Nature – health, wealth and ecosystem services up for debate

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An understanding of the importance of natural services to human welfare is neither novel nor recent. The idea has been around for millennia. But over the past two decades, there has been an explosion of interest in the concept of ecosystem services.

Ecosystem services are the many different benefits that ecosystems provide to us. This list includes purifying air and water, detoxifying and decomposing waste, renewing soil fertility, regulating climate, mitigating droughts and floods, controlling pests, and pollinating vegetation – and they all underpin human society.

Intrinsic value of an apple

The idea of ecosystem services offers a way to reconceptualise our relationship with nature, since we have become increasingly disconnected from nature. How often, when we bite into a juicy apple do we pause to think about where it came from? We might look beyond the shop where it was purchased, we may think of soil and water, but it is unlikely we also consider the natural pollinators that fertilised the apple blossom. Recently many scientists, who often also believe in the intrinsic value of nature, advocate the ecosystem services concept as a strategy to help communicate the need for conservation by appealing to peoples’ own interests. Many people may agree, in a general sense, that nature is valuable. But isn’t the fact that pollination services across Europe are estimated to be worth 14 billion euro per year more persuasive?

“Our health, our wealth”

Economic valuation of ecosystems services can provide a useful tool for policymakers. Probably this is why the EU increasingly uses the ecosystem services approach in their thinking around how to to halt the decline biodiversity and as a cornerstone in the drive for sustainability in general. The need to assess the economic value of ecosystem services is stipulated in the EU Biodiversity Strategy. As a key part of Target 2, the approach forms part of the strategy to halt biodiversity loss by 2020.

Green Week, which starts today, will be an occasion to discuss the progress on such targets. This is the biggest annual conference on European environment policy. It is significant that the 2014 edition title was ‘Circular economy – saving resources, creating jobs’ and this year’s edition is named ‘Nature – our health, our wealth’.

In 2014, the word ‘economy’ was used in the titles of 18 (of the 41) panels, whereas this year the word ‘nature’ appears in the titles of 14 panels. Is this the result of a shift of EU approach towards a greater appreciation of nature and its benefits? Or only by linking these two concepts will we get the feel for emerging trends in European environmental policy? At any rate, in the upcoming Green Week discussions, there will be a lot of attention on ecosystem services and various tools to maximise synergies between the environment and the economy.

At the expense of conservation?

We already know that biodiversity positively affects ecosystem functioning. But does the high profile of ecosystem services guarantee protection of biodiversity? In practice, ecosystem services are used as a conservation goal at the expense of conservation focussed on specific habitats or species. In fact, most ecosystem services-based projects do not monitor whether their actions also safeguard biodiversity. There is still insufficient data to assess if the use of ecosystem services approach works to protect biodiversity. And the research which exists indicates that the connection is weak, which is a cause for concern.

It is vital to consider whether the ecosystem services concept is a viable surrogate for biodiversity conservation. Will sustaining the former conserve the latter? The answer to this question depends on answering another question, perhaps one that is now even more relevant for European policymakers: why do we believe that we should conserve biodiversity? Hopefully that is already partially transparent from the title of Green Week.

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