What are Ecosystem Services? 

The benefits we get from nature are often described as ‘ecosystem services’. Natural resources (such as food, timber and water) and functioning natural systems (such as healthy, fertile soils; clean water and air; and a regulated climate) are vital support services for our wellbeing and security, and are themselves sustained by biodiversity. 

Most people rightly believe in the innate value of nature and our strong moral responsibility to protect it. But the value of nature to our economy and society, and to our personal wellbeing, is also clearer than ever. Science, economics and social research have broken new ground, demonstrating that, year by year, the erosion of our natural environment is losing us benefits and generating costs. This knowledge must be the spur for a new policy direction, nationally and internationally.

Taking account of all the economic and non-economic benefits we get from these services enables decision- makers to exercise judgement about how we use our environment. Such an approach is often called an ‘ecosystems approach’.

The last Government White Paper on the natural environment, in 1990, established the foundation for environmental policies on matters as diverse as pollution and waste, planning and land use, wildlife and protected areas, and climate change. A lot has changed since then. The country has made great progress on some of the big environmental concerns of the time. Improvements have been made to the quality of our air and water, recycling rates, the state of our seas, environmental stewardship of farmland and the condition of our very best wildlife sites.

But addressing just one issue at a time will only get us so far, because it does not reflect the way that nature works as a system. Our natural environment has become increasingly fragmented and fragile.

We must rethink our relationship with nature and the way we value the benefits we get from it.

National Ecosystem Assessment

For more information >>  UK National Ecosystem Assessment: The Synthesis of Key Findings and Full Technical Report (2011)

The innovative UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) was published in June 2011. We are the first country to have undertaken a complete assessment of the benefits that nature provides, how they have changed over the past, the prospects for the future and their value to our society. The results of this research deserve to be widely known; they are the reason for many of the actions proposed in the Government's Natural Environment White Paper for England.

The NEA shows that ecosystems and the ways people benefit from them have changed markedly in the past 60 years, driven by societal changes such as population growth, increased living standards, technological developments and globalised consumption patterns. Our ecosystems are delivering some services well, but others are in decline. Through its analysis of their changing status, the NEA has identified broad habitats and ecosystem services where continuing pressures are causing deterioration in the benefits provided. Of the range of services provided by the eight broad aquatic and terrestrial habitat types in the UK, over 30% have been assessed as declining, often as a consequence of long-term declines in habitat extent or condition.

The NEA also underlines the importance of managing ecosystems in a more integrated fashion, to achieve a wider range of services and benefits. This means, for example, linking goals on wildlife, water, soil and landscape, and working at a scale that respects natural systems and the natural features supporting such systems.