Ecosystem services are the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems. Throughout history, humans have relied on goods and services provided by nature. However, appreciating nature and its importance in our everyday lives has, in most instances, been lacking. Ecosystem services can be grouped into four main categories, provision services, regulating services, cultural services, and supporting services. Provision services include products obtained from ecosystems such as wood, food, water, medicine, and genetic resources. Regulating services are benefits derived as a result of the regulation of ecosystem processes such as natural hazard regulation, climate regulation, waste management, water purification, and pest control. Cultural services consist of non-material benefits obtained from the ecosystem, including spiritual enrichment, recreation, and aesthetic benefits. Supporting services include pollination, nutrient cycling, soil formation, and habitat provision.
The realization that ecosystems provide multiple services to humans can be traced back to the time of Plato, who showed an understanding that deforestation could lead to the drying of springs and soil erosion. Experts believe that a modern understanding of ecosystem services began in 1864 with Marsh, who challenged the view that the Earth had infinite natural resources by citing examples such as the changes in soil fertility in the Mediterranean. His observations and warnings, however, went unnoticed for much of the 19th century. In the 1940s, three authors, Leopold, Osborn, and Vogt, also tried to increase societal awareness on humanity’s dependence on nature through the concept of “natural capital.” Paul Sears again highlighted the ecosystem’s critical role in society in 1956 by drawing attention to its role in processing wastes and recycling nutrients. In 1970, the term “environmental services” was used in a report on the Study of Critical Environmental Problems. The study recognized services such as insect pollination, climate regulation, flood control, and fisheries. Over the years, ecosystem services became the standard term used in science-related literature. More recent definitions of the concept of ecosystem services also include conservation and socio-economic objectives.
Understanding Ecosystem Services
To understand the importance of ecosystem services, one needs to know the underlying principles as wells as the interactions between organisms and the environment. The scales at which such interactions occur can vary from milliseconds to millions of years and from microbes to landscapes. The complexity of ecosystems is particularly challenging for scientists who try to understand the interwoven relationships among organisms, processes, and the environment. Concerning human ecology, several steps are followed when conducting research. They include identification of ESPs (Ecosystem Service Providers), including species that provide certain vital ecosystem services and determination of community structure and their influence on ESPs. Other steps include assessment of the leading environmental factors affecting provision services and the measurement of temporal and spatial scales that ESPs operate on. Most modern techniques, however, do not account for the interactions that make up the ecosystem. The available models can help us to get an understanding of an ecosystem’s resilience when faced with environmental change.
Importance Of Ecosystem Services
Quantifying the value of all ecosystem services can be a challenging task. There are, however, cases that can help us best understand the importance of ecosystem services. In the United States, crop pollination by bees helps in the production of about 15% to 30% of all food produced in the country. For instance, in New York City, the quality of drinking water had deteriorated below the standards required by the authorities. The revelation prompted the restoration of the polluted Catskill Watershed that had previously provided the ecosystem service of water purification. Once completed, the levels of water quality improved dramatically at a natural capital cost of between $1 billion and $1.5 billion. The cost is significantly lower than the estimated $6 to $8 billion that would have been required for the construction of a water filtration facility plus $300 million that would have been needed in annual running costs. In China, studies of the Yangtze River watersheds revealed that the value of conservation of forests for power services was 2.2 times greater than the value obtained from harvesting timber.
Experts believe that the best way we can stabilize the provision of ecosystem services is through biodiversity. Improving biodiversity is also likely to increase the variety of services available to society. Adequate knowledge of the relationship between ecosystem stability and biodiversity conservation is essential in the management of natural resources and derived services. There are different views on environmental preservation measures related to ecosystem services.
Ecological Redundancy Hypothesis
The ecological redundancy hypothesis is characterized by the assumption that particular species can increase its efficiency in providing environmental services under strenuous conditions, thus maintaining the overall stability of the ecosystem. The argument is often criticized as the dependence on a particular compensating species is likely to cause additional ecosystem stress and susceptibility to disturbance.
The rivet hypothesis is based on the analogy of rivets on an airplane wing. The analogy is used to explain the exponential effect of the loss of each organism on the functioning of ecosystems. Based on the hypothesis, the loss of every species leads to a reduction in the relative efficiency of the ecosystem. The large scale loss of species will, therefore, cause the collapse of the ecosystem. The theory emphasizes the critical and distinctive role played by each species.
The portfolio effect is an idea that equates biodiversity to stock holdings. The portfolio effect concept argues that diversification minimizes the volatility and mitigates the risk associated with an investment. In this case, such a strategy addresses the risks related to the stability of ecosystem services. The idea is related to the response diversity concept, which states that various species exhibit differential responses to particular ecological perturbation, hence the need to consider them together to create a stabilizing effect that ensures environmental services.
The management of ecosystems in the modern era is proving to be a daunting task due to competing interests. There is a need for defining problems and finding solutions that are both practical and sustainable. The solutions must also consider both present and future human needs. Existing policies in most countries are insufficient in dealing with challenges posed by environmental conservation. A significant number of countries have policies formulated on human health-based standards that are inadequate in the protection of ecosystems and the services that they provide. There is also the challenge posed by decision-makers acting on incomplete information. To improve the information available, experts have suggested the implementation of an Ecosystem Services Framework that integrates social-economic and biophysical dimensions in protecting the ecosystem. Such a framework could also help in the formulation of strategic decisions. Local and regional conservation efforts are also required to help stem the continued environmental degradation. Increased public awareness of the importance of ecosystems is also needed.
Other innovative approaches to ecosystem conservation include payment and trading in services where one can get credits for efforts aimed at conservation. For example, a company or an individual can get credits to funding the restoration of ecosystem service providers. Efforts are underway to establish an efficient banking system that handles the credits. There are, however, concerns that such transactions could suffer from inconsistent compensation. Other approaches are focused on the preservation of ecosystem service “hotspots.” The merging of conservation measures aimed at ensuring the stability of ecosystem services with traditional environment conservation could also lead to economies of scales in conservation efforts.
The Economic Value Of Ecosystem Services
The economic value of ecosystem services is still a widely debated topic. Some members of our society are unaware of the interrelatedness between our livelihoods and the natural environment. Such lack of information consequently leads to misconceptions about the issue. Environmental awareness, however, is on the rise. More people are beginning to take a stand on environmental matters. Despite the significant success in creating awareness, conservationists and scientists are still struggling to translate their observations into economics. Helping decision-makers in society understand the benefits gained from conservation versus the cost are becoming increasingly important. Efforts to sensitize decision-makers involve translating key scientific knowledge to economics that emphasizes the consequences of human choices in analogous units of impacts on humans.
There is, therefore, a need for evaluation using weighting factors such as bundled services and service irreplaceability to allocate economic value to services is necessary. Today there are six methods for the monetary valuation of ecosystem services. They include avoided costs, replacement costs, factor income, travel cost, contingent valuation, and hedonic pricing. Avoided costs are costs that would have been incurred when ecosystem services are lacking (for example, health expenses that are avoided). Replacement costs refer to expenses that would be incurred is replaced by human-made systems (for example, costs that would be incurred in establishing a water purification facility). Factor incomes are enhanced incomes as a result of ecosystem services (for instance, improved fisheries due to better water quality). Travel costs refer to costs individuals are willing to incur, as is the case with ecotourism. Hedonic pricing refers to prices people are willing to pay for associated goods (for example, the pricing of beach houses). Contingent valuation involves the valuation of alternatives generated as a result of hypothetical scenarios.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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