Ecosystem Services: (Re-)valuing Nature?

Natuurgebied in stand houden

Ecosystem services—it is a term that we have increasingly come across over the past year, both in the workplace and within the broader communication strategies of the European Union. Everyone may have at least a rough idea of what this term means: Ecosystem services are often associated with money—a price tag for natural capital. But where does this approach actually come from? How do the intrinsic value of nature and this imaginary ‘price tag’ relate to each other? And what can an approach based on ecosystem services bring us within the world of grant applications? I decided to delve deeper, both via self-study and a course module from the University of Geneva.

What Are Ecosystem Services?

Broadly speaking, the concept of ecosystem services as we know it today emerged from the field of conservation biology in the 1990s—the field in biology that concerns itself with the protection and conservation of plant and animal species, and specific habitats. The ecosystem services approach is based on the so-called “cascade model”, which means that every biophysical structure or process—also referred to as natural capital—has a certain function within an ecosystem. This function is then linked to a certain service that it provides to humans, for example, trees that produce oxygen, or birds that help farmers get rid of an insect plague, but also a green space that promotes mental health. This service thus provides a benefit to humankind, and can be linked to a certain value. This value can be expressed in terms of money (monetary value), but also in terms of cultural value, regulatory value, and so on.

Two Perspectives

The ecosystem services approach has both pros and cons. From a negative perspective, one could argue that this approach incorporates nature and biodiversity within a neo-liberal market. What if a certain species of animal or plant does not provide services that benefit humans at all? Perhaps the conclusion would then be that they are not worth protecting. At the same time, rare ‘goods’ are usually worth more than things that are abundant. According to this principle, the endangered status of an animal species, for example, could be conceived as lucrative.

Seen in a more positive light, the ecosystem services approach can be used to make the value of biodiversity and the nature that surrounds us, visible. For example, by assigning a monetary value to the work done by wild pollinators for human food consumption, the argument can be made that they should be protected—not only from a more conventional, idealistic perspective (the intrinsic value of biodiversity), but precisely also from an economic viewpoint. This can also provide a strong incentive for policy changes at local, national, and global levels. In addition, it allows us to compare different scenarios: For example, what is the most favourable location for the construction of a new salt marsh, from which perspective, etc.?

The EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030

No matter which perspective you take, the ecosystem services approach is upcoming. We see it strongly reflected in the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030. In clear terms, the European Union states: ‘We will value and preserve our natural capital. … Let’s take better care of nature, so it can take better care of us.” A holistic approach, assuming that when European biodiversity is doing well, this will also have a positive impact on human well-being. As described above, the word ‘value’ can refer both to a less tangible appreciation of, for example, the beauty or diversity of nature, and to the well-known price tag that may enable us to ensure the survival of all these other values.

Ecosystem Services in Grant Applications

Here we also come to the potential of the ecosystem services approach within the field of grant applications. First of all, valuing certain biophysical structures and processes by means of ecosystem services makes it possible to weigh up different scenarios against each other—does it yield more to cut down the tree for agriculture, or does it bring more money if we allow it to remain? In this way, conservation projects can be underpinned economically and also inspire policy changes. In this sense, this approach can provide a conservation project with a strong foundation that is understood by all parties—from the commercial sector to local and national governments.

Secondly, this approach therefore brings together different disciplines: As a so-called ‘boundary object’, ecosystem services enable us to combine the protection of biodiversity with sustainable development, economic progress, the resolution of social problems, and policy development. This approach is very much reflected in the European Union’s financing instruments, such as the European Green Deal. Horizon Europe 2021-2027—the successor to the well-known Horizon 2020 programme—also puts forward this vision with its various missions. For example, the aim of having at least 100 climate-neutral, green cities by 2030 is a clear bridge between ecological and social values. Similarly, the mission of healthy soil and food provision also makes this connection. In this context, the ecosystem services approach appears to be a strong instrument for acquiring the financial resources needed for the transition towards a green society.

Concluding, just as money is neither inherently good nor bad, so too the ecosystem services approach. Rather, it is about how we use instruments and means to achieve our goals. In my opinion, the ecosystem services approach provides, above all, a tool to make tangible, and therefore give voice to, those aspects of nature that would otherwise remain invisible—from micro-organisms in the soil to the pollinating function of the humble wasp. By doing this within existing economic models and policy systems, this transition can begin today. For more information on the European Green Deal and Horizon Europe 2021-2027, and the opportunities these instruments can offer to achieve your goals, we are glad to offer our assistance.


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