Ecosystem Services, Redefined

DictionaryAs often happens in nascent fields, terms are debated and redefined. This has recently happened to the definition of Ecosystem Services itself by TEEB in Chapter 1 of their recent publication The Ecological and Economic Foundations. They argue for replacing “Supporting Services” with “Habitat Services”. I agree, and my reason why is below.

My own old definition, based on the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, is below.

The Old Definition

Ecosystem Services (ES) can represent the actual service benefits, such as waste assimilation, that are provided by ecosystem functions, but usually refer to ecosystem goods and services collectively.

ES consist of the flows of value to human societies as a result of the condition of ecosystem function and natural capital in the following areas:

  1. Provisioning Services—These are the products obtained from ecosystems, including wild foods, crops, fibre, fuel, genetic resources, biochemicals/pharmaceuticals and natural medicines, ornamental resources, fresh water, plant-derived medicines and other natural resources.
  2. Regulating Services—These are the benefits obtained from the regulation of the physical, chemical and biological processes between organisms and their environments. These include the regulation of air quality, climate, erosion, pollination, diseases/pests, natural hazard regulation (e.g., mangroves), and water purification/waste treatment.
  3. Supporting Services—Supporting services are those that are necessary for the production of all other ES. For example, nutrient cycling, photosynthesis and soil formation. Supporting Services differ from the others in that their impacts on people are often indirect or occur over a very long time, whereas changes in the other categories have relatively direct and short-term impacts. Some services, like erosion regulation, can be categorized as both a supporting and a regulating service, depending on the time scale and immediacy of their impacts on people.
  4. Cultural Services—These are the nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences. For example, these include recreation, ecotourism, spiritual and aesthetic values, sense of place, social relations (such as differing between fishing and agrarian communities), cultural heritage, First Nations values and cultural practices, education and knowledge systems.

I always had some issues with this definition being a bit vague around “Supportive Services”. It seemed that the definition varied depending on which publication you looked at, and it seemed to overlap with several of the other categories. TEEB has recognized that this overlapping could potentially lead to double counting of ecosystem services in inventories, and recommends that Supporting Services be replaced with “Habitat Services”. Hence, I will be removing this definition from the Glossary for this site and replacing it with the new definition based on the TEEB revision below.

The New Definition

ES consist of the flows of value to human societies as a result of the condition of ecosystem structure, process/function and extent of natural capital in the following areas:

  1. Provisioning Services—These are the products derived from nature including food (i.e. fish, game), water, (i.e. drinking, irrigation), raw materials (i.e. timber, fibre, fertilizer), genetic resources (i.e. medicinal), medicinal resources (i.e. biochemical products), ornamental resources (i.e. pet trade, fashion, artisan material)
  2. Regulating Services—These are the benefits obtained from the regulation of the physical, chemical and biological processes between organisms and their environments. These include the regulation of air quality, climate, erosion, pollination, biological regulation (i.e. seed dispersal), extreme event moderation, waste treatment (i.e. water purification), and soil fertility maintenance.
  3. Habitat Services—There are two services directly linked to habitat which are the habitat for species (such as nurseries for migratory species), and as gene-pool ‘protectors’. The latter refers to the necessity to maintain natural habitat to allow natural selection to take place, which is the basis for the diversity of life on Earth, and to protect existing gene pools at healthy levels.
  4. Cultural Services—These are the non-material benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, inspiration, and aesthetic experiences. For example, these include recreation, ecotourism, spiritual and aesthetic values, sense of place, social relations (such as differing between fishing and agrarian communities), cultural heritage, First Nations values and cultural practices, education and knowledge systems.

If you are still curious, or want to know more about what constitutes Ecosystem Services you can go to the TEEB Chapter 1 reference directly and check out page 19, the table on page 21 and Appendix 2 on page 40 for a full breakdown. The TEEB source also provides reference to the original references by Costanza, de Groot and Daily that form the basis of the new categorization of Ecosystem Services.

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Ecological Economics

What


Eco- from the Greek, οἶκος, oikos, meaning “house”.

Economics. Ecology. Both words start with the same etymological root, but historically, that’s about where the similarity between the two fields of study ends.

Ecology is the study of the relation of living organisms with each other and their surroundings.  Or, one could say the study of the larger “house” and the creatures–including us–in it.

Economics is the study of the management the production and consumption of goods and services, or the management of the “house”.

So when you get back to basic definitions, it’s odd to think that these two fields have been so disparate, and often in conflict, over most of the last century. This is where the new field of Ecological Economics comes in.

Unlike ecological economics, which is transdisciplinary, the traditional field of environmental economics is a subfield of classical economics that looks at human systems as largely apart from environmental ones, and also looks at the nature of exchanges (such as natural resource extraction and pollution) between them. In this classical view, nature is taken to be an infinite source of natural capital (which has led to externalization of this natural capital), supplemented with the the theoretical addendum that when nature does run out, it can be substituted with human capital.

Ecological economics takes some of the assumptions of environmental economics to task. It differs from environmental economics in that it views human economic systems as being embedded and interdependent with ecological ones, such that human capital cannot substitute for degraded or lost natural capital, especially when it comes to externalities impacting essential ecosystem services or functions. Ecological economics also acknowledges the limits of natural capital, and seeks to reduce its externalization.

Why

What is the Ecological Economics Problem?

“Tools, insatiable wants and the potential danger of ignorance place humans in a unique position of being able to alter their ecosystems in ways that jeopardize their own social and economic structures and processes. While any species could exceed its own natural ecosystem’s carrying capacity or diminish that capacity to the point of self-extinction, only the human species has both the will and capacity to jeopardize itself, as well as the will and capacity to avoid it.”

Farber & Bradley

What do you think? Have humans reached, or are they reaching the carrying capacity of the Earth? Is there a problem? Could ecological economics tools lead to a practical way to fix it? I’d love to hear your thoughts via the comments.

Who

If you want to dig deeper, main theorists in this area to check out include:

The field has been influenced on the work of several theorists (whose works have largely since been critiqued and updated) including:

Where

The Gund Institute for Ecological Economics

Where can you go to learn more about ecological economics? A good an easy start would be to check out this handy online e-book “An Introduction to Ecological Economics“.

In addition, there are some organizations that specialize in the study of ecological economics:

  • Gund Institute for Ecological Economics: Located at the University of Vermont, “The Gund Institute is a transdisciplinary research, teaching, and service organization focused on developing integrative solutions to society’s most pressing problems…”
  • The International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE): “Ecological economics exists because a hundred years of disciplinary specialization in scientific inquiry has left us unable to understand or to manage the interactions between the human and environmental components of our world…Ecological economics is based on the assumption that the economy is a subsystem of a larger ecological life support system. Understanding this relationship is central to meeting humanity’s current environmental challenges, as well as building a sustainable future. Ecological economists strive for an ecologically sustainable, socially equitable, and economically efficient future.”
  • The Canadian Society for Ecological Economics (CANSEE): “We recognize that economies of communities, regions, and countries are imbedded in and dependent upon nature’s capacity to sustain ecological goods and services for present and future generations. The CANSEE mandate is to promote an understanding of this reality through research, education and practice, and to inform policy development and decision-making in government, communities, businesses and other organizations.”
  • Ecolgical Economics (Journal): “The journal is concerned with extending and integrating the study and management of “nature’s household” (ecology) and “humankind’s household” (economics). This integration is necessary because conceptual and professional isolation have led to economic and environmental policies which are mutually destructive rather than reinforcing…”

ES Players 1 – TEEB

This is the first of a series of blog posts to cover some of the major organizations that are working to value and protect Ecosystem Services. TEEB is one of the central sources of information that I refer to on this blog.

TEEB stands for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (@TEEB4Me on Twitter). It is a an international initiative study to “draw attention to the global economic benefits of biodiversity, to highlight the growing costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, and to draw together expertise from the fields of science, economics and policy to enable practical actions moving forward.”

The study that was initiated in 2007 and is hosted by UNEP and funded by the European Commission, Germany, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Japan. The study is led by Pavan Sukhdev (@pavansukdev on Twitter).

TEEB has already produced numerous publications via several reports on Ecosystem Services, in particular biodiversity, valuation and protection. These free reports can be found throughout their site, including the Synthesis Report of the study published in 2010, with applicable information tailored for various audiences including policy makers, local and regional policy makers, business, and citizens. Their compiled reports are also being published by Earthscan, with several books on the way.

The Looking Glass World of PES

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The Walrus and the Carpenter, Through the Looking Glass

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Land on Earth is finite. The homeostatic mechanisms of the Earth’s systems have functional limits. We’ve come to the point in our population and industrial systems where companies and governments are carving up the last of Earth’s wild spaces. We’ve also come to the point where we are overwhelming some of the Earth’s biogeochemical systems. Long term global government initiatives to mitigate and sequester greenhouse gases, protect biodiversity, and conserve water are not meeting their targets. So what’s a girl to do?

Red Queen, White Queen, and Alice and All

Red Queen, White Queen, and Alice and All

International organizations and governments are usually well intentioned, but they move slowly. They need to take the time to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s with utmost scientific and ethical process. If they do not they would be taken to the wringer. In comparison, market forces are very efficient at growth and development. Furthermore, lobby groups (often funded by market actors) can stall government initiatives, and politics can become mired in national and international debate.  But in this case that debate is stalling taking action on a process that is going on regardless. Market forces will carve up the remainder of the resources on this planet as efficiently as they can. They have money behind them, and money makes things happen. But what if those market forces could be turned in a new direction?

“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first…”

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Payments for Ecosystem (or Environmental) Services, or PES, refer to the payments to land owners or users for preserving the ecosystem function/integrity of their land rather than engaging in other forms of ecologically degrading economic activity. The brilliance of putting a price on nature, as well a cost on its degradation, is that those efficient market forces mentioned above are then turned up on their head towards protective, rather than exploitative behaviours on natural systems.

So, for example, if there is more profit in protecting a forest for carbon, then market forces will tend to protect more forests.  If there is a competitive edge in restoring mangroves, then mangroves will be restored.

The issue arises in that business men are not ecologists. Sometimes, the rush for the economic incentive overrides the initial intent of ES protection. There have been cases where virgin forests are clear cut in order to plant “carbon forests”, or situations where land users say they will not cut down a forest in one place–thereby obtaining carbon offsets for them–only to go and cut down forest elsewhere. This is termed “leakage” in the industry.  For these, and other reasons, ecologists and conservation managers often mistrust those from business and industry, but these barriers can be overcome through transparent dialogue and setting up of robust standards. The work being done on REDD and REDD+ is a prime example.

In the last several years people from public, private and NGO circles are starting to realize they have shared goals in the ES arena, forge partnerships and engage in collaborative projects. Although their backgrounds, perspectives and language may be different, I firmly believe that through such multidisciplinary efforts the theory behind ecosystems services can effectively be translated into action.  Putting a value on ecosystem services that are attached to these resources, is a way in which market forces can still happen, research budgets can be met, profits can still be shared, quarterly reports to shareholders still look good, AND Earth systems can be protected, and even replenished, in the process.