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Bringing scientific rigor to ‘ecosystem services’

Free pollination services: a bee at an almond orchard in California. Randy Stiefer, CC BY-NC

As a professor of ecology, I know all too well that there’s no shortage of environmental ills to keep us awake at night – global warming, the spread of diseases, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, collapsing fisheries, mass extinction, and a hundred other things that are the stock and trade of environmental doomsayers.

What allows us to sleep is the knowledge that environmental programs are actually making progress on these problems. And there’s one concept – called ecosystem services – that’s behind solving virtually every environmental challenge we face. If this millennium is to be remembered for anything environmental, it will be remembered for a sea change in environmental thinking centered around the concept of ecosystem services.

But what is an ecosystem service? And can we use scientific principles to evaluate and design environmental projects that generate payments from the ecosystem services they provide?

Over the past three years, I worked with a group of researchers and practitioners from many different sectors to come to a consensus on what would be the best basic scientific principles for every conservation project that incorporates Payment for Ecosystem (or Environmental) Services, or PES. It’s a step toward valuing environmental services and raising awareness of the economic and non-economic benefits nature provides.

Putting a figure on nature’s services

The simplest definition for an ecosystem service is anything nature does for us that improves our wellbeing. Indeed, some people call these services “natural” or “nature’s services.”

Such a definition helps, but what is the “service” in “ecosystem service?”

We use many services in our daily lives: e-mail, electricity, internet, phone, cable television, financial services, health services, governmental services, mostly in the form of taxes for water, sanitation, police, military, and education. In fact, all my income pretty much goes to people everywhere who are essentially service providers.

Mangroves and wetlands provide help control erosion and filter air and water. Vital services, but how much are they worth financially? Adam Fagen, CC BY-NC-SA

Ecosystem services are exactly that, minus the people part. Instead, they are provided by plants, animals, and microorganisms that make up ecosystems. It is the millions of species on Earth, in forests, grasslands, deserts, eel grass beds, coral reefs, the Arctic tundra, wetlands, and more, that provide us with breathable air, potable water, fertile soils, productive fisheries, lumber, and equitable climate.

They also provide the wildlife I love traveling to see, medicinal products, bush meat for many people around the world for whom hunting is their primary means for getting protein, pollination by bees, containing the spread of diseases, protecting shores from wave surges, preventing soil erosion, producing soil, decomposing wastes, and hundreds of thousands of many other services that make our world livable.

There’s one big difference between nature-provided and anthropogenic, or human-provided services: we don’t pay nature a penny for its services. What if we did?


Many people feel the reason our environment is going to hell is because we don’t pay for it, so we don’t actually have any tangible, financial incentive to be creative or efficient in our use of nature’s services and we don’t have any disincentives for wrecking nature.

There is no way to work out just what ecosystem services are worth, but one controversial study by Costanza and his colleagues put it at one-hundred and twenty-five trillion dollars per year, which would be an annual bill of $17,361.11 for every man, woman, and child. That’s about $1,400 a month.

The government of Costa Rica pays landowners not to cut down forests, which provide environmental services (clean air and water) and direct economic benefits via tourism. Robert Shea, CC BY-NC

Ecosystem service sellers would be farmers, ranchers, and other landholders, and fishers, hunters, and just about anyone who trades in nature’s services. Buyers are you and me, governments, NGOs, and just about anyone who would like to secure the millions of services nature provides.

For example, the government of Costa Rica pays landholders to not cut trees. Others PES projects are smaller like the Wildlife Conservation Society’s project to arrange for wildlife tour operators to pay communities around Tarangire National Park in Tanzania to better manage grazing lands for wildlife like zebras and wildebeests, and stop illegal poaching of wildlife.

As an ecologist, though, I was worried that the rapid rise in projects and programs that use payments for ecosystem services to achieve environmental objectives, may not have gotten the science right. Like any new frontier, in the early days it’s a bit of a Wild West where everyone is trying all sorts of new methods. There is little in the way of rules or even guidelines on what best to do.

I worked with a group of about 50 students, natural scientists, social scientists, and practitioners from many different sectors in the PES world to outline the best basic scientific principles every PES program or project should follow.

Getting different people on the same page

It took three years to do this because, at one end, scientists like projects to use the best science and best technology when running PES projects. On the other end, governments often want rules, regulations, and laws to be designed and enforced. Buyers and sellers just want to do their business without needless hindrances caused by having to pay for expensive scientific analyses or overly burdensome regulations that might involve permits, licenses, fines, or other red tape.

We’ve published a set of six basic principles and guidelines to help insure that PES projects meet their objectives. What’s really important is that it isn’t a publication in which scientists or practitioners or regulators are telling each other what to do or arguing with one another. Instead, it’s a set of guidelines designed to serve everyone well.

When you think about it, if PES projects are fast becoming the dominant way for our environment to be managed, then we are all entrusting them with things we value almost more than anything else – a healthy world for us and our children to live in. It’s also a world rich in species and robust to the vagaries of a sometimes random and chaotic world that can throw tornadoes, tsunamis, droughts, fires, and even the occasional asteroid at us.

We can all get some sleep at night because of the fantastic work of PES projects around the globe. But we can sleep a little better now knowing that they are coming together to better secure the services nature provides us.

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