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Ecosystem services are defined as the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human wellbeing, and have an impact on our survival and quality of life. There are four types of ecosystem services: provisioning, regulating, cultural and supporting services.

The term “ecosystem services” is a relatively new one, first used to ascertain the value of nature to bring attention to environmental degradation. Constanza et al. (1997) originally estimated that ecosystems provided on average USD$33 trillion per year in services, compared to the global GNP at the time being $18 trillion per year. However, more recent estimates in 2011 suggest that ecosystems actually provide the equivalent of $125 trillion in services per year (Costanza, et al., 2014). Our growing understanding of the true worth of nature is worrying when set against the degradation ecosystems face.

Provisioning services are characterised by the ability of humans to obtain products from ecosystems, such as food, water and resources, including wood, oil and genetic resources and medicines. 

Regulating services are categorised as any benefit obtained from the natural processes and functioning of ecosystems. Examples include climate regulation, flood regulation and other natural hazard regulation, pollination, water purification and more. For example, natural water purification services in Europe are valued at an estimated €33 billion per year. Further, pollination by wind and insects is a service that would not be possible without nature, particularly bees, as discussed in another one of our articles on the climate crisis and bees.

You might also like: What is Trophy Hunting?

Cultural services include non-material benefits that people can obtain from ecosystems. These include spiritual enrichment, intellectual development, recreation and aesthetic values. These types of services can be hard to monitor and value compared to regulating and provisioning services, but research in this area is growing. For example, studies have shown that an ability to see or interact with nature, through hospital windows or hospital gardens respectively, increases the speed of patient recovery.

Finally, supporting services are those which relate to habitat functioning themselves, and therefore influence survival. For example, photosynthesis, the water cycle and nutrient cycles are the basis of ecosystems, which in turn allow us to support ourselves. This type of ecosystem service also goes down to the genetic level, such as the maintenance of viable species gene pools. 

The loss, therefore, of ecosystem services is not just an environmental issue, but an economic and social issue as it not only affects the environment, but the economy and individual well being. However, the holistic nature of ecosystem services and their interactive behaviour means that common anthropogenic pressures often affect more than one service. However, habitat destruction, pollution, and invasive species are among the most prolific threats to ecosystem services. 

Resource extraction is one of the key drivers of habitat destruction. Most resource industries – logging, mining and farming – require infrastructure that transforms the ecosystem where the resource is being extracted. For example, deforestation for mining has impacts on soil erosion and biodiversity, as well as requiring vast quantities of water, which impacts the water cycle. Additionally, when the water is released in more concentrated polluted amounts, this influences the ability of the ecosystem to purify water.

Water, land and air pollution all have severe impacts on ecosystem health, which consequently affects ecosystem services. A common example is eutrophication. As fertilisers leave the surface soils during rainfall and surface runoff from agricultural land, the nutrients, or pollutants, enrich the water, affecting the natural balance in lakes and more stagnant stretches of water. The result is a bloom in algae, which reduces the ability of subsurface plants to photosynthesise, leading to decomposition, lowering water quality and damaging the water, habitat integrity and more cultural aesthetic services

Finally, invasive species are a direct threat to ecosystem integrity and health. Introductions of invasive species into habitats can occur naturally or be caused by humans, but once an invasive species enters an ecosystem, it can be difficult to remove and it can have cascading impacts on ecosystem services. Depending on the species, they can threaten food security and affect provisioning services, as insect-pollinator pollutions can decrease through competition or predation by a newly introduced species. Crops themselves can be killed by new insects through consumption or disease-spreading. Through competition, invasive species can reduce biodiversity, and therefore, supporting services in terms of genetics if the new invasive species dominates the ecosystem. The extent of the effects of invasive species is hard to determine, but the expected cascade of impacts on ecosystem services is expected to worsen under the climate crisis.

However, further research on ecosystem services has led to the growth of fields such as environmental economics, which investigates natural capital. In a capitalist society, the monetary value attached to nature through these disciplines has the benefit of incentivising industry and governments towards more sustainable and eco-friendly policies. However, there are ethical questions as to whether this is the best way to energise conservation efforts. The work of environmental economics and investigations into natural capital is now a big driver in conservation, which has great promise for the protection of ecosystem services.

Featured image: Flickr

New research has shown that the fecal waste of seabirds- namely seagulls, pelicans and penguins- could be worth nearly half a billion US dollars annually. 

Seabirds’ fecal waste, also called guano, can be used as commercial fertiliser and is essential for providing nutrients to marine ecosystems. Researchers of a new study want to raise awareness about the importance of seabirds and conserving their habitats by quantifying their contributions and demonstrating the cost of declining seabird populations by valuing their waste

Guano’s value is estimated at more than US$473 million annually, a conservative estimate that is likely to be higher, according to the study published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution. The study outlines how monetising biodiversity contributions can best assist with calling for public attention, and in this respect, increase awareness on the importance of seabird conservation. 

“Guano production is an ecosystem service made by seabirds at no cost to us- I can go to an island, collect the guano, and sell it at market price as fertiliser,” study co-author Marcus Cianciaruso, an ecology professor at the Federal University of Goiás in Brazil, says.

You might also like: Driven By the Climate Crisis, Bumblebee Numbers Have Plummeted

Beyond Commercial Value: Ecosystem Services  

Guano from seabird species, which is currently commercialised in places like Peru and Chile, contributes to providing vital nutrients to marine ecosystems and is also essential for coastal economies. 

The researchers of the study stated that the bodily functions of seabirds assist in nutrient recycling and pumping nutrients ‘between marine and terrestrial habitats’: “They release high concentrations of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) through their feces, causing important environmental changes in these ecosystems.”

Furthermore, the researchers outlined how the nutrients deposited in coral reef ecosystems from guano can increase reef fish biomass by up to 48%- which is important for fisheries and natural marine wonders of the world like the Great Barrier Reef.

The annual value of the nitrogen and phosphorus deposited into these ecosystems from guano was estimated by calculating the cost to replace them with artificial nutrients. 

“We made a very conservative estimate that 10% of coral reef fish stocks depend on seabird nutrients,” said co-author Daniel Plazas-Jiménez, a doctoral student at the Federal University of Goiás. “According to the United Nations and the Australian government, the annual economic returns of commercial fisheries on coral reefs is over $6 billion. So, 10% of this value is around $600 million per year.”

The study noted that the inclusion of such functions- nutrient deposition, marine ecosystem and biodiversity, coral reef maintenance- could easily raise the value of seabird N and P deposition to US$1.1 billion. 

In light of this, the monetisation of ecological functions expresses the ‘importance of biodiversity in similar terminology to that used in the economic and political sectors’. Such an approach therefore appeals to masses as the public is driven by monetary incentives. Additionally, the study explained that the monetisation of ecosystem services acts as a preventative measure against ‘misinterpreting conservation efforts as a luxury’.

Why is Seabird Conservation Important?

Seabirds also impact other habitats beyond their immediate environment. Some species, like penguins in Antarctica, significantly influence nitrogen and phosphorus levels at the local and global levels.

Plazas-Jiménez says, “A huge amount of nutrient deposition happens in Antarctic ecosystems: penguins contribute half of the nitrogen and phosphorus deposited by seabirds every year,” Plazas-Jiménez added. “However, 60% of this contribution is made by penguin species with declining populations, and these contributions will decrease in the future if no conservation activity is taken.”

Seabirds are already under threat: “We found that the main threats to seabirds- climate change and bycatch and overfishing- have a higher effect on nutrient deposition than in the number of seabird species. Climate change threatens 80% of the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus deposited by seabirds, but only 44% of seabird species,” Plazas-Jiménez says. “Potentially, the effect of these threats on the contributions that seabird nutrient deposition made to our well-being is greater than previously thought.” 

According to BirdLife International, a global partnership of conservation organisations devoted to protecting birds and global biodiversity, approximately half of seabird species’ populations are declining and a third face potential extinction.

“The depletion of fish through overfishing and climate change has caused rapid declines in widespread and much loved seabirds such as Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica and Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla- both are now considered vulnerable to extinction,” according to BirdLife International’s 2018 report.

The organisation stresses that immediate efforts are needed to conserve seabirds as they are ‘one of the world’s most threatened groups of vertebrates’. 

The researchers of the study also noted that seabirds offer more than just their fecal waste. Tourism and birdwatching are important industries in many parts of the world, and the value of seabirds’ contributions to marine ecosystems would experience a larger increase if all their other functions in ecosystems were quantified.

The study concluded that the data can be used as a starting point for seabird conservation initiatives involving consumers, fisheries, governments and non-governmental organisations alike. The researchers noted that further quantification could potentially increase the value of seabird contributions and is therefore worth investigating.

Following severe environmental degradation from rapid economic development, China is advancing policies to protect biodiversity and ecosystem services. Adopting a natural capital approach, the country has zoned 49% of its total land area into the Ecosystem Function Conservation Areas (EFCAs) to limit development, reduce human impact and create more sustainable livelihoods.

What is natural capital?

Natural capital refers to the elements of nature that produce value to people. It can be broken down into ecosystems, species, fresh water, land, minerals, the air and ocean as well as natural processes and function.

Dieter Helm, Fellow of Economics at Oxford University and author of Natural Capital (2015), wrote that “focusing on natural capital is way of ensuring that the value of nature is embedded in our economy”.

What has China done with their natural capital? 

Recognising that investing in natural capital is essential to long-term prosperity and security, China intends is to use the EFCAs to conserve biodiversity and ecosystem services, mitigate flooding, secure water supplies, renew soil resources and reduce dust and sandstorms- all national priorities.

“This has been spurred by the massive landslides and floods in 1998 that killed thousands and rendered 12 million homeless,” says Dr Anne Guerry, lead scientist and chief strategy officer at the Natural Capital Project, a Stanford University-led partnership of WWF, the Nature Conservancy, Chinese Academy of Sciences and University of Minnesota. The project aims to identify and conserve areas of high ecological value across the world.

“They know if they pay attention to the kinds of approaches we are describing they may be able to develop sustainably without harming the very ecosystems that underpin healthy economies and healthy communities”, Guerry says.

You might also like: How China is Winning Its Battle Against Air Pollution

Massive deforestation and subsequent erosion contributed to the disastrous flooding along the Yangtze River and other rivers in 1998. The crisis prompted the establishment of the largest global payment for ecosystem services program.

China involves 32 million farmers and 120 million households to perform restoration and conservation of forests and grasslands throughout the country to reduce risk of natural disasters while alleviating poverty.

Now China is rezoning the entire country, dedicating over 3 000 researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to work with the Natural Capital Project and their data and analytics software to map the EFCAs.

By using a series of ecological models, the software rates areas based on their ability to sustain human life. A forest, for example, provides water purification, flood control and climate stabilisation that support human life. Nature also yields life-fulfilling conditions, like opportunities for recreation and aesthetic value.

The goal isn’t to “put a price tag on nature”, but to provide a practical approach for guiding land use, urban planning, investments in infrastructure, water supplies and other key decision-making, says Gretchen Daily, project co-founder.

Another useful tool, launched in late 2018 by the Natural Capital Finance Alliance, enables users to see their exposure to natural capital risk and highlights how the economy depends on nature. The application is aimed at investors, businesses and financial institutions.

“Today, nature is too often ignored. It’s sometimes held up as infinitely valuable, and more typically we say it’s not valuable at all, and give it a score of zero in cost-benefit analysis,” Daily says. “Neither position is helpful. We need to shine a light on the many ways in which prosperity and well-being depend on nature, systematically and for setting priorities.”

China has invested more than $150 billion in restoring natural capital and has achieved a major reversal in forest cover and significant reductions erosion in some regions, while creating new income streams to help lift people out of poverty.

The country is now developing and testing a new metric to measure the contribution of nature to human well-being: the Gross Ecosystem Product (GEP).

“China is the first nation to move to comprehensive reporting of natural underpinnings of wealth and well-being, and we are very excited to work with leading Chinese scientists to develop the tools to measure and track this” says Daily.

The Natural Capital Project software is already being used in 80 countries, but Daily says she hopes other countries will follow China’s lead and adopt ecologically informed decision-making processes. “There are many countries pursuing green growth. What we’ve developed could be readily adapted and mainstreamed across all countries.”

 

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