B.1 ) What are Ecosystem Services?


Learning Objectives

  • Knowing what an ecosystem service is with reference to EU definition
  • Learning the different classes of ecosystem services
  • Approaching the connections between ecosystem services, such as trade-offs and synergies
Ecosystem service is a concept developed to support our understanding of human uses and management of natural resources.

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?

Ecosystem services are services which nature provides us with and which contribute to human wellbeing. Often this natural contribution is interwoven with human labour or other forms of intervention.

There are other definitions of ecosystem service that can contribute to the understanding of what they are:

  • Ecosystem services are the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems;
  • Ecosystem services are direct and indirect contributions to human wellbeing

First of all, we have to know that ecosystem services depend on the ecosystems which are present around us. Ecosystems include both living things (plants, animals and organisms) and non-living elements of the environment (weather, water, soil, climate, atmosphere, etc.) interacting reciprocally. We often define living things as the biotic part of ecosystems, while the non-living part is called the abiotic one.

Despite the importance of ecosystem services for our wellbeing and our economy, we are often unaware, in our daily life, of what is depending on them. We may appreciate their importance through simple examples like the one in the following image.

So ecosystem services provide us not only with goods and materials, but also contribute largely to our health and wellbeing both physical and spiritual.

Presentation of the ES concept

The different typologies of Ecosystem Services

Within the complexity of the environment surrounding us, three great classes of ecosystem services have been identified. This classification is useful to a good understanding of them and their relationship with us.

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.

Regulating ecosystem services

Ecosystems also regulate many processes which manage the amount of water and the quality of soil, water, air or the conditions for the existence of plants and animals. Examples of this kind of regulating service are:

  • the regulation of water discharge through retention in wetlands,
  • the regulation of air pollution through vegetation;
  • the regulation of soil quality through buffering in soil layers.
Cultural ecosystem services

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?

As humans, we appreciate fundamentally the goods and benefits produced by ecosystems, such as the good health affected by clean atmosphere or the pleasure of contemplating a natural landscape, and we give value to tangible services, such as food and biomasses but also flood protection, etc.

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 the Ecosystem Services cascade model, the interaction of biophysical structures, processes and functions within ecosystems delivers final ecosystem services. These contribute in the form of benefits to human wellbeing, and their values are appreciated both in social and sometimes also in economic terms. As an example: the process of soil genesis delivers biophysical and biotic structures which are preconditions for the growing of an apple tree. The functions of photosynthesis and nutrient intake allow biomass production. The pollination of apple blossoms is an ecosystem service which results in the growing of apples. The apples provide different benefits to people such as food, health (vitamins) and pleasure.

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

It is fundamental to consider Ecosystem Services as part of an interrelated system. In each environment surrounding us there are multiple services, intermediate and final, and there are complex links between biodiversity and ecosystem services.

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.

Synergies are a good example of ecosystem service interconnections. They occur where increases in one ecosystem service are coupled with increases in another. This happens in several situations, e.g. when the regulating service pollination contributes to increasing the provisioning service crop production. Another example is the synergy between soil erosion control and crop production. Usually erosion results in a loss of the more fertile soil, reducing yields. The control and mitigation of erosion phenomena means maintaining soil productivity and thus ensuring a better supply of crops (provision). Measures to prevent soil erosion might address additional synergies when, for example, they involve planting or protecting vegetation along river banks, which can in turn boost water purification (regulating) and might create a pleasant landscape for tourism (cultural).
An ecosystem service bundle, or cluster, is defined as a “set of ecosystem services that repeatedly occur together across space or time”. A simple example is given by forests which provide timber (provision) carbon sequestration (regulation) and the possibility of pursuing outdoor activities (cultural). It will be interesting to find out how many ecosystem service bundles are present in the Alps.

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

The AlpES project has a specific focus on the Alpine area and it aims to provide knowledge for current policies at European level. For this reason, it has considered the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES) system, which has been developed for environmental accounting purposes, classifying the different types of ecosystem services. CICES is a reference when studying and analysing ecosystem services and it provides a logical scheme to classify them within the major classes of supporting, provisioning and culture, but also within more detailed categorizations.