What questions do ecosystem service assessments answer?

Wednesday, 12th August 2015

 by Rebecca Badger (SEPA), Paul Watkinson (SNH) , Daniel Hinze (Scottish Government)  and Pat Snowden (Forestry Commision Scotland)

Jim Densham makes some very valid points in his recent blog about putting a price tag on nature and the problems with narrowly defined questions focusing on a particular aspect of land use (‘how can I make as much money as possible from my land’). We would like to provide some clarification about when monetisation of ecosystem services might be helpful.

On the most fundamental level, the monetary valuation of ecosystem services is not about answering the question of how a land owner can squeeze the maximum amount of money from his or her land. It aims to express tangible and intangible benefits to society in a single metric (money), to aid decision making.  There are a number of reasons why environmental benefits are not routinely bought and sold and it certainly cannot be assumed that, when hypothetical monetary values have been developed, trading will (or should) commence.       

Ecosystem services assessments lift people’s view from the money that can be made, to include the wider benefits that our environment could produce, including benefits that are inappropriate to describe in monetary terms.  Economists use the ecosystem services framework because it helps to ensure that a comprehensive range of nature’s gifts are taken into account.  However, taking account of ecosystem services does not require them to be monetised; there are many other ways to describe benefits.    

The ecosystem services framework can be summarised as, “a way of understanding how nature delivers benefits and services for human well-being.”[1] It might therefore be seen as an anthropocentric concept, ignoring intrinsic value. Much work has been undertaken in relation to shared, cultural and plural values[2], and how they can (and cannot) be identified using the ecosystem services framework. For instance, Marc Davidson (2013)[3] argues that the framework is anthropocentric in a moral sense only if accompanied by a denial that nature has intrinsic value. Michel Loreau (2014)[4] suggests that humans are neither fundamentally selfish and utilitarian, nor altruistic and non-utilitarian but that we simply have a set of fundamental needs that require satisfaction and these include respecting and loving the world around us. 

In this context we feel it is helpful to focus on how conservationists and economists can work together. Ecosystem service assessments highlight the large range of benefits that our environment can provide, and can help to describe the ecosystem services produced that the land owner is often not paid for. It also provides a structure to help address those difficult questions about the stewardship responsibilities that society expects land owners and managers to fulfill.  We see ecosystem service assessments as a tool to help us think about a plurality of values, and as an opportunity for conservationists, economists and many others to work together to help achieve a shared goal of turning around long-term environmental degradation. In our opinion, fostering an ‘ecosystem services community’ in Scotland helps us to do this.


[1] http://www.hutton.ac.uk/sites/default/files/files/ecosystemservices/Eco-Communication2Pager.pdf

[2] See for example the NEA 2 report on this subject:  http://www.lwec.org.uk/sites/default/files/attachments_video/WP6_FinalReport.pdf

[3] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800913002875

[4] http://www.int-res.com/articles/esep2014/14/e014p027.pdf