Ecosystem services and real-world decisions

A recent paper describing experiences in situations where the concept of ecosystem services has been applied to biodiversity (biodiversity and ecosystem services: BES) may provide guidance in how to apply this relatively new concept to a wide range of environmental and sustainability decision-making. Ecosystem services are those benefits, such as water, air, and natural composting that are provided to humankind by ‘nature’.

The paper’s authors, led by Mary Ruckelshaus of The Natural Capital Project, Department of Biology and the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, find that

  • applying a BES approach is most effective in leading to policy change as part of an iterative science-policy process;
  • simple ecological production function models have been useful in a diverse set of decision contexts across a broad range of biophysical, social, and governance systems. Key limitations of simple models arise at very small scales, and in predicting specific future BES values;
  • training local experts in the approaches and tools is important for building local capacity, ownership, trust, and long-term success;
  • decision makers and stakeholders prefer to use a variety of BES value metrics, not only monetary values;
  • an important science gap exists in linking changes in BES to changes in livelihoods, health, cultural values, and other metrics of human well being; and
  • communicating uncertainty in useful and transparent ways remains challenging.

The cases studies reported in the paper range from modelling of vulnerable areas to understand the protective services and values of particular habitats on Vancouver Island to management of a ‘water fund’ (a means for water users to pay upstream land managers to improve watershed management as a way to regulate water flows and provide natural filtration for water quality) in Colombia.

Practitioners interested in advancing the ecosystem services approach in Canada, for example the Ontario Network on Ecosystem Services, see , are facing challenges arising in part from a lack of understanding of the concept. This paper may be of significant interest not only to practitioners but also to businesses interested in applying the ecosystem services approach to development and conservation activities.

The paper is currently available as an article in press for The Transdisciplinary Journal of the International Society for Ecological Economics at

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