What’s more valuable – forest ecosystem services or economic growth?

    22 Jun 2021

    Let’s continue our investigation of what ecosystem services are that we started in previous articles. I thank UNCG NGO for the excellent explanation of the topic.

    Forest biodiversity is somehow strangely linked to human well-being, money, and climate change. At first glance this connection really strange.

    Why so?

    These are certain benefits that humanity receives for free from ecosystems. I mean, from nature.

    For example, in Europe or the Americas, rivers supply drinking water to urban residents free of charge. Yes, they do pay for water, but only for its purification and transportation of water to homes. The river as a natural ecosystem does not ask for any money for water. (And the sea, the water from which is desalinated in the Gulf countries, too). And this is a great example of one of the ecosystem services that nature provides us.

    Another example is the pollination of plants by insects. It is known that currently, about 75% of crops grown by humanity are dependent on insect pollination. In other words, the food security of mankind is directly dependent on insects that pollinate certain plants. Obviously, we do not pay insects for such pollination. However, this is also a great example of an ecosystem service that we receive for free from nature.

    These are just two examples from among probably hundreds of other ecosystem services that nature provides us.

    We have already mentioned four types of ecosystem services in the previous article, let’s look at them from a new perspective.

    According to one of the classifications, all ecosystem services are divided into four groups.

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

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

    •  cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits;

    · supporting, such as nutrient cycles and oxygen production.

    Provisioning means a conditional raw material that nature gives us. For example, wood, fish, amber, coal, etc. Such ecosystem services are the easiest to understand.

    Ecosystem regulatory services include all the diversity of processes in ecosystems that shape the habitat of biological species, and humanity too. For example, climate regulation, weather regulation, air quality regulation, freshwater quality and quantity, soil formation, plant pollination, and a large number of processes that can be called natural balance.

    Cultural and social services. Such ecosystem services are intangible, although very important. For example, cultural and social ecosystem services are an opportunity for recreation, an opportunity for spiritual enrichment, inspiration for creativity, scientific knowledge, and the formation of the identity of social and ethnic groups.

    In other words, many of us enjoy the beautiful river or seashore for free and it gives us the strength to live and work on. These are also ecosystem services.

    The fourth group is ecosystem supporting (maintenance) services. This group of ecosystem services is probably the most difficult to perceive. We are talking about global processes of the formation of the atmosphere, climatic zones, the circulation of substances in nature. Sometimes this group is not even singled out.

    It is obvious that forests, like any other natural ecosystem, also provide ecosystem services. Supply services provided by forests include mushrooms, berries, wood, firewood, and hunting animals that live in the forest.

    Regulatory services include erosion protection, water regime regulation, wind protection, water and air purification, greenhouse gas absorption, and much more. Cultural and social services of forests are opportunities for recreation, tourism, scientific research. For many peoples of the world, forests are also sacred. For example, the Mari in the Russian Federation still has sacred forests.

    Why should I know about ecosystem services? Let’s deal with this.

    The term was an attempt by scientists to show politicians and business people that conserving nature is economically viable, that in fact, ecosystem services are not so free, and that they have to be paid for. Why? Because many ecosystem services can be monetized, that is, counted in money.

    What services does nature park in the middle of a big city provide?

    These are pollination of plants, purification of air, formation of a microclimate, struggle against insect pests (they are eaten by birds), firewood, stabilization of soil, moisture retention, economical use of transport. Every resident of the metropolis, even if he or she doesn’t visit the park, receives obvious benefits from it. Due to the fact that these benefits are free, few people appreciate them.

    For example, without a park, the city authorities would spend money on treatment for respiratory diseases or some specific air purification measures. The park cleans the air absolutely free of charge because it traps dust.

    In total, nature annually provides humanity with ecosystem services worth almost $50 trillion. The world’s forests provide ecosystem services worth at least $ 716 billion annually.

    Why do you need to give such figures? To clearly understand that nature conservation, including the conservation of forests, has direct economic consequences. It is directly expressed in money.

    In developed countries, ecosystem services have long been used for decision-making at all levels. For example, in the Norwegian capital Oslo, it is estimated that the protection of some 25,000 hectares of forests and lakes around the city allows for ecosystem services for the supply of drinking water and its purification for tens of millions of euros. More specifically – from €17 million to €47 million.

    In other words, the city authorities have calculated that preserving the forests and lakes around the city is much more profitable than, for example, distributing them for development. Here is a practical example of monetizing ecosystem services.

    Once again, we will not be able to survive if nature does not provide us with clean air, water, and food.

    Many service ecosystems, though not all, can be counted in money. And, accordingly, decision-makers have to decide on the destruction of nature already from the point of view of this information. I mean, they have to ask themselves: how much will it cost me to build houses instead of this forest?

    Because it often turns out that the destruction of nature is less cost-effective than its preservation.

    In many countries, ecosystem services are analyzed, calculated, and taken into account.

    What determines the number and volume of ecosystem services provided by one or another ecosystem?

    In other words, what should the ecosystem be like in order to provide us with the most ecosystem services on which we depend so much?

    The answer is quite simple: in most cases, the ecosystem must be as not disturbed as possible. That is, as similar as possible to one that has never been destroyed by humans. One that is not artificial or distorted by human activity.

    Such ecosystems in their least disturbed state are able to withstand the negative impact. In particular – the impact of climate change. Now that human activity is significantly changing the planet, a little disturbed nature has a much better chance of surviving and continuing to provide ecosystem services to humanity.

    In particular, ecosystem services are related to biodiversity.

    There is a scientific concept called “the concept of environmental insurance.” It argues that the greater the biodiversity of a particular ecosystem, the more resistant such an ecosystem is to a variety of negative impacts.

    In other words, even if one component disappears in a diverse ecosystem, for example through human activity, the other components will be able to replace those that have disappeared. In this way, the ecosystem will maintain its state. Ecosystems that do not have a high level of biodiversity are unstable.

    As a result, there is a risk that such ecosystems will disappear in the event of some adverse effects. And they will stop providing us with ecosystem services.

    A simple example is the state of forests of Eastern Europe: the biodiversity of many forests in the post-Soviet Union has been devastatingly affected by human activities. In particular, many forests, which historically consisted of many species of trees at the same time, have turned into artificial pine plantations. Such pine plantings can be observed in many regions of Ukraine, e.g. In terms of tree diversity, these forests are poor. Because once they grew different types of trees, and now – only one pine.

    When it faces climate change, when the temperature rises and the humidity drops, the pine does not feel very well. It is much more prone to drying out or to fires. As a result, parched forests or forests covered by fires no longer provide ecosystem services in full.

    If such forests were more natural, more diverse, it is unlikely that they would be so vulnerable. Why? Because mixed forests with the presence of deciduous tree species burn much less. And if certain other adverse factors affect one species of tree, then another species can easily take its place.

    In artificial pine forests, this is impossible. If something happens to the pine trees, there are no other trees to take the place of the dead pines. Accordingly, forests with a higher level of biodiversity are more sustainable and continue to provide ecosystem services even under the influence of certain adverse factors.

    Therefore, biodiversity conservation has direct economic benefits. After all, it depends on biodiversity to a large extent whether certain ecosystems will provide us with ecosystem services.

    Preserving forest biodiversity is important not only because of some abstract love of nature. This is the key to the survival of humanity.

    Unfortunately, we as humanity are moving in the opposite direction – to the destruction of nature.

    This will directly affect our well-being in the future. Even from a purely environmental point of view. After all, we will have to pay for everything we used to receive from nature for free. Last but not least, this applies to forests.

    Like any resource, ecosystem services are not infinite. No matter how much we protect and sustain nature, there is still a certain limit to the services that nature can provide.

    Therefore, national economies that are constantly focused on economic growth and GDP growth are not viable in the long run. Why? Because they do not take into account the finiteness and vulnerability of ecosystem services, on which the economy of any level depends.

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