Overview of Ecosystem Services Research
Ecosystem services is a term that finds it roots in the disciplines of ecology and economics. It developed in contemporary literature as authors wrestled with the question of how natural resources and the processes they support should be considered within economic frameworks. Several terms similar to ‘ecosystem services’ started to be used in the 60’s and 70’s, such as ‘nature’s services’ and ‘natural capital’. However, the first authors to use the exact term ‘ecosystem services’ were Ehrlich and Ehrlich in 1981. At this time, the concept was mainly used in academic settings as a teaching tool and had not entered the regulatory lexicon, let alone general public use.
That changed in 1997 when the publication of a major paper attempting to value global natural capital and ecosystem services. Finding that even with the crude measurements used at the time, the value of global ecosystem services was likely much greater than the global economy, this paper generated international interest in the concept of ecosystem services and kicked off several decades of academic and government interest.
At the time, the authors defined ecosystem services as “…the benefits that human populations derive, directly or indirectly, from ecosystem functions,” Costanza 1997. Since then, multiple competing definitions have emerged in the literature, often tweaked to address specific environmental or economic considerations. Braat et al. compiled a few such definitions and their sources:
- Ecosystem Services are the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and the species that make them up. sustain and fulfill human life. Daily 1997
- Ecosystem Services are the benefits human populations derive, directly or indirectly, from ecosystem functions. Costanza et al. 1997
- Ecosystem Services are the benefits people obtain from ecosystems. WRI 2005
- Ecosystem Services are components of nature, directly enjoyed, consumed, or used to yield human well-being. Boyd and Banzhaf 2007
- Ecosystem Services are the aspects of ecosystems utilised (actively or passively) to produce human well-being. Fisher et al. 2009
- Ecosystem Services are the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being. TEEB Foundation 2010
Since its popularization, the concept of ecosystem services has made it into a number of major environmental and economic projects. The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) conducted under the United Nations Environment Programme is one such example as is The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB) created by the European Commission. Eventually an effort was made to create a uniform set of classifications for ecosystem services via the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES). These were meant to ensure scientific validity of classifications and enough standardization to be useful for natural capital accounting projects. The U.S. Environment Protection Agency created its own, similar classification systems, the Final Ecosystem Goods and Services Classification System and the National Ecosystem Services Classification System. See Costanza’s side by side comparison of classification systems below.
It is important to remember that defining and classifying ecosystem services is a different task than valuing and or managing for maximum ecosystem services. Many classifications give us a theoretical understanding of the service, but significant challenges in measuring them on the ground in any given context still exist. Further, assigning economic or other diverse types of value a specific measured service presents its own challenges, which can be further complicated if certain types of natural capital produce multiple services.
Costanza, R., De Groot, R., Braat, L., Kubiszewski, I., Fioramonti, L., Sutton, P., Grasso, M. (2017). Twenty years of ecosystem services: How far have we come and how far do we still need to go? Ecosystem Services, 28, 1-16. doi:10.1016/j.ecoser.2017.09.008
Costanza, R., dArge, R., de Groot, R., Farber, S., Grasso, M., Hannon, B., Limburg, K., Naeem, S., Oneill, R.V., Paruelo, J., Raskin, R.G., Sutton, P., van den Belt, M., 1997. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387 (6630), 253–260.
Gómez-Baggethun, Erik, et al. “The History of Ecosystem Services in Economic Theory and Practice: From Early Notions to Markets and Payment Schemes.” Ecological Economics, vol. 69, no. 6, 2010, pp. 1209–1218., doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2009.11.007.
Braat, L.C., de Groot, R., 2012. The ecosystem services agenda: bridging the worlds of natural science and economics, conservation and development, and public and private policy. Ecosyst. Serv. 1 (1), 4–15.