Intermediate LEVEL CONTENTS
B.1 ) What are Ecosystem Services?
A large part of human life, including health and wellbeing, depends on services provided by ecosystems and their components: water, soil and organisms, but also landscapes and sceneries and other intangible elements present in nature which contribute to meeting intellectual and spiritual needs.
What are Ecosystem Services? How do they influence our life and well-being?
Presentation of the ES concept
The different typologies of Ecosystem Services
Provisioning ecosystem services
Nature provides food, raw materials and energy which are basics not only for our physical wellbeing but also as a basis for our economic activities in many sectors. Examples for these so-called provisioning services are timber from forests, water for human utilisation, biomasses from grasslands and agriculture, animal products such as milk, wool or meat.
Lastly, there are also intangible values which substantially contribute to human wellbeing and which rely on ecosystems and their interaction. Examples of such cultural services are:
- the beauty of mountain landscapes;
- the experience of nature;
- the inspiration and creativity or even spiritual experiences elicited by nature.
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What is the Ecosystem Services cascade?
Nevertheless, there are less visible ecosystem services consisting in processes that support or that create the conditions for production of the services we benefit from. For a better understanding of this chain, a theoretical model has been developed, identifying intermediate, or supporting, ecosystem services, final ecosystem services and goods and benefits. This model is called the cascade ecosystem services model and is represented in the following diagram:
In general, final ecosystem services are the things which directly produce goods and benefits consumed or used by humans. In economic valuations the contribution of these final services to benefits are counted. Whereas intermediate services are goods or services which are precursors of final ecosystem services. According to the previous example, the production of biomass for plant leaves is an intermediate service necessary for the production of apples.
What a final service might be can turn out ambiguous, since the same intermediate services may deliver different final services, such as in the example: an apple may be a provisioning service (food) and a cultural service (inspiration).
Final ecosystem services represent the most direct contributions of ecosystems to human wellbeing. However, they still retain a fundamental connection to the underlying ecosystem functions, processes and structures that generate them.
Although it is easier to focus on final ecosystem services, supporting or intermediate services are not unimportant. So in terms of a forward-looking environmental governance, intermediate services must be considered alongside final services, but clearly earmarked as such.
Services, goods and benefits
A crucial point when defining ecosystem services is to not mix them up with the goods and benefits they create. This distinction is also relevant to economic attempts to account for goods and benefits and to value them. Goods and benefits are defined as “things that people create or derive from final ecosystem services”. These final outputs from ecosystems have been turned into products or experiences that are no longer functionally connected to the systems from which they were derived. Goods and benefits may be referred to collectively as ‘products’.
Approaching the Ecosystem Services, interaction and dependencies
Often the approach to Ecosystem Services tends to isolate and consider only one service, thus failing to account for its interconnections with the rest of the system. Such an approach might cause unforeseen and damaging consequences. For example, excessive focus on maximising provisioning services has caused in the past decades the loss and degradation of biodiversity and other non-marketed ES, such as genetic resources or pollination.
To examine how different ecosystem services are interconnected, specific concepts are used: ‘trade-offs’, ‘synergies’ and ecosystem service “bundles or clusters’.
Trade-offs are commonly defined as an increase in one ecosystem service resulting in a reduction in another. For example, felling a forest to cultivate crops contributes to and increases food provision but reduces other benefits coming from the forest’s existence, such as carbon storage, air quality and flood regulation. Thus it is common to say that one ecosystem service is ‘traded off’ against others.
So, understanding trade-offs and synergies among ecosystem services is the paramount aspect of decision making in territorial development and environmental management, in order to reduce the damaging effects of focusing on a few services at the expense of others.
The ecosystem services considered by AlpES project