The whole concept of ecosystem services has become much-chattered about in policy circles over the last decade even though the person on the Clapham omnibus would probably glaze over at the mention of it.

Ecosystem services are those useful things that are provided by the natural world that benefit us and that therefore have a value even if that value is often not taken into account in our financial transacations. At one extreme, the pleasure you get from seeing a blue tit come to your bird feeder is an ecosystem service but we are more often talking  about things like carbon storage in peat bogs or ordinary soils, water being cleansed as it passes through a reedbed or flood alleviation provided by wetlands.

So a peat bog on top of a Welsh hill may be a poor place to practise agriculture, only good for a few sheep to graze, but it may be storing significant amounts of carbon (which, if released, would slightly worsen climate change all over the world) and it may act as a slow-release sponge thus reducing the flood risk for someone living in far-away Shrewsbury.  The Welsh hill farmer gets paid for the sheep but gains no reward from the world for storing carbon, nor from the inhabitants of Shrewsbury for helping to keep their living rooms flood-free.  And that means that if he (or she) were able to drain that peat bog they might increase their income from lamb sales even if it reduced those non-market, non-paid for, ecosystem services.  You can see that the 'free' services that might be lost may be greater than the finacial gain to the sheep farmer but that won't 'count' in the way that individual economic decisions are made unless we put some sort of a value on the services.  That might mean paying the hill farmer for the carbon benefits and flood-reduction benefits so that 'we' don't lose them.

If that peat bog is the home to Wales's last breeding dunlin then we could see that taking account of the carbon storage and water services would be a good way to save some wildlife too.  If we valued the carbon and water then we don't need to persuade people to value the dunlin too - the dunlin get a free ride.  So that's what makes this way of thinking attractive to nature conservationists, on a good day.  Because, many natural habitats provide significant ecosystem services to humanity that we don't currently value properly we treat destroying nature as being without cost.  If only we valued it better then we would have less destruction.  It's absolutely true, and on a good day, well worth promoting.

On a bad day, this approach doesn't necessarily deliver quite what we would like.  The Welsh hill farmer may find that he (or she) could drain the peatbog (bye, bye dunlin), plant it with conifers (replacing the carbon storage elements lost from the peat) and have a lake and a dam downstream to control water flows (thus replacing the flood mitigation services of the peat too).  Stock the lake with fish and open the forest up to a car rally every year and you may be in clover even if not in peat.

I think that the ecosystem services approach is a good one - but best if I am in charge of it.  In the wrong hands it can lead to almost as much ecological damage as not taking these services into account.  Well, maybe that is overstating things, but I hope you can see that whilst there is great overlap between nature conservation and ecosystem service conservation, the overlap is not total.

Many of the species we love - and I use that word deliberately - are just the icing on the ecosystem services cake and therefore may not count for much even when ecosystem services do.  You can save the rainforest without saving the tiger and the disappearance of the corncrake, and now the drastic reduction of many other farmland birds, insects and plants, is not prejudicing food production.

The ecosystem services weapon is a two-edged sword.  In the right hands, valuing carbon may help to protect ancient woodlands, in the wrong hands it may lead to the planting of wildlife deserts of conifers in the wrong places. 

Clearly, the right hands would be mine, or yours, or other right-thinking people's hands.  But when we get into putting a price on things we are potentially walking into HM Treasury's territory.  Just as focussing on money can lead to a poorer world, so in the wrong hands might focussing on the value of ecosystem services.  Beware the blunt policy instrument.

Having said that, I see there being big potential advantages for nature if we value it more.  So rather than shrink away, nature conservationists must get involved in the discussions.  There are opportunities to save a bit more of the natural world around us by valuing it properly.

A love of the natural world demonstrates that a person is a cultured inhabitant of planet Earth.

  • All - many thanks for great comments

    Sooty - well said indeed.

    Tiger - Welcome to the RSPB Community and to this (soon to end) blog.  Those are great comments and you appear very well informed on this subject.  And you put your fingeron one of the issues - is nature conservation for us or for nature?  

    A love of the natural world demonstrates that a person is a cultured inhabitant of planet Earth.

  • Unless we all live a more simple lifestyle it is inevitable things will go from worse to even worse and all this talk is just hot air unless you can convince the majority of the population to do something about it.Those of you with big aspirations are a credit but sadly you are ahead of your time but you do have my admiration.

  • Hi Mark,

    Glad you seem to like the "ecosystem service" approach, and see the value of valuation. I'd tentatively suggest you could like it even more...!?

    The issue about the dunlin versus the carbon, and conservation suffering at the hands of more marketable environmental goods, is not a problem for the ES approach in general, but rather a problem with being able to adequately and accurately value different types of services.

    "Regulating" services, such as water purification and carbon sequestration, are becoming more and more measurable, and therefore easier to value. So even though they have been left out in the cold by the short-sighted and market-based approach to public policy that we have seen dominate in the UK in past years, they have a fair chance of being better represented in decision making processes in the future. So-called "cultural" services, including the joy we get from blue-tits coming to our feeders, are a different story in terms of being able to measure the service, or quantify the benefits we receive.

    If we had secure and comprehensive ways of measuring and comparing all types of ESs, and the benefits people receive, then I dont think it would matter whose hands these tools were in. We would be blessed with a sure-fire way to assess how the environment contributes to our wellbeing, and set policy based on that wondrous well of information.

    This is a pretty monumental IF, but with advances in envrionmental economics, and perhaps better metrics for biodiversity and cultural services (to supplement the rather blunt common metric of cold hard cash), who knows.

    One broader query about this though, because I think this is the real issue many conservationists have with the ES approach. Are we doing conservation for the benefit of humans at all? If not, and species and habitats should be preserved for their own sake, or because humans have a moral responsibility to be environmental stewards, then the ES (and economic) framework can only ever go so far in making the case.

    Either way there are plenty of win wins to be had yet, and the ES approach can help find common ground around sustainability and environmental measures between people with a broad range of over-arching morals and principles, so go Ecosystem Services!

  • Hi Nyati

    "Question how can the farmer make a mixed system pay?"

    It ain't gonna happen!

    RSPB members? Get used to it!  It ain't gomna happen?

    Why should it?

    You want bitterns?  Forget it!

    You want skylarks?  What's it worth?