Ecosystem Services    

Ecosystems are not static but dynamic and discontinuous systems with interactions and connections evolving both spatially and temporally.  They represent ecological processes and the resources they provide can be expressed in terms of goods and services.  Ecosystem processes can be considered value-neutral, whilst their goods and services are considered to have a value to society.
Ecosystem services therefore are the benefits people obtain from ecosystems.  This terminology is derived from two representative definitions:
“Ecosystem goods (such as food) and services (such as waste assimilation) represent the benefits human populations derive, directly or indirectly, from ecosystem functions “(Costanza et al., 1997).
“Ecosystem services are the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and the species that make them up, sustain and fulfil human life. They maintain biodiversity and the production of ecosystem goods” (Daily, 1997).
Ecosystem services influence human well-being, which is assumed to possess multiple constituents, including: basic materials to support a good quality of life, such as secure and adequate livelihoods, ample food, shelter, clothing, and access to goods; health, including well-being, a healthy physical environment, such as clean air and water; good social relations, which includes social cohesion, mutual respect, the means to assist others and provide for children; security, including secure access to resources, personal safety, and protection against natural and human induced disasters; and freedom of choice and action, which are the opportunities that enable individuals to achieve what they value doing and being.
It is important to recognise that humans are integral elements of global ecosystems and that dynamic interactions take place between them and other parts of ecosystems.  The ever changing human condition drives ecosystem change directly and indirectly, thereby bringing about changes in human well-being.  Concurrently, economic, cultural and social factors, independent from ecosystems, influence the human condition, and natural forces shape ecosystems.    

Ecosystem Disservices

Ecosystem management in some cases may lead to possible ecosystem disservices.  Examples of disservices can include: increased prevalence of allergens; promoting invasive species; hosting pathogens or pests; inhibiting human mobility or safety; bringing about cultural and psychological effects that negatively impact human well-being; or increasing the necessity for using natural resources (i.e. water) or chemicals (i.e. pesticides and fertilisers). 
The possibility that ecosystem disservices may occur must be kept in mind when planning, evaluating and monitoring Ecosystem Approach projects.  The distinction between an ecosystem service and disservice could be dependent upon the context and perceptions of actors involved.  To improve the understanding of possible disservices collaboration between ecologists, social scientists and epidemiologists should explore interactions and provide quantifiable analysis of costs and benefits.

Ecosystem Service Classification   

Ecosystem services have been classified in various ways, including:
  • Functional groupings’, such as regulation, carrier, habitat, production, and information services (de Groot et al. 2002)1
  • Organisational groupings’, such as services associated with certain species that regulate external inputs into a system, and those related to the organisation of biological entities (Norberg 1999)2.
  • Descriptive groupings’, such as renewable resource goods, non-renewable resource goods, physical structure services, biotic services, biogeochemical services, information services, and social and cultural services (Moberg and Folke 1999)3.
The most widely adopted classification is the ‘functional grouping’ where ecosystem services are divided into four categories.  Some overlap occurs between categories but the four main groupings include:
  • Provisioning services are the products that are obtained from ecosystems, such as: food, fibre, fuel, genetic resources, biochemicals, natural medicines, pharmaceuticals, water, and building materials.
  • Regulating services are the benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes, these include: air quality maintenance, climate regulation, water regulation and purification, erosion control, waste treatment, regulation of human diseases, biological control, pollination, and protection from extreme weather and climatic events.
  • Cultural services are nonphysical benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences.  These services are connected to human behaviour and values, as well as institutions and patterns of political, social and economic organisation.  Cultural services include: cultural diversity, spiritual and religious values, knowledge systems, educational values, inspiration, aesthetic values, social relations, sense of place, cultural heritage values, and tourism.
  • Supporting services are those which are necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services.  They differ from other services as their impacts on humans are indirect, or occur over a long time period.  Some services, such as erosion control, can be categorised as a supporting and regulating service (depending on the time scale and immediacy of their impact on humans).  Examples of supporting services include: production of atmospheric oxygen (through photosynthesis), primary production, soil formation and retention, nutrient cycling, water cycling and provisioning of habitat.


The Ecosystem Services Approach


The ecosystem services approach is a key element of planning for sustainable development. JNCC’s goal is to embed the ecosystem services framework in decision making. Phase one of this project ‘Spatial framework for assessing evidence needs for operational ecosystem approaches’ identified habitat attributes which influence ecosystem services. Phase two ‘Further development of a spatial framework for mapping ecosystem services’ continued on from this work to help design and monitor management strategies. This report is accompanied by a Microsoft Access database ‘Ecosystems Spatial Framework Database’ which takes into account the main factors and the logical steps that need to be followed to facilitate and inform mapping of ecosystem services.


1. De Groot, R.S., Wilson, M.A. & Boumans, R.M.J., 2002.  A typology for the classification, description and valuation of ecosystem functions, goods and services.  Ecological Economics, 41, 393–408.

2. Norberg, J., 1999.  Linking Nature’s services to ecosystems: some general ecological concepts.  Ecological Economics, 29, 183–202.

3. Moberg, F and Folke, C., 1999.  Ecological goods and services of coral reef ecosystems.  Ecological Economics, 29, 215–233.