Scratching the service

Morning all,

Last week in my post “Nosey Park-er“, I was sat in the botanical gardens writing about the perks of parks. It was a good old-fashioned ramble, giving an intro about whether parks in cities (which are very pleasant for a short wander) were as good for city ecology as they seem on the face of it. Well sadly this week I’ve been driven indoors to write (though I’ve still been out and about walking), due to the fickle nature of English weather. Over the course of the past 3 days the temperature seems to have plummeted from T-shirt weather all the way down to “chilly” (referring back to The emperor’s old clothes, I’m currently wearing a base-layer, thin mid-layer, and lightweight water/wind-proof jacket for walking around). I suppose this may herald a new blog post about the additional clothes/equipment I’ll take walking with me as we head into winter… but that’s for another time.

Today, I’m going to actually talk about what I said I would talk about last time: Ecosystem services.

What’s an ecosystem service?

Ecosystem services are a way to give a value to the different habitats which exist, and allow you to look at a particular patch of land, and see what benefits that patch of land is providing for humans directly, and for natural process which we need, as well as how much money that service may be worth (or equivalent to).

There are 3 main groups of ecosystem service (well, 4, but “supporting services” is a very wooly classification, so I’ll miss it out here);

  1. “Provisioning services” – Resources we can take directly from the habitat, such as fish, or wood, or water.
  2. “Cultural services” – Things like the benefit of spending time out in nature (this is where the walking side of things fits in), inspiration for art, and more obvious benefits, such as tourism.
  3. “Regulatory” – Passive services, such as plants providing oxygen, or wetlands providing flood protection.

Why are ecosystem services useful?

Of course, those three groups of services have been provided by ecosystems since life began. However, in today’s economically driven world those ecosystems often don’t provide “money” directly. As they don’t have a value (in terms of money) this could mean that they would be seen as worthless from a purely economic point of view. The “ecosystem services” approach is a way to try to assign a value to those ecosystems, so that they aren’t just seen as “land”, but their structure, position, and passive benefits are all taken into account. This allows more integrated decision making when it comes to activities which might impact the natural environment. This means that when new policies or developments are being produced, their overall impact on “human wellbeing” can be calculated.

sepia saturday 178

Leaves are very good at holding water as well as catching sunlight. You might not think of leaves as good for flood defense, but all those small surfaces add up.

“That sounds wonderful” I hear you shout, “with ecosystem services we can slap a value on the ecosystem, and then we can see the costs and benefits of developing a site”.

 Well yes and no.

 There are a few issues with the ecosystem service approach which can get forgotten. There is an awful lot of uncertainty about the interactions between different ecosystems, processes within a single ecosystem, and the interactions those ecosystems have with humans. The obvious examples of these at the moment are pesticide interactions with pollinators, and the badger TB situation. I won’t go into them here, but both issues basically stem from the fact that there is uncertainty about how the ecological stuff affects and is affected by the human stuff. What are pollinators and badgers worth, compared with pest free crops and TB free cows? What services do they provide? Are the pesticides/badgers even affecting the pollinators/cows at all? And there’s much more uncertainty beneath those obvious questions.

There are also a few processes which are invaluable, such as oxygen production. What about large scale tree felling in rainforests? That can lead to changes in the local climate, and potentially even have wider global climate effects. What is the climate worth? Ecosystem services also only take into account the value of ecosystems to humans. Is there a fundamental value in the existence of an ecosystem?

That was a ridiculous number of semi-rhetorical questions, but I think it highlights nicely how the ecosystem services approach is a work in progress. Yes it has drawbacks and issues, but at the very least the approach highlights the fact that ecosystems are worth something. They aren’t just something to be concreted over, but something which has value, and can’t be ignored.

If you would like to know more about ecosystem services, there’s a ton of information at DEFRA. At some stage in the future I may try applying an ecosystem services approach to the botanical gardens in Sheffield, to see what services an urban park provides.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Feel free to leave a comment below, and I hope I’ll see you (not literally) next time.

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