What Are Ecosystem Services and Why They Are Crucial to Our Survival
In a short and concise definition, ecosystem services are the direct and indirect benefits humans obtain from our planet’s varied ecosystems. They are the contributions the ecosystems make to human well-being as they support and encourage our survival and overall quality of life.
According to one of the best written frameworks of assessment on the subject, “Ecosystem services are the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and the species that make them up, sustain and fulfill human life. They maintain biodiversity and the production of ecosystem goods, such as seafood, forage timber, biomass fuels, natural fiber, and many pharmaceuticals, industrial products, and their precursors.”
Types of Ecosystem Services
The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) global initiative has created a useful classification of the ecosystem services. Dividing them in these four main types helps us gain a better understanding of their role in sustaining human life on Earth.
- Provisioning services. These are the products we obtain directly from ecosystems, in their raw states. We can include here fresh water, food, fiber, wood, medicines, and various genetic resources.
- Regulating services. Defined as the benefits derived from the regulation of ecosystem processes, these services require human effort. Among them are natural hazard regulation, climate regulation, pollination, pest control, water purification, and waste management.
- Habitat services. The third category highlights the role of ecosystems in providing habitat for migratory species. They are also important for maintaining the viability of gene-pools.
- Cultural services. Apart from all the material benefits we can obtain from ecosystems, they can also offer us intellectual development, spiritual enrichment, aesthetic values, and recreation.
In order to better understand the advantages we derive from ecosystem services, let us expand on some of the key services they provide to us. If you’re looking for an even more scientific approach to this subject, check out this thorough article.
Climate regulation is by far one of the most important ecosystem services we enjoy globally. However, on a continental level, the European ecosystems are some of the most important for climate regulation. At the moment,
Europe’s terrestrial ecosystems represent a net carbon sink of some 7-12% of the 1995 human generated emissions of carbon.
In other words, Europe’s large areas of peat soils contain the largest single store of carbon on Earth. They are mostly located in the continent’s boreal and cool temperate zones. However, the peatlands’ power to regulate climate relies heavily on land use and intensification. Drainage and conversion to agriculture, for example, can have a deep impact on the soil capacity to store carbon and on carbon emissions.
Water purification by ecosystems also has a high importance, seeing that densely populated regions around the globe put a great strain on water sources. When it comes to factors that impact water movements, both vegetation and soil organisms play major roles.
On one hand, vegetation is quite powerful in controlling water flows, floods, and the general quality of water sources. The existence of vegetation in upstream watersheds can influence the water quantity and quality, as well as the variability of water supply.
On the other hand, soil micro-organisms play their part in water purification by influencing soil structure and decreasing surface runoff. Soil invertebrates, wetlands, forests, and protected areas often provide cleaner water than man-made alternatives, such as water treatment plants. The costs of letting nature purify our water sources are also much lower.
Pests and Diseases
There are several ways to regulate pests and diseases in ecosystems. The actions of predators and parasites are one factor, as well as the prey’s defense mechanisms. One of the easiest examples for these regulating services comes in the form of insectivorous birds in agricultural farms.
Soil formation relies heavily on soil biodiversity, because it supports a variety of provisioning services, including fiber, food, and fuel provision. At the same time, soil biodiversity is essential for soil fertility as one of the most important ecosystem services. A diverse soil community will aid in the prevention of crops loss due to soil-borne pest diseases.
Cultural services provided by ecosystems are important both on a global and a European level. In Europe, for example, the proof is given by the impressive scale of citizen membership in conservation organizations. In the UK, more than one million people are members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The organization benefits of an annual income of over £50 million.
Ecosystem Services and Climate Change
Many people associate ecosystem services strictly with tourism and nature conservation. However, they are more than that, as proven by well-managed protected areas spread around the globe. Some vital ecosystem services can also play an important role in climate change adaption.
Erosion control, reduced flooding, water purification and retention not only help in maintaining crop diversity and species; they also contribute to global warming mitigation through the storage of carbon.
Ecosystem Services and Disaster Risk Management
Anyone who has paid any attention to the news lately knows that climate change causes frequent extreme weather events. Disaster reduction and management is a central ecosystem service that becomes increasingly important. Seeing that social, climate and environmental unpredictability is on the rise, it is vital to come up with resilient systems.
Fresh water interacts with forests and other natural ecosystems, such as wetlands. This interaction can help regulate water flows and keep soils in place on steep hill and mountain slopes. However, if these ecosystem services are lost, it will also increase the area’s vulnerability to extreme events like flooding.
International and European Efforts
The Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES) is a new classification of ecosystem services that is currently under development at international level. CICES hopes to facilitate the include ecosystem services in the broader subject of environmental accounting.
At a European level, MAES is an innovative yet conceptual framework for Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services that seeks for a better approach to ecosystem and ecosystem services assessments.
There’s no way around it: We need our planet in shipshape condition before climate change takes an even bigger toll on it. Making sure our natural ecosystems and the services they provide remain intact is a fundamental step.