments on the sustainability of ecosystem service use (e.g. % of fish catch within population limits) to be made.

Benefit indicators quantify the societal gains related to the actual use of an ecosystem service (e.g. monetary benefits gained from selling fish on the market), which allows for valuations to be made.

Further reading

Reports and publications:

CICES (2012). Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services - Report to the European Environment Agency prepared by R. Haines-Young & M. Potschin (Download report, 1.8mb)

Grizzetti B., Lanzanova D., Liquete C. & A. Reynaud (2015). Cookbook for water ecosystem service assessment and valuation, JRC Science and Policy Report, European Union (Download report, 8mb)

Jax, K., Barton, D.N., Chan K.M., de Groot R., Doyle U., Eser U., & R. Haines-Young (2013). Ecosystem services and ethics. Ecological Economics, 93, 260-268. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2013.06.008 (Read abstract)

Martin-Ortega J., Jorda-Capdevila D., Glenk K. & K.L. Holstead (2015). What defines ecosystem services-based approaches?, in Julia Martin-Ortega (ed.) Water Ecosystem Services: A Global Perspective, p3-13. (Read abstract)

Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Current State and Trends, Chapter 7 - Freshwater Ecosystem Services, Volume 1, ed. by R. Hassan, R. Scholes & N. Ash (Download report, 700kb)

Ormerod S.J., Dobson M., Hildrew A.G. & C.R. Townsend (2010). Multiple stressors in freshwater ecosystems. Freshwater Biology, 55(s1), 1-4. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2427.2009.02395.x (Read abstract)

Strayer D.L., & D. Dudgeon (2010). Freshwater biodiversity conservation: recent progress and future challenges. Journal of the North American Benthological Society, 29(1), 344-358. (Read abstract)

Selected Freshwater blogs:

Freshwaterblog (2014). Can an ecosystem service approach strengthen river conservation? (External website)

Freshwaterblog (2015). The MARS ‘cookbook’ for assessing freshwater multiple stresses and ecosystem services (External website)

Freshwaterblog (2016). New factsheets on ecosystem services and the future of European freshwaters (External website)

Freshwaterblog (2016). An ecosystem services a pproach for freshwaters (External website)

Freshwaterblog (2016). New tool links freshwater ecological status and ecosystem services (External website)

Freshwaterblog (2017). Innovative solutions for water management and ecosystem services through the DESSIN Project (External website)

Other websites:

Green Facts - Facts on Health and the Environment (External website)