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ClientEarth Communications

22nd July 2015

Defending habitats

Ecosystem services: the value of conservation laws

Ecosystem services: 38% of the land surface within the Natura 2000 conservation network is used for sustainable agriculture

The value of conservation and protected space is clear from an environmental point of view – animals, plants and their ecosystems are a central part of life on this planet and nature should be protected for nature’s sake. However, something you may not often hear discussed is the economic benefits of protecting the natural environment.

The EU Nature Directives, currently under review, were instrumental in establishing Natura 2000, the most extensive network of protected conservation sites in the world. The sites cover about 19% of European land – and that’s not counting the Marine Protected Areas.

Farming must comply with Natura 2000 regulations

Natura 2000 - what does it do?

Natura 2000 sites cover a huge range of terrains, flora and fauna. The far-flung Azores Islands in Portugal, for example, are home to many endemic plant and animal species. Meanwhile, nearly 400 separate sites in Scotland protect rare wildflowers and are seeing the reappearance of many native birds and mammals. The idea is to reserve spaces where people and nature can interact successfully. Good conservation, as Michael Marshall says, is “about seeing human society and wild ecosystems as one inseparable whole.”

This is where the idea of “ecosystem services” comes in. It refers to the work the earth naturally saves us from having to do. We’ve talked before about the ethical issues related to “putting a price” on nature's wonders. However, you may be interested to know that a 1997 study estimated the work the biosphere does for us was worth about three times the global GDP.

Pollination services are worth around €15 billion to the EU annually

What is an ecosystem service?

Ecosystem services can include water purification and supply, green infrastructure (which provides protection from natural events like flooding and landslides), and the trump card in current conservation discussions: pollination. It’s been estimated that ‘pollination services’, rendered willingly to us by swarms of faithful bees, would cost the EU about €15bn to replicate. Significant drops in bee populations would be catastrophic for our food supply.

This goes some way to illustrate what kind of economic benefit concentrated green spaces like Natura 2000 sites may hold. Water purification, for example, may cost up to €16 million per year for an average-sized European city, and water purification anything up to €91 million. Water supplied and purified as a naturally occurring ecosystem service may reduce this toll. In the Azores, the annual water supply (excluding what's used for agriculture) is all provided by natural sources, which would otherwise have come at a cost of around €600,000.

Natura 2000 sites store billions of tonnes of carbon

It has been estimated that the amount of carbon stored (i.e. not released into the atmosphere) in Natura 2000 sites is equivalent to the entire 2013 global carbon budget - approximately 9.6 billion tonnes. The Azores site alone holds around 465,000 tonnes. Aside from the role plants and trees play in maintaining ecosystems and regulating pollution, Natura 2000's concentrated green spaces, full of rare wildflowers, also play a key role in sustaining vital European bee populations. And beyond these indirect financial benefits, designated conservation sites also attract income from visitors and create jobs.

The sites cover a considerable amount of land – forests, grasslands, wetlands, mountain ranges – all vital to the survival of many indigenous species. This is why it’s so important that we all sign the public consultation and use this opportunity to speak up for nature.

We and our campaign partners have worked together to compile a list of recommended answers to the public consultation. Please use the tool below to vote to protect these laws.

UPDATE: The public consultation has been extended by two days, now closing SUNDAY. This is a huge opportunity to add more voices to the questionnaire. Please sign and share!