Ecosystem services: From policy to practice


Ecosystems are under considerable threat from the environmental consequences of an increasing human population and its even greater demand for energy, water, food, and other natural resources. People depend on ecosystems for their basic requirements of life (e.g., food, water, fuel, shelter) and benefit from the ecosystem functions necessary to sustain our modern lifestyle and well-being. These benefits are termed ecosystem services and are often classified as provisioning services (e.g., food, fuel), regulating services (e.g., climate regulation, pollination), cultural services (e.g., educational values, aesthetic values), and supporting services (e.g., photosynthesis, nutrient cycling). The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (WRI 2005) highlighted the link between biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human well-being. More recently, an international study on the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity has drawn attention to the global economic benefits of ecosystem services as well as the impacts and dependencies that business has on biodiversity and ecosystems services (TEEB 2010).

The ecosystem services concept is gaining increasing prominence in environmental policy making where it is being used as a guiding principle for sustainability. For instance, the European Union (EU) has set a target of halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services in the EU by 2020 and restoring them as far as is feasible. Although the concept is gaining popularity with regulators and policy makers, and much attention has been given to the valuation of ecosystem services, the underlying science required to put policy into practice is still under development. Sustainable management of ecosystem services is more than improving environmental quality; it also requires a consideration of trade-offs between ecosystem services as well as spatial and temporal discontinuities between service provision and use in the long term. Local scale actions may have consequences at the landscape, national, or global scale. Hence the scientific understanding used to underpin the evaluation and management of ecosystem services needs to apply at these larger spatial scales and needs to consider landscape structure.

The articles in this special issue were presented at the 5th Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) Europe Special Science Symposium, which was held in Brussels in February 2012. They provide an overview of the use of the ecosystem services concept, ranging from policy views to practical applications and raise a number of opportunities and challenges associated with implementing the ecosystem service approach in environmental management and protection.

Apitz (this issue) provides an overview of the role of ecosystem service approaches in environmental management policy and practice. The approaches range from natural capital assessments and assessments of environmental impact, damage, and liability in planning decisions, to evaluations of remediation and disposal options, and product safety. She considers 3 main components of the decision-making process: decision analysis, which defines the proposed policies or actions and changes under consideration; assessment, which evaluates how such changes affect biophysical structure and hence ecosystem functions and services; and valuation, which generates valuations (monetary or nonmonetary) to inform decisions linking back to decision analysis. The services to be considered depend on the context and scale of the scenarios envisioned—broad ecosystem service categories (e.g., fisheries, transport) being appropriate for high-level analyses (top-down assessments), but more specific services (e.g., nutrient cycling, pollination) being the focus of detailed biophysical assessments (bottom-up assessments). Top-down assessments may be used to assess national or regional stock and flows of ecosystem services and to evaluate the impacts of national or regional planning and development. Whereas, bottom-up assessments that derive estimates of ecosystem services from the links between biophysical conditions, functions, and services may be used to assess the risk of a particular stressors to ecosystem service delivery or to select between remediation, disposal, mitigation, or liability options.

Ecosystem service provision is related to land cover and land use. Dunbar et al. (this issue2013) discuss EU policies that are relevant to the ecosystem services provided by 3 major land cover types: agriculture, protected areas, and urban areas. Agriculture accounts for approximately 40% of the total land area of Europe and although it is primary managed for provisioning services (e.g., food production), it also provides many other important ecosystem services, some of which also have a positive impact on agricultural production (e.g., pollination, pest and disease control, nutrient cycling). The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the main policy instrument for protecting ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes. Agri-environment schemes implemented under CAP are directly related to soil protection. Recent proposals for CAP reform include identifying restoring and conserving ecosystem services as 1 of the 6 priorities for rural development and dedicating 7% of agricultural land as “Ecological Focus Areas.” The NATURA 2000 network of protected areas, created under the EU Habitats Directive and Bird Directive, comprises 17% of the total area of the EU. Although originally designated to conserve biodiversity, protected areas provide a wide range of ecosystem services including wood production, C sequestration, air purification, groundwater recharge, and recreation. Europe is one of the most urbanized continents in the world with 80% of Europeans living in or around cities. Ecosystem service provision in urban areas is largely dependent on green space (e.g., forest, trees, parks). However, these green spaces are under threat from increasing conversion to other uses and the EU has set a target of no net loss of green spaces by 2050.

Some of the challenges with the implementation of policies aimed at protecting ecosystem services, including the need for: information about the spatial distribution of resources providing ecosystem services; further understanding of the linkages between biodiversity conservation, provision of ecosystem services, land use and human well-being; consideration of the interactions (synergies and trade-offs) between different ecosystem services; and standardized approaches that use clear indicators and spatially explicit methods to monitor ecosystem service provision. The European Commission is committed to supporting Member States to map and assess the state of ecosystems and their services by 2014. The role of the recently established Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is to provide scientific information needed for policy makers and to support policy formulation and implementation by identifying policy-relevant tools and methodologies.

Van Wensem (this issue) moves the discussion from a European to a national perspective and describes the actual and potential use of the ecosystem services concept on policy and sustainable management of landscapes in the Netherlands. the Netherlands is a densely populated and highly industrialized country with little “spare” land. Consequently, there is considerable competition between different kinds of land use and land needs to be used for multiple purposes (i.e., multifunctional landscapes). The combination of multifunctional landscapes and the Dutch tradition for “consensus-seeking” results in a decision making process that is complex and involves many stakeholders. The use and usefulness of the ecosystem services approach in the decision-making process for a number of landscape management projects was evaluated. These projects involved a wide range of stakeholders from diverse backgrounds—local, regional and national authorities, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, citizens, and citizen groups—who were supported by scientists and consultants. The use of the ecosystem service concept facilitated decision making by raising the visibility of the benefits provided by natural resources, thereby enabling stakeholder groups to make more informed decisions. The stakeholders see the ecosystem services concept as a useful tool for enhancing biodiversity, creating more sustainable regional developmental plans and supporting better spatial planning on soil sealing.

Tobias (this issue) takes up the theme of soil sealing in her article on preserving ecosystem services in urban regions, commenting that soil sealing is the greatest threat that urbanization poses to ecosystem services. She reflects on how urban populations primarily used to value local provisioning services such as food, fuel, and water. Therefore, many historic towns were established along waterways in fertile valleys. Nowadays, urban populations primarily value local cultural services such as recreation and aesthetics, that result in a higher-quality of life. These cultural services are provided by urban green infrastructure, which also provides other services including flood alleviation, disease control, air purification, temperature regulation and groundwater purification. Tobias considers how different urban forms affect ecosystem service provision and identifies the challenges for spatial planning in urban areas. She then considers how these challenges can be addressed by providing 3 examples of best practice in Switzerland: legislation ensuring that arable land is protected; incentives for joint planning and intermunicipal cooperation; and ecological compensation for projects that increase soil sealing.

Everard (this issue) argues that ecosystem services must be considered in a contiguous system such that exploitation of one benefit (e.g., food production) is not achieved at a cost to other benefits (e.g., clean water, soil structure, biodiversity) and their beneficiaries. He contends that a systematic assessment of policy and development options across the full spectrum of ecosystem services can promote the incorporation of sustainable development principles into policy, practical decision making, and operation. He illustrates this approach with 3 case studies: urban river regeneration, catchment management, and flood risk management. The ecosystem services framework provides a means to integrate the perspectives of multiple stakeholders and their often disparate value systems. To influence practice and deliver more sustainable outcomes, it is necessary to deliver pragmatic, operationally relevant decision support tools. These need to consider all ecosystem services and their beneficiaries. The tools should also include ecosystem service indicators to monitor outcomes of decisions that can be fed into an adaptive approach to management.

Von Stackelberg (this issue) highlights the technical and regulatory constraints associated with incorporating ecosystem services into decision making with a specific focus on risk assessment. She argues that decision analytic frameworks provide a mechanism for evaluating trade-offs across ecosystem services, and incorporating them into risk assessment decisions. She discusses the value of 2 approaches, Bayesian networks and multicriteria decision analysis. Bayesian networks can be used to represent current understanding of causal relationships between variables and to elicit how stakeholders understand and view a system. Linking Bayesian networks and geographical information systems (GIS) can help visualize relationships between human pressures, land use, and ecosystem services delivery and such tools can be used to assess planning objectives and map uncertainties related to changes in management options. Multicriteria decision analysis methods provide another framework for integrating the results of disparate analyses and stakeholder preferences and can also be linked to GIS-based data. The potential of this approach is illustrated with an evaluation of remediation options for a contaminated site.

Forbes and Calow (this issue) also discuss the application of the ecosystem services concept to the ecological risk assessment of chemicals and consider both single chemical site-specific risk assessment. They highlight the challenges of extrapolating effects measured on a few standard test species to those components of the ecosystem providing the service of interest (i.e., service providing units), the need to provide units to ecosystem service delivery, and the valuation of ecosystems. They contend that framing site specific risk assessments in terms of the impacts on ecosystem services makes assessments more policy relevant by connecting ecosystem structure and processes to what is valued. However, making these ecological connections is one of the biggest challenges in using an ecosystem service approach in ecological risk assessment, and they call for the development and use of systems models that link biological responses at different levels of organization to ecosystem service delivery in a mechanistic, quantitative, and predictive manner.

The assessment of ecosystem services and their response to stressors and management decisions requires the development of robust indicators. Faber et al. (this issue) discuss the development of a cost-effective biological monitoring scheme to support the EU Soil Directive Framework. Soil provides many ecosystem services and an evaluation of the use of soil biodiversity indicators in Europe found that although a large number of indicators are used, there is little consensus emerging on a basic set of indicators that could be applied across Europe. A harmonization of soil monitoring initiatives based on a policy-relevant and cost-effective set of indicators is necessary for the implementation of Europe-wide environmental policy and a methodology for identifying such indicators is discussed.

The articles presented at the 5th SETAC Europe Special Science Symposium and discussions between participants confirmed that the ecosystem services concept is regarded as a guiding principle for sustainability and is accepted and endorsed by policy makers, academics, industry, practitioners, and funding agencies. Applying an ecosystem services approach to policy development and decision making can facilitate discussions among multiple stakeholders and integrate their often disparate perspectives. It provides a framework for identifying and valuing multiple services and makes consideration of the synergies and trade-offs between services an explicit component of the decision-making process. However, several scientific and technical challenges remain to be addressed before implementing this approach fully in ecological risk assessment and environmental management. The approach requires development of: insights in spatial and temporal distribution of ecosystem service provision and use, models to quantitatively link stressor- and management-induced effects on organisms and ecological processes to changes in ecosystem service delivery, robust and standardized indicators to monitor how policy implementation and management practices alter ecosystem service provision, and valuation and decision analytic tools for evaluating trade-off and management scenarios.