Ecosystem services: in what way parks and forests save your money

    16 Jun 2021

    Ecosystem services are the many and varied benefits to humans provided by the natural environment and from healthy ecosystems. Such ecosystems include, for example, agroecosystems, forest ecosystems, grassland ecosystems and aquatic ecosystems.

    These ecosystems, functioning in healthy relationships, offer such things like natural pollination of crops, clean air, extreme weather mitigation, and human mental and physical well-being. Collectively, these benefits are becoming known as ‘ecosystem services’, and are often integral to the provisioning of clean drinking water, the decomposition of wastes, and resilience and productivity of food ecosystems.

    While scientists and environmentalists have discussed ecosystem services implicitly for decades, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) in the early 2000s popularized this concept. There, ecosystem services are grouped into four broad categories:

    ·        provisioning, such as the production of food and water;

    ·        regulating, such as the control of climate and disease;

    ·        supporting, such as nutrient cycles and oxygen production;

    ·        cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits.

    To help inform decision-makers, many ecosystem services are being evaluated in order to draw equivalent comparisons to human engineered infrastructure and services.

    Although environmental awareness is rapidly improving in the contemporary world, ecosystem capital and its flow are still poorly understood, threats continue to impose, and humanity suffers from the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’.

    In general, the idea is that the economic value of eco-services can be inferred and assigned. The six major methods for valuing ecosystem services in monetary terms are:

    ·        avoided cost: services allow society to avoid costs that would have been incurred in the absence of those services (e.g. waste treatment by wetland habitats avoids health costs).

    ·        Replacement cost: services could be replaced with man-made systems (e.g. restoration of the Catskill Watershed cost less than the construction of a water purification plant).

    ·        Factor income: Services provide for the enhancement of incomes (e.g. improved water quality increases the commercial take of a fishery and improves the income of fishers).

    ·        Travel cost: Service demand may require travel, whose costs can reflect the implied value of the service (e.g. value of ecotourism experience is at least what a visitor is willing to pay to get there).

    ·        Hedonic pricing: Service demand may be reflected in the prices people will pay for associated goods (e.g. coastal housing prices exceed that of inland homes).

    ·        Contingent valuation: Service demand may be elicited by posing hypothetical scenarios that involve some valuation of alternatives (e.g. visitors willing to pay for increased access to national parks).


    The term ‘natural capital’ was first coined by E.F. Schumacher in 1973 in his book “Small is Beautiful”. Recognition of how ecosystems could provide complex services to humankind date back to at least Plato (c. 400 BC) who understood that deforestation could lead to soil erosion and the drying of springs.

    Modern ideas of ecosystem services probably began when Marsh challenged in 1864 the idea that Earth’s natural resources are unbounded by pointing out changes in soil fertility in the Mediterranean.

    It was not until the late 1940s that three key authors — Henry Fairfield Osborn, Jr, William Vogt, and Aldo Leopold — promoted recognition of human dependence on the environment.

    In 1956, Paul Sears drew attention to the critical role of the ecosystem in processing wastes and recycling nutrients. In 1970, Paul Ehrlich and Rosa Weigert called attention to “ecological systems” in their environmental science textbook and “the most subtle and dangerous threat to man’s existence… the potential destruction, by man’s own activities, of those ecological systems upon which the very existence of the human species depends”.

    The term “environmental services” was introduced in a 1970 report of the Study of Critical Environmental Problems, which listed services including insect pollination, fisheries, climate regulation and flood control. In following years, variations of the term were used, but eventually ‘ecosystem services’ became the standard in scientific literature.

    The ecosystem services concept has continued to expand and includes socio-economic and conservation objectives, which are discussed below. A history of the concepts and terminology of ecosystem services as of 1997, can be found in Daily’s book “Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems”.

    While Gretchen Daily’s original definition distinguished between ecosystem goods and ecosystem services, Robert Costanza and colleagues’ later work and that of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment lumped all of these together as ecosystem services.

    Let’s get acquainted with the ecosystem services

    I am thankful for advice while writing the article to Oleksiy Vasyliuk, the head of the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group NGO.

    This term is popular in the world and has become part of the legislation of several countries.

    The ecosystem services are free benefits that we receive from nature. We cannot pay for them, but we depend on them significantly.

    We are also living beings and our whole life depends on the environment, and it is always in some way created by natural ecosystems.

    What we eat is grown on the soil, and the soil is an ecosystem.

    The air we breathe has a chemical composition due to the fact that there are ecosystems on the planet at the same time as we live. Let’s call to memory that in previous epochs the composition of the atmosphere was different from today.

    Also we enjoy natural areas. And there are other things we wouldn’t be able to pay for, even if we wanted to.

    Why is this all a topic for serious conversation?

    For example, near the village there is a steppe slope. All fruit trees in the village are pollinated thanks to this slope. Wild pollinators can live only on this slope. Or birds that feed on pests will remain on this slope only if there are perennial grasses that provide them with food. And if we break this circle at some point, we will lose it all.

    Therefore, ecosystem services need to be explained not only in terms of how to translate ecosystems into financial funds, but also through losses. We never think about the fact that nature still maintains an atmosphere that is right for us.

    But we only think about it if something changes in a wrong way. For example, we never think about what complex natural mechanisms purify water – I mean, groundwater, which we consume for domestic use.

    (This is relevant for European countries and less relevant for the Persian Gulf countries, where people sometimes are forced to use no groundwater, including through desalination of seawater).

    Groundwater is not the only example. There are trees, thanks to the roots of which and the mass of other natural mechanisms, precipitation falls underground and becomes much cleaner, usable groundwater. When this mechanism doesn’t work, we realize that something is wrong.

    And therefore it is easier to bring to the minds of people this concept through losses, rather than through sums. Because the financial amount of ecosystem services is too large for people to take seriously.

    Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Helsinki, Rome, London, Luxembourg, Brussels, Warsaw, Tirana, Sofia, Tbilisi… What do these European capitals have in common? Next to each of these places or directly on their territory are national parks that provide environmental services to the population of these cities (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). These are all useful benefits that can be obtained from close proximity to nature. It is important that the satisfaction of fundamental human needs directly depends on ecosystem services.

    Ecologists and economists of the world have developed methods for estimating the value of clean air, beautiful landscape, rustle of leaves or birds singing. These natural benefits, which are so familiar to us, are becoming more and more valuable and desirable against the background of the rapid movement of life in the capital. According to research by scientists (e.g., “The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital” – Nature, 1997), the total value of forest ecosystem goods and services is $ 4.7 trillion annually, of which the total value of boreal forests (temperate zone) is 894 billion dollars annually.

    Depending on the region, the cost of forest stabilization services per hectare ranges from $ 1.94 million to $ 5.5 million per ton. For cleaning the air from solids (dust, soot) and harmful gases, each tree costs an average of $ 4.16 per year. For biodiversity, the forest is a habitat, 17.5 thousand dollars costs a hectare of forest, if we take into account the participation of birds in the fight against insect pests. The value of pollination services is from 19.23 thousand dollars up to 33.65 thousand dollars for a year.

    In Western countries, a lot of money is invested in nature protection. Why do they protect nature that, from the first sight, costs nothing?

    For EU countries – why so? Are people more conscious? Have more influence on their governments? Perhaps. Maybe they’ll never run out of money? Indeed, there are states that distribute grants to less affluent states. They can manage to create a comfortable space around themselves without thinking about survival. All these answers are in some ways true, but secondary.

    The main answer is that people in developed countries understand that it’s profitable to protect nature. This protection, among other things, is the standard of living. And it’s not just the amount of money you have.

    What are ecosystem services? If you start counting, you’re diving into the abyss. Actually, we benefit from anything that happens in nature. We just need to think a little deeper and understand that our lives depend on all natural things

    Let’s check, for instance, food. We eat little that grows in nature or lives in nature, except fish (almost all fish products are actually harvested in the seas). And everything else, except fish, is grown on the ground, or has animal origin (this food is made from animals that eat what is grown on the ground). We can easily estimate the cost of the food: we see the price tag in the store.

    Another example: building materials, such as cement. It is burnt chalk. There are very few chalk deposits left in the world, so-called the chalk hills, and all of them are protected by the Berne Convention. And that’s why any cement is a destroyed chalk ecosystem somewhere else.

    It’s possible to estimate how much it costs, because we pay for it – for the purchase of cement, food, clean water.

    There are other things we don’t appreciate. For example, soil. It is formed by myriads of soil organisms. Humanity cannot pay the herbs for the fact that when they die, they form this soil. And you cannot pay all these organisms and bacteria that process the remains of dead plants and make them soil.

    So this is a service that cannot be monetized.

    We breathe clean air. Some European cities, such as Kyiv, were built keeping in mind the “wind rose” so that clean air could flow through the parks.

    We don’t appreciate what we do not have to pay for, but only miss when we have to pay for something. We do not recognize nature as something to pay for.

    But in 2005 the world document, Millennium ecosystems assessment, was developed.

    This document on behalf of the UN applies to the entire planet. It was this text that introduced the concept of ecosystem services, and most Western countries took it very seriously. At once there were many people ready to fantasize on this subject.

    So, the ecosystem services are all the benefits that humans receive from ecosystems. Fundamental human needs depend on it entirely.

    Let’s check the four groups of services presented in the 2005 document. There, ecosystem services are grouped into four broad categories:

    ·        provisioning, such as the production of food and water;

    ·        regulating, such as the control of climate and disease;

    ·        supporting, such as nutrient cycles and oxygen production;

    ·        cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits.

    Provisioning services are something we take directly from nature. E.g., oil or minerals.

    Regulatory – for example, water purification, which occurs by natural mechanisms, for which we do not have to pay;

    Taking in carbon dioxide and release of oxygen by plants. This is the maintenance in the atmosphere of such concentration of various gases which is acceptable for humanity and climatic processes. We will feel bad not because the percentage of carbon in the atmosphere will increase, but because the planet will warm up.

    Cultural and social. I get pleasure when I get into a nature area. This is something not created by man, it could be a calm and interesting place. People prefer to take pictures of natural beauty, not piles of garbage. These photos win competitions and so on.

    Some people can afford to take such photos, going to Norway or Iceland. And investing in a month trip to Norway for this purpose is justified given how much a person will earn in these photos.

    Such a photo of a quality landscape can be obtained only if there are such places on Earth.

    There are many native tribes in different parts of the world, many of whose rituals cannot exist without sacred birds, or some sacred areas. And they will feel comfortable, only if this natural environment is preserved.

    Supporting services means deep ecosystem processes.

    Every living organism on the planet has its own place. If we lose a certain link, the system as a whole will weaken. For example, the climate: in winter, 2019-2020, in Europe there was virtually no winter. And where will the moisture come from in spring and summer? No forecast for global climate change says it will get wetter in the coming decades. That is, something went wrong. Nature can no longer support itself.

    So, those countries that invest in nature conservation invest in their well-being. This is appropriate because it is:

    ·         clean water;

    ·         clean Air;

    ·         tourism and recreation;

    ·         support for agricultural production;

    ·         protection against natural disasters;

    ·         adaptation to climate change;

    ·         job creation.

    Why does the government have to invest huge budget funds in simply maintaining some natural areas in the state in which they simply exist? The answer is: this is investing in your own welfare. But it’s not as obvious as buying, e. g., a softer sofa or a home theater.

    Countries with a high standard of living are more likely to understand why we have to pay for environmental protection. Instead, in the Third World or the post-Soviet countries, people think primarily of survival. Supposedly they never think of anything more. But in reality this “more” exists, nature is also our own well-being.

    So some government decisions are the aftermath of the creation of this new term.

    Since 2005, different experts have tried to calculate the cost of ecosystem services. Scientists, mostly American, have tried to estimate the value of all the world’s forests. The amount was 4.7 trillion dollars a year. Of these, the boreal belt costs $ 894 billion per year.

    What does this figure mean?

    By the way, all manuals recommend improvising when calculating.

    For example, the forest provides the following services: electricity generation, irrigation, recreation, soil stabilization, erosion and weathering, biodiversity conservation, pollination, and cleaning air from dust.

    For one hectare of forest, we received in various cases from 2,400,000 to 6,400,000 million dollars.

    So the forest brings so many dollars to all of us, but you can’t put them in your pocket.

    Many people perceive the theme of clean water or clean air. Those who work in the agricultural sector are well aware that soils are being lost, and the drier the climate, the less they earn.

    Due to the health of children, it is also possible to understand that ecosystem services are an important topic.

    There is a microclimate and there is a global climate. If we live near a forest or river, the air is wetter.

    The price we do not pay when using a natural area near the city is the profit from this natural area.

    Imagine that we are buying an apartment. An apartment with a view of the industrial zone is cheaper than an apartment with a view of the park.

    The coolest example of nature restoration is New York in the mid-80s.

    In the 1960s and 1970s, the city had no money. The situation has improved since the 1980s. The city began to choke because there was not enough drinking water. Water purification requires many resources.

    Then the city authorities considered two ways to solve the problem of dirty drinking water:

    * build sewage treatment plants (the traditional way) (8-10 billion dollars);

    * buy land from farmers upstream for many kilometers of the river.

    The second is an unconventional way, it means supporting natural ecosystems that provide water treatment services ($2 billion).

    That is, you can just let the river recover, it will become a natural swamp and it will naturally purify the water. If the river has natural vegetation, algae, and the mass of living organisms, it very quickly absorbs all the organic matter that is in the water column.

    The difference in price was 5 times. And New York authorities did the second way. This was the first major investment in global ecosystem services, and it worked.

    Other examples: the EU is building a system of Natura 2000 sites. These are natural areas that are protected. It’s financed from the EU budget. Outside the European Union, this is called the Emerald Network.

    Another example is the US State Forest Service. They make money in the wild. They believe that services other than logging bring in more money. Why wait until a new forest grows, if you can “squeeze” money from a living forest?

    The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS or FWS) is an agency of the US federal government within the US Department of the Interior dedicated to the management of fish, wildlife, and natural habitats. It takes care of what can be obtained from wildlife other than wood.

    Conclusion: The total value of biodiversity is infinite

    A peer-reviewed study published in 1997 estimated the value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital to be between US$16–54 trillion per year, with an average of US$33 trillion per year. However, Salles (2011) indicated that “The total value of biodiversity is infinite, so having debate about what is the total value of nature is actually pointless because we can’t live without it.”

    As of 2012, many companies were not fully aware of the extent of their dependence and impact on ecosystems and the possible ramifications. Likewise, environmental management systems and environmental due diligence tools are more suited to handle “traditional” issues of pollution and natural resource consumption. Most focus on environmental impacts, not dependence.

    Let’s check some other examples of ecosystem services, especially in The Gulf countries, in the next articles.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *