Ecosystem services or ecosystem shame?

By Dr Hannah Grist, Communications Representative, Scottish Policy Group

This month heralds the event that everyone has been waiting for and looking forward to all year: yes, the BES annual meeting is nearly upon us. However, it’s not all Christmas jumpers and fun runs: somewhere in among there are some serious workshops on some timely issues.

As 2015 draws to a close and world leaders meet in Paris to discuss climate commitments, there is time to step back and reflect on the wider picture for ecology and conservation. Many policy documents and targets drawn up over the past few years have had the catchy “2020” somewhere in the title, partially a reflection on the timing of achievable change, and partly because one should never waste a pithy headline opportunity. Yet with five years to go until the deadline, how far do we have to go, and, perhaps more importantly, are we taking the right approach?

At the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in 2010, the findings were that the targets set for 2010 had not been achieved at the global level, and the diversity of species and ecosystems continued to decline. One of the problems identified was an “insufficient integration of biodiversity issues into broader policies, strategies and actions (1)”, and in particular a lack of connection at the policy level between biodiversity and human wellbeing. The solution to this problem was to set the direction for the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity as “Living in harmony with nature, where biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people (1).”

For conservationists, these words have often been approached with mixed feelings. On a fundamental level, it is hard to argue with the principles of the ecosystem approach: that humans are an integral part of the ecosystem, and our impacts upon and uses of the environment cannot be considered a separate issue from biodiversity conservation. There are many arguments about where the balance should lie between human development and environmental protection, but recognising that it is indeed a balance is an important first step, and one that has yet to be recognised fully across policies and management in any country.

It is the focus on ecosystem services as a method for achieving integration that rings alarm bells for many. Ecosystem services were conceived as a method of categorising the ways humans benefit from healthy and functioning ecosystems, including provision of clean air and water, decomposition of waste and regulation of climate (2). Increasingly, it has become linked with the idea that it is possible to put an actual financial value on these services, to the extent that it is possible to put a global price on the environment (3). Whether or not the total value assessment is valid, the concept that the environment can be brought into the marketplace has been widely adopted as a basis for policies on a range of issues, including biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation (4).

Ecosystem services were originally promoted by conservationists as a way to categorise the tangible benefits of the environment to policymakers, rather than relying on abstract notions of intrinsic value. However, it is possible that, by framing the debate in terms purposefully designed to be familiar and meaningful to proponents of neoliberal ideology, the concept has become a victim of its own success. Increasingly, there are discussions about whether a focus on ecosystem services is actually detrimental to biodiversity, particularly if biological conservation is framed as a beneficial side effect of effective ecosystem services management and not as a goal in its own right (5).

It is a contentious issue- and an important one- and it will inevitably play out for a considerable time. However, if we are to meet the targets set out in the European Biodiversity Strategy and subsequent national strategies on biodiversity to halt species and habitat loss, we will need to use the most effective methods available. There is therefore an urgent need for focused discussion on the benefits and pitfalls, and even more importantly, further evidence as to whether this approach actually delivers effective biodiversity conservation (6).

To this end, the BES Scottish Policy Group, in conjunction with the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy’s Science and Technical Group, has organised a workshop at BES 2015 on “Do ecosystem approaches deliver biodiversity conservation?” If you’re interested in and motivated by this topic, please come along and let us know your opinions and thoughts. The workshop will be taking place at 13:15 on Tuesday 15th December in the Lammermuir Suite.

1 Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (2010). The Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Nagoya, Japan.

2 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press.

3 Costanza, R. et al. (1997) The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature, 387, 253–260.

4 Hicks, C. et al. (2014) The relationship between biodiversity, carbon storage and the provision of other ecosystem services. Critical Review for the International Climate Fund, UK.

5 Mace, G.M. et al. (2012). Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: a Multi-layered Relationship. TREE, 27, 19-26

6 Silvertown, J. (2015) Have ecosystem services been oversold? TREE, 30, 641 – 648