3. Ecosystem Services

Author: Claire Brown (UNEP-WCMC) 
Contributors: Peter Damerell (Beijing Forestry University), Jenny Birch (BirdLife), Sharon Brooks (UNEP-WCMC) and Nathalie Doswald (UNEP-WCMC)

The natural functioning of the Earth’s ecosystems provides services (MA 2005) and constitutes the foundation upon which human existence is based (Costanza et al. 1997). Biodiversity is known to underpin these ecosystem services, which inter alia, include: 1) provisioning services that provide potable water, food, fibre and medicine; 2) regulating services which control our climate, disease vectors, crop pests and pollinators; 3) cultural services that influence our beliefs, traditions and provide enjoyment opportunities; and 4) supporting services that underpin life on Earth through the cycling of nutrients, soil formation and photosynthesis (MA 2005).  A defining characteristic of ecosystem services is the provision of benefits to humans.  These can be delivered directly to local communities and wider society (e.g. fresh water and liveable climate), as well as through the business operations that utilize natural ecosystems to produce goods and services delivered locally and globally.  One widely-cited study calculated the value of the world’s ecosystems at $33 trillion per year (Costanza et al. 1997).  While this study has since suffered criticism for its approach and methodology, it nevertheless attracted the attention of policy makers and governments.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA 2005) proposed a conceptual framework, which has become widely used and adopted, that describes the services that ecosystems provide and how they contribute to human well-being. Since then, ecosystem services and their underlying biodiversity have risen up the policy agenda at national and international level, and are increasingly incorporated into business standards.

This anthropocentric argument for conserving nature is one that resonates with politicians and decision-makers, and can help to bolster advocacy for the more effective conservation of biodiversity.  Human lifestyles impact ecosystem services at all scales (MA 2005), most significantly through the consumption of goods and services.  As a provider of these, the private sector is a key player in the ecosystem services debate.  The nature and impact of their operations are highly variable and dependent on the environmental management systems in place.

Almost one third of the Earth’s ecosystems have been transformed or destroyed.  Much of the remaining two thirds are heavily fragmented and disturbed, or suffering from invasive species and pollution.  As a result over 60% of ecosystems services are considered degraded (Nellemann and Corcoran 2010). The main drivers of this degradation are the same as those which impact biodiversity most severely (as discussed in Chapter 2). It has been shown that impacting biodiversity can reduce the ability of ecosystems to provided beneficial services (Cardinale et al. 2000).  Feedback loops between biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation resulting from common drivers can therefore cause severe reductions the provision of services (Díaz et al. 2006).  For example, degraded ecosystems are less able to mitigate the effects of climate change, and furthermore contribute to greenhouse gas emissions  (Campbell et al. 2009).  Climate change, as discussed in Chapter 4, is already recognised as a major modifier of ecosystem functions: without a concerted global effort, its influence on global life support systems looks set to continue (MA 2005).

The modification of natural systems to optimise the provision of single services, such as food production, is another key cause for reductions in the provision of ecosystem services.  Such reductions are most frequently shifted to those who do not receive the benefits of the modifications, typically the poor or marginalised, or are otherwise deferred to the future (MA 2005).

For ecosystem services to be maintained and to continue delivering benefits to humanity, it is essential that they are incorporated into decision-making.  This requires reliable, up-to-date information on statuses and trends and the potential impacts of different decisions.  Assessments like the MA have been undertaken at the sub-global level for a number of countries.  There are also various efforts to provide tools to measure and model ecosystem services (Nelson et al. 2009) and to incorporate ecosystem services into decision-making (Cowling et al. 2008).  Furthermore, ecosystem services are increasingly integrated into standards for business operations (e.g. IFC performance standard 6) and reporting and disclosure (GRI 2011).

There are a number of business-orientated efforts to improve the management of ecosystem services, in response to the significant role businesses play in causing changes to their availability and delivery.  Key to these efforts is the identification of a company’s dependence on particular services, as well as potential impacts of their operations on natural ecosystems that provide services to other beneficiaries.  These impacts and dependencies translate into business risks and opportunities, thereby incentivising better management of ecosystem services.  For example, identifying how a company’s operations depend upon particular ecosystem services enables improved management, mitigating the operational risks associated with any loss or reduction in those services (see SAB Miller case study).

The science around ecosystem services, their mapping, measuring and modelling is relatively new and much is not yet known.  However, there have been some very interesting developments including spatially explicit tools for mapping ecosystem service stocks and flows, for example the modelling approaches taken by InVEST and ARIES (see key tools).  New tools are emerging in this rapidly-evolving field as new levels of understanding and application of ecosystem services are reached (BSR 2011).  Of all the ecosystem services, the provision of water has received the most attention, in part because the processes underlying water regulation and purification are better understood and the benefits are easier to measure.  It is also a very important service for many private and public sector operations.  As a result it is the focus of a number of tools, including the WBCSD Global Water Tool (see key tools).

Case Studies 

Restoring Lake Hong for fisheries, biodiversity and water provision

Lake Hong in the Yangtze has been transformed from an over-exploited lake system to a RAMSAR site, by restoring the natural flora and fauna.  By the 1990s 43% of the local fish species were gone or very scarce and 70% of the lake was fully fenced with fishing nets. A pilot project in 2003 implemented tailored interventions (selective removal of fishing nets, reintroduction of local fish species, planting of aquatic grasses) to address this ecological crisis. As a result, water quality increased from grade V (agricultural use only) to grade II (suitable for drinking after simple treatment) and the incomes of some fish farmers tripled over a three year period. Migratory bird species, including the Purple Swamphen and the globally endangered Oriental White Stork, have returned after a 20 year absence. This success helped to secure substantial funding from the Hubei provincial government, to expand restoration activities. Lake Hong subsequently won a Best Practice of Lake Protection award at the eleventh Living Lakes Conference, and was designated a RAMSAR site in 2008. (see Nelleman and Corcoran 2010).

Key Messages: 

  • Ecosystem services are the processes and resources provided by ecosystems, such as clean drinking water and the formation of fertile soil, which benefit people and are linked to human well-being.
  • Ecosystem services are currently being degraded worldwide by the same drivers that impact biodiversity most severely.
  • Ecosystem services are increasingly recognised as important in decision-making, by governments; businesses and other stakeholders whose policies and operations both impact and depend upon them. Novel tools are being developed for these audiences, to measure and model ecosystem services.
  • Trade-offs are inherent in ecosystem service delivery:  Improving the delivery of one service may have a negative impact on another.


Key Questions:

  1. How can the links between biodiversity and ecosystem service provision best be understood?
  2. Is it possible to map, measuring and monitor the full sequence of an ecosystem service, from its condition and function to the demand and benefit received?
  3. How can the best management strategies for ecosystem services be determined?


Key Tools:


InVEST: Integrated Valuation of Environmental Services and Trade-offs A family of tools to map and value ecosystem services, enabling decision makers to assess the trade-offs associated with alternative choices.

ARIES: ARtificial Intelligence for Ecosystem Assessment Online modelling platform to map the potential provision of ecosystem services, their users and biophysical features that can deplete service flows. Designed to operate with scarce or uncertain data.


Information and Data

Ecosystem service valuation Information on ecosystem valuation and its importance, including benefit estimation, valuation methods, benefit indicators and practical considerations.

Ecosystem Service Indicators Database Database of ES metrics and indicators for use in policy dialogs and decisions, in ecosystem assessments, and in natural resource management decisions.

Ecosystems and Human Well-being – A Manual for Assessment Practitioners A practical guide for undertaking ecosystem assessments. Includes tools and approaches that can assess options for better managing ecosystems.

Ecosystem Services: A Guide for Decision Makers Designed to enable decision makers to effectively link ecosystems and economic development.

Measuring and Monitoring Ecosystem Services at the Site Scale A toolkit for measuring ecosystem services at the site scale. It is accessible to non-experts and delivers scientifically robust results.

Guide to Corporate Ecosystem valuation (CEV) A framework for improving corporate decision-making through valuing ecosystem services



Guidance Manual for the Valuation of Regulating Services A tool for estimating the economic value of regulating ecosystem services. For practitioners in environmental economics, but accessible to other potential users.

Business Ecosystems Training (BET) A freely-available capacity building program to equip companies to measure, manage and mitigate their impact and dependence on ecosystems and the services they provide.

Global Water Tool A tool for companies and organizations to map their water use and assess risks relative to their global operations and supply chains.

Ecosystem Services Benchmark A tool to evaluate investment risk and opportunity associated with biodiversity and ecosystem services impacts and dependence in the food, beverage and tobacco sector.

Corporate Ecosystem Services Review (ESR) A structured methodology for corporate managers to proactively develop strategies for managing business risks and opportunities arising from their company’s dependence and impact on ecosystems.

Key References:

Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) (2011) New Business Decision-Making Aids in an era of Complexity, Scrutiny, and Uncertainty.  Tools for identifying, Assessing, and Valuing Ecosystem Services.  New York: BSR’s Ecosystem Services, Tools and markets Working Group.

Campbell, A., Kapos, V., Scharlemann, J. P. W., Bubb, P., Chenery, A., Coad, L., Dickson, B., Doswald, N., Khan, M. S. I., Kershaw, F. and Rashid, M. (2009) Review of the Literature on the Links between Biodiversity and Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation and Mitigation. Montreal: Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (Technical Series 42).

Cardinale, B.J., Nelson, K. and Palmer, M.A. (2000) Linking species diversity to the functioning of ecosystems: on the importance of environmental context. Oikos 91: 175–83.

Costanza, R., d’ Arge, R., De Groot, R., Farber, S., Grasso, M., Hannon, B., Limburg, K., et al. (1997) The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387(6630): 253-260.

Cowling, R. M., Egoh, B., Knight, A. T., O’Farrell, P. J., Reyers, B., Rouget, M., Roux, D. J., et al. (2008) An operational model for mainstreaming ecosystem services for implementation. Proc. Natn.  Acad.  Sci. U.S.A., 105(28): 9483-9488.

Díaz, S., Fargione, J., Chapin, F. S., and Tilman, D. (2006) Biodiversity loss threatens human well-being. PLoS biology, 4(8): e277.

Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) (2011) Approach for reporting on ecosystem services.  Incorporating ecosystem servcies into an organization’s performance disclosure.  Amsterdam: Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and CREM.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) (2005) Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Nellemann, C. and Corcoran ,E., eds. (2010) Dead Planet, Living Planet – Biodiversity and Ecosystem Restoration for Sustainable Development. A Rapid Response Assessment. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme.

Nelson, E., Mendoza, G., Regetz, J., Polasky, S., Tallis, H., Cameron, Dr., Chan, K. M., et al. (2009) Modelling multiple ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation, commodity production, and tradeoffs at landscape scales. Front. Ecol. Environ., 7: 4–11.

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Photo:  Michael Foley Photography; flickr.com

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