What are ‘ecosystem services’?

5 February 2014

Article by Katy Orford, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Image from Flickr bt Shari Hindman. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Image from Flickr bt Shari Hindman. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

The term ‘ecosystem service’ is commonly used in discussions of sustainable land management. This blog post aims to gives a brief overview of its meaning and discusses the economic value and conservation of ecosystem services.



An ecosystem is a community of plants, animals and smaller organisms that live, feed, reproduce and interact in the same area or environment.

Ecosystem service

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment states that ecosystem services are ‘the benefits provided by ecosystems that contribute to making human life both possible and worth living’.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and UK National Ecosystem Assessment distinguishes four categories of ecosystem services which are commonly used, where the ‘supporting services’ are regarded as the basis for the services of the other three categories;

Supporting services: ecosystem services “that are necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services” including soil formation, nutrient cycling, primary production

Provisioning services: “products obtained from ecosystems” including food, fresh water, fuel wood, fibres, biochemicals, genetic resources

Regulating services: “benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes” including climate regulation, disease regulation, water regulation, water purification, pollination

Cultural services: “nonmaterial benefits obtained from ecosystems” including spiritual and religious, recreation and ecotourism, aesthetic, inspirational, educational, sense of place, cultural heritage

Economic value of ecosystem services

In the last few years, a significant amount of work has been devoted to the monetary valuation of ecosystem services. Cultural services provided by ecosystems are one of the easiest services to valuate due to the direct income received from tourism and recreational activities. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment Technical Report states an average of £753 million per year is brought to Wales through tourism, with the wider impact of tourism estimated at around £4.2 billion in 2007 and supporting around 78,000 jobs. Recreational angling is valued at over £100 million to the Welsh economy.

Indirect evaluations can also be made, for example, research shows animal pollinators are essential for the pollination of 75% of crop species accounting for 35% of global crop-based food production with this service calculated to be worth £125 billion per year globally.

Conservation of ecosystem services

This unified approach linking fields of ecology and economics frames the measurement of environmental performance in an applied context and informs practical management to conserve and enhance the functionality of ecosystems for human gain.

Ecological research shows that it is becoming increasingly apparent that human activity is responsible for the on-going declines of species diversity which has negative implications for ecosystem services, potentially threatening our health, food supply and wellbeing. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment   reports that approximately 30% of ecosystem services are currently declining and need to be conserved. Following this increasing awareness, environmental policies, such as Glastir agri-environment schemes, have been adopted to attempt to reinstate and conserve existing ecosystem services.

Environmentalists argue that with human population growth and the associated demands on the natural environment, combined with climate change, there is added pressure to conserve ecosystem services.

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