LETTER FROM THE EDITOR: How much are ecosystem services worth to you?

Photo by Kalense Kid | flickr.com

In 1987, Robert Costanza from the University of Maryland (and colleagues) published a monumental paper in the scientific journal Nature, stating the value of global ecosystem services to be between $16 and 54 trillion USD/year – a benefit that isn’t accounted for in most estimates of GNP. Before taking those numbers at face value, I thought to myself – what IS an ecosystem service? 

If you have troubles coming up with a concrete answer, you’re not the only one. In fact, the topic of ecosystem services is a hot topic within ecological economics research today. Many have attempted to put a definition into fruition, but have fallen short.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, published in 2005, calls for action on this troublesome description, as 15 out of 24 services investigated are on the decline. The classification in this assessment is most commonly used to describe the types of ecosystem services – supporting (e.g., seed dispersal), regulating (e.g., crop pollination by bees), provisioning (e.g, food and energy), and cultural (e.g., recreational purposes). Also somewhat simplified, it provides a background to figuring out exactly what these services mean to humankind. 

Not only do we have a problem in academia coming up with a concrete definition, but we also have trouble applying the concept to economics. All too often, the environment (and these services) are an externality – they’re not considered when we calculate a country’s GNP, and they’re often not on the table when considering changing the land for our own benefit. Additionally, services look different to many people. For example, a global climate scientist may see a forest as a place to store carbon, whereas a local community may see it as a source of lumber. Both values are valid, but how do we go about placing one over the other?

We often make mistakes with how we count our services as well. Sometimes, we only look at one service an ecosystem can provide and make trade-offs based on that. Other times, we include too many services and end up double-counting them, mistaking one service for two separate (but tightly linked) variables. 

To recap, we’ve got a vague description of ecosystem services, these services look different to many stakeholders, and we don’t know how to count them up. It’s a big problem – we understand the need to value these services, but we don’t know enough science to apply it to economics. It is rather unfortunate that we aren’t using precautionary principles in this time of need – we know we need to head towards more conservationist approaches, but hold back in order to see what happens if we don’t. Don’t you agree?