In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conservation of Ecosystem Services

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Ecological Underpinnings of Ecosystem Services
  • Environmental Management of Ecosystems
  • Valuation of Ecosystem Goods and Services
  • Conservation through Cultural Lenses
  • Legal Frameworks and Regulatory Mechanisms
  • Payments for Ecosystem Services
  • Ethical Considerations for the Ecosystem Services Framework

Ecology Conservation of Ecosystem Services
Alejandra Echeverri, Kai M. A. Chan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0186


As the processes by which nature renders benefits for people, ecosystem services are fundamental to healthy and thriving human life, and include climate regulation, flood mitigation, and clean water provision. At the turn of the 21st century, the “ecosystem services” term was coined to help the biological conservation movement broaden beyond its traditional reliance upon the intrinsic values of nature, and thus emerged a vibrant and burgeoning field of research and practice on the ecological provision of such services, their economic valuation, and management. The concept has become central to the quantification and communication of the consequences of environmental management generally. Assessments of legal frameworks and regulations have revealed the ways in which existing laws and policies protect some ecosystem services but do so in a patchy and incomplete manner. Accordingly, much attention has been focused on the development of new institutions for ecosystem services conservation, particularly incentive programs like payments for ecosystem services (PES). The ethical considerations of the concept and its application have been a constant source of passionate debate, including concerns associated with the underlying anthropocentric utilitarian framing, the appropriateness of a production metaphor for ecosystems, and the valuation and commodification of nature. Recently, a diverse swath of social scientists has contributed crucial insights regarding the cultural context for ecosystem services and the appropriate representation of the nonmaterial (or “extra-material”) values associated with nature. Perhaps the recent more inclusive engagement with values could enable ecosystem services to attain a long-sought normalization of conservation.

General Overviews

The notion that natural ecosystems help to support society traces back to at least Plato’s time, and the origins of the modern concern for ecosystems may be traced to George Perkins Marsh’s publication of Man and Nature in 1864, as this book was the first to contest the idea that natural resources are infinite. However, in the end of the 20th century, the term “ecosystem services” was born to encapsulate a range of contributions from nature to humanity. Daily 1997 defined ecosystem services as “the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems and the species that make them up sustain and fulfill human life” (p. 3). Mooney and Ehrlich 1997 told the fragmentary history of the conceptualization of ecosystem services, dating back millennia. More recently, Gómez-Baggethun, et al. 2010 reviewed the ascendance of the concept of ecosystem services to the central paradigm for the human consequences of conservation, and the role that its economic orientation played in attracting political support for conservation. With the publication of the report titled “Ecosystems and Human-Wellbeing” (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005), ecosystem services were subsequently defined as “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems” (p. V). Importantly, this report described a typology for the classification of ecosystem services, which recognized four categories of services: provisioning, supporting, regulating, and cultural. To date, it is still a commonly used typology for classifying ecosystem services. Since the inception of the term ecosystem services, its conceptualization has mostly followed an economic logic. In Costanza, et al. 1998, the researchers conducted the first economic valuation of ecosystem services at a global scale. The researchers estimated that the economic value of 17 ecosystem services for sixteen biomes ranged between US$16–54 trillion per year. This global economic valuation of ecosystem services was heavily criticized by several authors (see Boyd and Banzhaf 2007). These authors called for standardized environmental accounting units and provided a definition of ecological units of account with concrete examples. The rise of ecosystem services as a concept and as an academic field has been conflated with multiple similar terms and competing definitions. A synthesis of concepts was described in Daily, et al. 2009, which proposed a framework for operationalization of the concept of ecosystem services to inform decision making. This perspective culminated in Kareiva, et al. 2011, an edited volume that accompanied the development of a major new ecosystem services modeling tool of the Natural Capital Project. Potschin, et al. 2016 is a more recent edited volume, a comprehensive reference text including the natural and social sciences of ecosystem services. Díaz, et al. 2015 communicates and justifies the conceptual framework of IPBES, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which represents an opening to diverse conceptualizations of nature and its benefits.

  • Boyd, J., and S. Banzhaf. 2007. What are ecosystem services? The need for standardized environmental accounting units. Ecological Economics 63.2–3: 616–626.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2007.01.002

    The authors defined ecosystem services as components of nature, directly enjoyed, consumed, or used; they suggested that services are end products of nature. They stated that practical units of measurement are stocks (e.g., number of bees), and that services are spatially explicit.

  • Costanza, R., R. d’Arge, R. de Groot, and S. Farber. 1998. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Ecological Economics 25:3–15.

    DOI: 10.1038/387253a0

    The authors estimated the economic value of seventeen ecosystem services for 16 biomes, based on published studies and some original calculations. The estimated value of the world’s ecosystems was US$33 trillion per year, and the authors suggested that this is a minimum estimate due to nature’s uncertainties.

  • Daily, G. C. 1997. Introduction: What are ecosystem services? In Nature’s services: Societal dependence on natural ecosystems. Edited by G. C. Daily, 1–10. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    This book chapter provided the first clear definition for ecosystem services. It explained that these maintain biodiversity and the production of ecosystem goods, such as seafood, forage, and timber. The authors stated that in addition to the production of goods, ecosystem services are life-support functions such as cleansing, recycling, and renewal, as well as aesthetic benefits.

  • Daily, G. C., S. Polasky, J. Goldstein, et al. 2009. Ecosystem services in decision making: Time to deliver. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 7.1: 21–28.

    DOI: 10.1890/080025

    This article operationalized the concept of ecosystem services to inform decision making. It created a conceptual framework that included the biological (i.e., ecosystems, services) and socioeconomic dimensions of ecosystem services (i.e., values, institutions, decisions).

  • Díaz, S., S. Demissew, J. Carabias, et al. 2015. The IPBES conceptual framework—connecting nature and people. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14:1–16.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.cosust.2014.11.002

    The articulation of and justification for the IPBES Conceptual Framework, which will orient the work of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The framework features a diverse set of conceptualizations of nature and its benefits and associated values, including intrinsic, instrumental, and relational.

  • Gómez-Baggethun, E., R. de Groot, P. L. Lomas, and C. Montes. 2010. The history of ecosystem services in economic theory and practice: From early notions to markets and payment schemes. Ecological Economics 69.6: 1209–1218.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2009.11.007

    The authors summarized the history of the conceptualization of ecosystem services. The authors argued that the ecosystem services history started with the utilitarian framing of beneficial ecosystem functions as services to increase public interest in biodiversity conservation, and then moved toward the incorporation of ecosystem services into markets and payment schemes.

  • Kareiva, P., H. Tallis, T. H. Ricketts, G. C. Daily, and S. Polasky. 2011. Natural capital: Theory & practice of mapping ecosystem services. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199588992.001.0001

    A comprehensive treatment of ecosystem service analysis from the perspective of the InVEST tool for Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs, of the Natural Capital Project.

  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005. Ecosystems and human well-being. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    This report from a major international assessment process defined ecosystem services as “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems” (p. V) and defined four categories of ecosystem services (i.e., provisioning, supporting, regulating, and cultural). This report analyzed the state of the earth’s ecosystems and ecosystem services in the period from 2001 to 2005. The analysis showed that 60 percent of ecosystem services (including 70 percent of cultural ecosystem services) have been degraded.

  • Mooney, H. A., and P. R. Ehrlich. 1997. Ecosystem services: A fragmentary history. In Nature’s services: Societal dependence on natural ecosystems. Edited by G. C. Daily, 11–19. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    This book chapter explained the fragmentary history of ecosystem services as a concept. The authors stated that while explicit recognition of ecosystem services was relatively new, the notion that natural ecosystems help to support society traces back to at least Plato. The authors indicated that the rise of the concept happened at a time when society was experiencing the growth of an environmental movement.

  • Potschin, M., R. Haines-Young, R. Fish, and R. K. Turner. 2016. Routledge handbook of ecosystem services. London and New York: Taylor & Francis.

    A comprehensive reference text on ecosystem services including their biophysical characterization, economic valuation, and inclusion in decision making.

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