An ecosystem services approach to conservation seeks to incorporate the value that humans derive from healthy ecosystems into decision making. It explicitly links nature to human well-being and frames conservation efforts in terms of the services, or benefits, that an ecosystem provides under different scenarios. For example, an ecosystem services approach to management of a section of forest might consider the relative value of the trees as lumber and as a means of water filtration or erosion prevention.
The idea has gained significant momentum in the past decade, but with many diverse efforts now underway, it has been difficult for those working in the field to get a sense of what the ecosystem services landscape looks like as a whole, much less learn from one another. To help provide a map of the field, and to facilitate learning, researchers at Bridgespan, funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, undertook a project to develop an overview of the field, the challenges and risks of this approach, and its potential for impact.
Overall, our research revealed that currently, ecosystem services conservation is in the proof-of-concept and early adoption phases. The field as a whole lacks a robust knowledge base, though the knowledge base for some ecosystems—such as wetlands and forests—and for some services—such as carbon and water—is relatively rich. The field as a whole also lacks standards and sufficient measurement and monitoring tools, as well as standard decisions-support applications.
To date, most ecosystem services programs have been developed to conserve one service or a discrete bundle of services, rather than the full set of services in an ecosystem. Often this is because the science is clearer and the analysis more straightforward with a single service or a discrete bundle. In the case of regulating policies, government authority is generally limited to a single service (e.g. clean water) due to departmental structures, and it is easier to frame conservation efforts in a context that doesn’t muddle the already complex paths of governmental decision-making. Likewise, in business, often companies are most interested in the protection of the service or services most important to their bottom lines (e.g. soil erosion increasing river sedimentation and adversely affecting hydropower).
This narrow focus, however, may hinder conservation. In fact, while there are instances where prioritizing a single service or a bundle of services maintains the natural integrity of the ecosystem, prioritizing one service over another within a single ecosystem can lead to significant tradeoffs.
Latin and South American countries have seen the most activity around the ecosystem services approach. However, involvement is growing in China and the US, and both countries seem poised to take longer term leadership roles as the approach evolves. Additionally, primary-sector businesses, such as those in agriculture, mining, fishing, and the like, are more likely to implement ecosystem services projects than other corporations, due to the projects’ alignment with existing business goals. Some companies also have found (and more are finding) that they can use ecosystem services programs as a way to develop and grow new business.
To achieve its goal—of having the value of ecosystem services or natural capital included in decision making across all sectors of the economy—the ecosystem services approach requires clear science, well- defined beneficiaries, and solid governance. While there are still gaps in the required science, efforts to develop the science are increasing as the ecosystem services concept spreads through academic and government arenas. Filling the gaps will require a coordinated, interdisciplinary approach. Widespread adoption will require considerable public education as well as leadership and policy reform.
Despite these challenges, the majority of experts interviewed for this report believe an ecosystem services approach has the potential to achieve conservation beyond traditional methods. And our analysis suggests that the momentum surrounding an ecosystem services approach continues to build and, more importantly, that this concept has the potential to achieve tangible gains in conserving our environment.
To read the entire report, please download the PDF, "The State of Ecosystem Services."