What has the concept of Ecosystem Services done for us? Taking Stock and Looking Forward

Robert Costanza
Monday, 17th October 2016

The concept of ecosystem services has helped governments, businesses and non-government agencies think about how to live well on a finite planet, even if they don’t always use the language explicitly. Therefore, we need to focus on the goals that we are working towards and not get too worried about the terminology or frameworks used. This was one of the take-home messages for me of the latest ESCom gathering.

On 12th October 2016, ESCom held a panel event to respond to the provocation “What has the concept of Ecosystem Services done for us? Taking Stock and Looking Forward”.  The panel consisted of international and Scottish academics, Bob Costanza, Ida Kubiszewski, and Alessandro Gimona; and Scottish practitioners from Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Becky Badger); Scotch Whisky Association (Morag Garden); and Scottish Wildlife Trust (Bruce Wilson).

Some of the main themes concerned language, complexity and pluralism.  There was some debate about when, and to what extent, the language of ecosystem services and natural capital were appropriate for different audiences.  Although the term natural capital may be more accessible for business, natural capital (stocks) can’t be separated from ecosystem flows (services) or what most people care about – the benefits we derive from nature.

This is not just about a choice of words; the focus on language reflects current thinking about environmental systems and the mutual interaction between people and ‘the rest of’ nature (to quote Bob Costanza).  The need to take ecosystem services into account stems from the fact that Earth's resources are finite, and we must consider how to live within existing planetary boundaries. However, systems-thinking is necessarily complex, and trying to take account of planetary boundaries is also challenging.Panel

There was an interesting debate about whether the application of the ecosystem service framework resulted in better decisions.  Whilst the framework has helped to change strategic thinking within organisations and governments (e.g. TruCost changing the supply chain for PUMA or the Obama administration needing to take account of ecosystem services across all departments), it may not be necessary for more operational processes that already work such as routine regulatory decisions.

There was some discussion about the importance of valuing all ecosystem services to make them visible in decision-making.  Putting a monetary value on ecosystem services is not the same as making them into a tradeable commodity; but it does help establish a more level playing field to take account of nature in choices over how we organise the world. Therefore there was a call for pluralism, to use different terms, concepts and methods as appropriate, and to focus instead on the goal being sought (living well and equitably on a finite planet). Pluralism also extended to the range of people involved in these discussions, with repeated calls for collaboration and partnership working.

The session ended with panellists reflecting on what could or should be done to advance these goals. The responses can be summarised as having a more participatory, adaptive and flexible approach to governing nature in Scotland; and setting up a new institution to manage and fund the restoration or conservation of natural capital and the services and benefits it provides. The latter was referred to as a common assets trust or a natural capital wealth fund – either way recognising that those who have benefitted from degrading natural capital could invest in a fund that is responsible for restoring and protecting public goods.  This is not commodifying conservation, but recognising that we need new ways of connecting private and individual choices with the public and social outcomes without relying on market mechanisms (for example, see a proposal for an atmospheric trust).

The event was convened following from a recent European conference that also took stock of the proliferation, successes and failures of the application of the ecosystem service framework(s). This conference generated the Antwerp declaration that asks those using the ecosystem service framework to focus on the issues of sustainability; full not just monetary values; and collaboration. The video of the event can be seen on the ESCom Youtube channel at:https://youtu.be/WRqi3gnlc1Uand was chaired by Kirsty Blackstock and Marc Metzger. You can see tweets generated by this exchange by following @ESCom and @HuttonSEGS.

If you are interested in further ESCom events, please do join the ESCom mailing list by emailing Rachel.Chisholm@ed.ac.uk.