European perspective of ecosystem services and related policies


  • Martha Bonnet Dunbar,

    Corresponding author
    1. European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Institute for Environment and Sustainability, E. Fermi 2749, IT-21027, Ispra (VA), Italy
    • European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Institute for Environment and Sustainability, E. Fermi 2749, IT-21027, Ispra (VA), Italy
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  • Panos Panagos,

    1. European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Institute for Environment and Sustainability, E. Fermi 2749, IT-21027, Ispra (VA), Italy
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  • Luca Montanarella

    1. European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Institute for Environment and Sustainability, E. Fermi 2749, IT-21027, Ispra (VA), Italy
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In this article, we focus on the importance of terrestrial ecosystems and the services they provide. European Union policies, contributing to the conservation and maintenance of ecosystem services in Europe are discussed and their current impacts briefly reviewed in the light of the main challenges that European ecosystems might face in the near future. Integr Environ Assess Manag 2013; 9: 231–236. © 2013 SETAC


Human society benefits from numerous resources supplied by the earth's natural capital (Daily 1997; Costanza and Cleveland 2008). These ecosystem services are defined by the Ecological Society of America as: “the processes by which the environment produces resources that we often take for granted such as clean water, timber, and habitat for fisheries, and pollination of native and agricultural plants. Whether we find ourselves in the city or a rural area, the ecosystems in which humans live provide goods and services that are very familiar to us.” Many of those services are irreplaceable, such as those provided and supported by healthy soils and diverse vegetation. Maintenance of ecosystems is therefore an essential part of the survival strategy for human societies (Costanza et al. 1997; Fitter et al. 2010).

In the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) report published in 2005, ecosystem services were ordered into the 4 following categories:

  • 1.Supporting services—necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services; their benefits to humans are often indirect and occur over a very long time (e.g., soil formation, primary production, and nutrient and water cycling)
  • 2.Provisioning services—products obtained directly from the ecosystem (e.g., food, fiber, fuel, and fresh water)
  • 3.Regulating services—benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes (e.g., air quality, climate, erosion, and water regulation, water purification, and waste treatment)
  • 4.Cultural services—nonmaterial benefits humans obtain from ecosystems (e.g., recreation and ecotourism, cultural heritage, educational and aesthetic values, and inspiration)

This classification is used worldwide to highlight the multifold importance of ecosystem services, to map them, and to add a value to as many of the services as possible.

The European Commission-sponsored international project on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), launched in 2007, generally follows the same categories defined by the MA, except for one important difference. Here, the supporting services are reclassified as habitat services, thus stressing the importance of ecosystems as habitats for species (Maes et al. 2011). Supporting services are seen as part of the processes that generate services, whereas habitat services are seen as independent services that deliver a benefit.

Biodiversity has been defined as one of the main factors to be focused on to maintain ecosystem services and, both in the European Union (EU) and at the global level, political leaders have defined targets regarding conservation and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Maes, Paracchini et al. (2012) explored the spatial relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem service supply. The authors mapped spatial proxies for ecosystem service supply and biodiversity, which were found to be unevenly distributed across Europe. For example, ecosystem service supply (TESV) was low in densely populated areas as well as in areas with intensively managed agriculture and livestock; in areas with dense forest cover, however, supply was high (Figure 1). The remaining 3 maps shown in Figure 1 are proxies for biodiversity and show a similar uneven distribution across Europe, with higher values in the northern regions and mountainous areas.

Figure 1.

Biodiversity and ecosystem services maps. Top left: percentage of land protected under the Natura 2000 network (as biodiversity proxy). Top right: tree species diversity (as biodiversity proxy). Bottom left: mean species abundance (as biodiversity proxy). Bottom right: total ecosystem service supply (sum of standardized values of 10 ecosystem service indicators). For more detail see Maes, Paracchini et al. (2012).

Recognizing that the EU Biodiversity Targets for 2010 had not been met, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) published a set of new targets, the “2020 Aichi Targets” explicitly addressing the maintenance of ecosystem services as a main focus in the new Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, established at the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties in 2010. Out of these 20 targets, Targets 11 and 14 provide a greater focus on the conservation of ecosystem services. The EU, as signatory to the CBD, also published a set of 6 biodiversity targets in its EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, in which Target 2 explicitly refers to the maintenance and restoration of ecosystems and their services through the development of a green infrastructure (European Commission 2011a).

In the above mentioned strategy it is recognized that, in addition to their intrinsic value, biodiversity and ecosystem services have significant economic value that is underrepresented in markets. The TEEB project suggests that the monetary value of biodiversity be incorporated into decision-making (TEEB 2010).

In addition to the Biodiversity Strategy, a number of other EU policy documents are addressing ecosystem services and biodiversity in different land use systems (e.g., in agriculture, protected areas, and urbanized areas). In this article, we aim to list them and discuss their contribution toward the conservation and restoration of ecosystem services in Europe (see Table 1 for a brief overview).

Table 1. Main regulatory frameworks and brief description of their targets with regard to ecosystem services
Policy and/or DirectiveTarget
CBD “2020 Aichi Targets” (specifically 11 and 14)Maintenance of ecosystem services through well-connected systems of protected areas and other conservation measures, integrated into the wider landscape; also with focus on restoring and safeguarding cultural services
EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 (specifically Target 2)Maintenance and restoration of ecosystem services through the development of a green infrastructure
Common Agriculture Policy (CAP)Restoration and maintenance of ecosystem services that rely on biodiversity within agricultural systems, (e.g., C sequestration, nutrient cycling, soil structure and functioning, water purification, and pollination)
Habitats Directive 92/43/EECSpecifically refers to the restoration and maintenance of the natural habitats that ecosystems provide to wild fauna and flora; creation of the Natura 2000 network of protected areas
Birds Directive 2009/147/ECRestoration and maintenance of the natural habitats provided to birds, specifically endangered or migratory species through establishment of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) which form an integral part of the Natura 2000 network
Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection (COM(2006)231) and implementation of the Strategy (COM(2012)46)Specifically referring to ecosystem services provided by soil functions and those that are being lost (e.g., through soil sealing)


The main role of agricultural and productive forestry systems is to produce goods. Provisioning services are therefore the key products of these systems; however, as the provisioning services are interlinked with the supporting and regulating services, they are all equally important (MA 2005).

The drastically changing farming systems in postwar Europe caused an enormous increase in agricultural productivity (Strijker 2005), as well as a number of negative impacts on agroecological systems, such as decreased C sequestration, nutrient cycling, soil structure and functioning, water purification, and pollination. These ecosystem services rely on biodiversity within agricultural ecosystems and beyond, and with the intensification and increasing focus on monocultures this required biodiversity was in decline (Moonen and Bàrberi 2008).

Intensive agriculture, as currently practiced in Europe, is focused on crop monoculture, with only minimal input of associated species. These systems may offer high yields of individual products, but they depend on high input of fertilizers and pesticides, thus threatening both economic and environmental sustainability. Introduction of a wider variety of species into agriculture, and consequently increasing genetic diversity, has the potential to significantly improve the ecological status of the habitat (Gabriel et al. 2006).

Agriculture and forestry account for the majority of total land area in the EU and, consequently, play an important role in maintaining natural resources and cultural landscapes, a precondition for other human activities in rural areas. Agricultural land alone comprises approximately 40% of the total land surface (CORINE 2006; Gallego and Bamps 2008). Unsustainable farming practices and land use, including mismanaged intensification, have an adverse impact on natural resources. Nowadays, European agricultural land is being increasingly abandoned, due to various socio-ecological aspects, such as low agricultural productivity and high population age, especially in remote areas (Navarro and Pereira 2012). This does not necessarily have to result in negative impacts. In fact, Navarro and Pereira (2012) explored the option of rewilding abandoned land by assisting regeneration of natural habitats, and the positive impacts this form of management can have on ecosystem services and biodiversity.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is directly related to soil resource protection through the implementation of agri-environment schemes, which have been supported by the EU since they were introduced by the CAP reforms of 1992. These schemes encourage farmers to follow good agricultural practices, including, inter alia, no-tillage or contour-tillage, incorporation of crop residues into the soil after harvesting, organic fertilization, and terracing in sloped areas.

In the last CAP reform, the introduction of payments independent of current productivity was in favor of ecosystem services improvement as it reduced the pressure to intensify production above market demand. Cross-compliance (European Council 2003) allows farmers to receive payments under the condition that they maintain their land in good agricultural condition and comply with standards on public health and environmental welfare. More recently, the proposal for the CAP includes restoring and conserving ES as 1 of the 6 priorities of the rural development pillar (European Commission 2011b). Moreover, the less-favorable area (LFA) support has the objective of maintaining the agricultural land use in areas affected by natural or economical obstacles (European Commission 2011b).

Apart from the CAP, there are numerous European policies that address agriculture and the ecosystem services that it requires and provides. These include the Pan-European Biodiversity and Landscape Strategy (PEBLDS), the Bern Convention, the European Landscape Convention, and, at EU level, the Habitats and Birds Directives and Rural Development Policy (Community Strategic Guidelines for Rural Development, Programming Period 2007–2013).

Although we value agricultural land mainly for the provisioning services that it provides, agroecosystems are also consumers of supporting and regulating services provided by natural, unmanaged systems, such as pollination, biological pest control, genetic diversity for crop breeding, soil fertility, nutrient cycling, and water provision (Kroeger and Casey 2007; Swinton et al. 2007). Through sustainable land management practices (see Liniger and Critchley [2007] for details), humans can positively influence these provisioning services. However, unsustainable management practices can also contribute to the creation of “disservices” (e.g., loss of habitat and biodiversity, nutrient runoff, soil compaction, and erosion).

Although, for example, first generation biofuels (i.e., biodiesel and bioethanol) are a net provider of energy and tend to be environmentally more sustainable than fossil fuels, the issue remains controversial whether these benefits outweigh the tradeoffs that biofuel production has with other ecosystem services, mainly food production (Gasparatos et al. 2011).

High nature value (HNV) farming was defined by Baldock et al. (1993) and Beaufoy et al. (1994) when the concept evolved within the framework of both the integration of environmental concerns into the CAP and the adoption of the European model of multifunctional agriculture. Within this framework, HNV farmland and associated farming systems defined as “low intensity farming systems (…) that are likely to promote the maintenance or enhancement of nature value” (Andersen et al. 2003) have increasingly gained policy relevance to the point that their protection and enhancement have become one of the strategic priorities in the implementation of the European Rural Development Policy: the Community Strategic Guidelines for Rural Development (European Council 2006). Herein is stated that “biodiversity and the preservation and development of high nature value farming and forestry systems and traditional agricultural landscapes” is 1 of the 3 EU-level priority areas to protect and enhance the EU's natural resources and landscapes in rural areas. Consequently, to monitor and evaluate the results and impacts of Rural Development programs on biodiversity, HNV farmland indicators have been included in the Common Monitoring and Evaluation Framework (CMEF 2007–2013).

To locate HNV farmland areas, information is collected from several sources, including the NATURA 2000 network and important bird areas (IBAs), prime butterfly areas (PBAs), and national biodiversity data sets (Paracchini et al. 2008).

Unfortunately, however, only 15% to 25% of these once-extensively managed farmlands (i.e., seminatural grasslands) still exist, and numerous plant and animal species that rely on traditional farming practices are in decline (Decleer 2012). As a result, the EU's Biodiversity Strategy targets agriculture and forestry as crucial aids in the conservation and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Furthermore, with the CAP reform there will be a new policy proposed to dedicate 7% of agricultural land (approximately 129 000 km2) as “Ecological Focus Areas.” It is still unclear where these areas will be located or how they will be managed, and the proposal remains highly controversial.


Although protected areas (PAs) were traditionally established with the aim of conserving biodiversity, a range of provisioning, regulating, and supporting services contribute equally to maintaining ecosystems' functions and due to the importance of PAs for recreation and tourism, the value of cultural services is also high, albeit more difficult to quantify (DeFries et al. 2007).

Traditionally PAs were designated to limit use and access by humans. This was considered the only effective way to conserve nature. However, there is now general consensus that a balance must be found between these areas of utmost ecological importance and their surrounding human societies (DeFries et al. 2007). Furthermore, it is clear that PAs cannot be restricted to national or regional boundaries, and to further improve their ecological significance, physical corridors are being established to connect these habitats. The CBD's Programme of Work on Protected Areas, adopted in 2004, specifically calls for the integration of PAs into the broader landscape through ecological connectivity and ecological networks.

Protected areas are one of the most crucial instruments for the conservation of biodiversity (Mulongoy and Chape 2004). As such, it is one of the main focus areas in the CBD, as specifically outlined in the 16 goals of the Programme of Work on Protected Areas. Over the past 2 decades the EU has established the NATURA 2000 network, created under the EU Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora) and comprising an area of 117 million hectares (17% of the total land area of the EU) (Maes, Paracchini et al. 2012). This vast network includes Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), sites designated under the Habitats Directive, and Special Protection Areas (SPAs), sites designated under the Birds Directive (2009/147/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the conservation of wild birds). In addition to the European NATURA 2000 network, there are global treaties and conventions that increase the number of sites designated to biodiversity conservation in Europe. These include the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which supports national action for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands and their resources, as well as sites designated under UNESCO's Man and Biosphere Programme and World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR).

However, according to the results of the most recent obligatory conservation status monitoring exercise, only 17% of the habitat types and species protected under the Habitats Directive were found to be in “favorable conservation” status. The remaining sites were either in “unfavorable-inadequate” or “unfavorable-bad” status. Furthermore, only 52% of bird species protected under the Birds Directive are considered to be in a safe conservation status (European Parliament 2009). In response to this the first target of the Biodiversity Strategy aims to achieve 34% of habitats and 26% of species in favorable conservation status by 2020 and 80% of protected bird populations secured.


Within urban areas the demand for ecosystem services is high but due to land sealing and pollution, inter alia, cities often face dysfunctional ecosystems and low supply of ecosystem services. A study carried out by Prokop et al. (2011) showed an 8.8% increase of land take (i.e., land converted into artificial surface) in the EU territory between 1990 and 2006. Furthermore, in 2006, approximately 1000 km2 of the same territory was sealed, which means that the soil is covered by impervious artificial surfaces (as defined in the CORINE Land Cover nomenclature) (Prokop et al. 2011; European Commission 2012). This results in the loss of biodiversity and important environmental functions, such as rainwater infiltration and, consequently, natural groundwater recharge.

There is often a general lack of appreciation of the value of soil, which must be recognized as a limited and nonrenewable resource. Soils provide a very wide range of ecosystem services, including the most obvious, such as food production, but also habitat provision for both below- and aboveground biodiversity, filtering and moderating the flow of water aquifers, removing contaminants, and reducing the frequency and risk of flooding and drought (Wall et al. 2012); they can help regulate the microclimate in compact urban environments, particularly where they support vegetation. In the European Commission 2012 guidelines for best practice on soil sealing, it was estimated that the impact of urbanization on food security and the amount of potential agricultural lost was a direct result of soil sealing.

Urban areas and cities, which now host the majority of the human population are the most intensively used ecosystems and are becoming increasingly degraded (MA 2005). Ecosystem services in urban areas are closely related to the usage of urban land as green spaces (forests, trees, parks). These green spaces help regulate diurnal temperature variation through shading, evapotranspiration, and lower surface emissivity (Fuller and Gaston 2009).

Although policy measures regarding the urban environment exist mainly at the regional or local planning levels, there are several EU policies and directives that address these issues. For example, approximately 5 years after adoption of the Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection (COM(2006)231) the European Commission recently published a report describing the implementation of the strategy (COM(2012)46), which also underlines the problem of soil sealing.

One of the building blocks of Europe 2020, the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (COM(2011)571) has a measured target that annual land take (i.e., increase of artificial surface) must not exceed 800 km2 per year at the EU level by 2020. An additional milestone is to achieve zero land take by 2050, which is very much in line with the zero net land degradation target included in the final outcome document of the Rio + 20 conference in June 2012 (UN 2012).


The concept of ecosystem services has been known for many years; in fact some argue that ecosystems and their value have been appreciated since the times of Plato or before (Mooney and Ehrlich 1997), and even in monetary terms economists have been attempting to place a value on services that nature provides us for the past few decades (Krutilla and Fisher 1975). Despite this long history of investigation, there is still no clear common strategy and, at a much more basic scale, we lack a general consensus on a common classification scheme. Some argue that ecosystem services studies thus far have been too individual, and context-dependent (Burkhard et al. 2012). Most approaches remain characterized by high uncertainty, generalization related to scale and methodological issues, unclear definitions and classifications (Scolozzi et al. 2012). To overcome these obstacles, Seppelt et al. (2012) proposed a “blueprint” for ecosystem services assessments (ESA) to facilitate the reporting of studies in a standardized way. The authors state that to successfully implement the ecosystem services concept a detailed description of the purpose, scope, analysis, recommendations, and monitoring (PSARM) is needed, which involves both scientists and stakeholders. Therefore, natural science, modeling, and calculations of indicators only form a small part of the overall assessment.

In addition, it is now becoming more and more recognized that policies related to biodiversity conservation and the manifold services provided by ecosystems rely on information about the spatial distribution of resources providing the ES (Maes, Egoh et al. 2012). In the EU Biodiversity Strategy the need for spatial assessments of ES is explicitly addressed. In support of Action 5 the European Commission has committed to supporting EU Member States in mapping and assessing the state of ecosystems and their services by 2014, which is addressed by the Working Group on Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services (MAES).

It is important to note, however, that although the concept of ecosystem services is not new, the systematic study of the relationships between ecosystems services, biodiversity, and human well-being is relatively new. The fact that new ideas and research continue to emerge at a rapid pace may partly explain the lack of general consensus. Schneiders et al. (2012), for example, demonstrate that the linkages among biodiversity conservation, provision of ecosystem services, land use, and human well-being must be further explored.

It is clear that the services ecosystems provide cannot be considered in isolation. They are all interconnected and must be treated as a whole. Furthermore, it is crucial to consider potential tradeoffs; when only one ecosystem service is the focus of conservation efforts, provision of others is more than likely to decline (Fitter et al. 2010). To conserve ecosystem services not only at the European level but also taking into account their impacts at the global scale, information must be exchanged not only among diverging scientific disciplines but also between the scientific community and policy and decision makers. Furthermore, to monitor the provision of ecosystem services at this broad scale, it is important to follow a standardized approach, in which clear indicators are identified and spatially explicit methods used to follow the change, whether positive or negative, that is likely to take place in the future. This is also crucial to assess the impacts of policies and whether they need to be re-evaluated in the future (Carpenter et al. 2009). There are high expectations regarding the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), established in April 2012, and whether the necessary policy relevant scientific knowledge and information will be delivered to improve the overall understanding and management of ES and related policies. The IPBES is expected to identify and prioritize key scientific information needed for policy makers and to catalyze efforts to generate new knowledge, to perform regular and timely assessments of knowledge on biodiversity and ecosystem services and their interlinkages, to support policy formulation and implementation by identifying policy-relevant tools and methodologies, and to prioritize key capacity-building needs to improve the science-policy interface.

Turning the economy onto a resource-efficient path will bring increased competitiveness and new sources of growth through cost savings from improved efficiency, commercialization of innovations and better management of resources throughout their life cycle. Constraints to transforming the economy include the exclusion of social and human capital (i.e., human well-being) while developing the concept of a Green Economy but also methodological limitations involved in the assessment of the economic value of natural capital. Natural capital, manufactured and financial, as well as social and human capital taken together form a sound basis for a Green Economy and must be seen as one unit.


This paper is one of 8 articles generated from the SETAC Special Symposium: Ecosystem Services, from Policy to Practice (15–16 February 2012, Brussels, Belgium). The symposium aimed to give a broad overview of the application of the ecosystem services concept in environmental assessment and management, against the background of the implementation of the European environmental policies such as the biodiversity agenda, agricultural policy, and the water framework directive.