A FRESH look at ecosystem services

Yesterday the BES Policy Team attended a very interesting symposium at the Royal Geographical Society, London, organised by the University of Nottingham. Over two years, an interdisciplinary programme of seminars has been funded by NERC and ESRC, aiming to encourage new understanding of the links between ecosystem services and human well-being. Yesterday’s conference brought together the various sub-themes which have been running as part of this ‘FRESH’ series (Framing Ecosystem Services and Human Well-Being) and saw a large number of participants from policy, social science, economics, consultancy and natural science come together to discuss the series’ findings.

There was much discussion about whether an ‘ecosystem approach’ offers a paradigm shift in conservation. The audience didn’t reach consensus on this, with some suggesting that yes, this is a shift in conservation science and policy from a piecemeal view – individual species and habitats – to a holistic approach. Others felt that integrated natural resource management had been pursued for some time and that lessons could be learned from this to inform an ecosystem approach. There was a feeling that the ‘ecosystem approach’ and its related terminology must not complicate approaches already being taken to conserve the environment, particularly in developing countries. It must map onto what it already happening and provide a framework for existing efforts – not impose an additional burden.

The audience agreed that there was value in the ecosystem services concept: it allows effective transdisciplinary communication, is linked to end-users and can foster improved public/ political understanding. In the words of one presenter, the ecosystem approach ‘links intangible science to tangible benefits from ecosystems’.

For all that, there is still a gap between theory and policy – with policy running someway ahead of the science behind an ecosystem approach – and between science, policy and action. A question was asked from the audience in the afternoon’s discussion, ‘what’s the case record on ecosystem services research informing decision making?’, to which Defra replied that policy is still in a learning phase, collecting case studies to assess how an ecosystem approach might work effectively. Steve Bass, Senior Fellow at the IIED and a member of the afternoon’s panel, suggested that a far simpler framework was needed to translate the ecosystem appproach into real benefits for the world’s poor. Characterising ecosystem services as ‘poverty-environment links’ might help to reduce confusion around the concept and stimulate funding for implementation.

The day closed with a presentation from Paul Ekins, an ecological economist at University College London. He offered a warning to those pushing firmly for the valuation of ecoystem services, so-called ‘commodity fetishism’. If the environment is regarded as only having an economic value, it will be traded off. This is why economic values were invented, to allow trade. Resolving the current environmental crisis will require a recognition that environmental sustainability has both a high economic and a high moral value.

For more information about FRESH visit the website.