Valuing Ecosystem Services – Not Currently Practical?

A conference was held on Wednesday 24th March on the subject of Ecosystem Services, organised by the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management.

Prof. Bob Watson from Defra gave an opening presentation explaining how ecosystem services underpin sustainable development, and talked about the current emphasis on valuation of ecosystem services, using non-market values as well as market values. He identified the key challenge in this process as gaining the required understanding of natural science, since we already have the economic framework to be able to implement this process.

The overall impression from presentations by the other speakers at the conference was that although the ecosystem services approach can be successfully applied, valuation of ecosystems may not be practical or useful at the current time. A bottom-up participatory approach, which links land owners to beneficiaries of ecosystem services appeared to be an effective way of using the ecosystem services approach.

In particular, Peter Glaves from Northumbria University and Dave Egan from Sheffield Hallam University talked about a pilot project on “Valuing Ecosystem Services in the East of England”. They proposed a three level approach to evaluating ecosystem services, ranging from qualitative (identifying ecosystem services), then semi-quantitative, and finally fully qualitative. They concluded that the third level, involving valuation, is not practical at a local level at the moment, but the overall ecosystem services approach is useful when applied in a user-friendly and participatory way. In addition, Stewart Clarke from Natural England told us that pilot studies carried out through the “Delivering Nature’s Services” programme have shown that the ecosystem services approach can be practically implemented through building good relationships between land managers and beneficiaries of services.

A useful scenario demonstrating the potential risk of applying valuation mechanisms through the ecosystem services approach was mentioned by Diana Pound from Dialogue Matters. If an area of wetland filters nutrients from water, this ecosystem will be valued highly for the service it provides, but enrichment can be damaging to the natural habitat. If water treatment processes improve the quality of water input, the value of the wetland could become worthless because it would no longer be providing the service, but in fact the wetland would be in a better environmental condition.

The general consensus was that valuation of ecosystems could be a useful tool in the ecosystem services approach but it needs to be applied with care when there is sufficient scientific understanding to do so. In the meantime, the ecosystem services approach can be successfully used through managing relationships between service providers and beneficiaries.