Guest blog – A service-based environment? by Jonathan Baker

Jonathan Baker is a graduate of Bath Spa University and Imperial College London and currently a consultant at Collingwood Environmental Planning where understanding what ecosystem services are and what they mean for environmental and planning policy is a fascination.

Thoughts on our evolving consideration of the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services and what this may mean for the management of UK’s natural environment, particularly with the increasing emphasis on enhancement.

As you may be aware the term “ecosystem services” has come to dominate much of the current discussion about the natural environment. The rise of this concept is remarkable, from a few papers in the 1990s to its current status as a central part of UK, European and international environment policy. Within this context, this article seeks to describe our understanding of the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services and what this may mean for the management of the UK’s natural environment.

To recap, ecosystem services are the benefits that we as individuals and as a society receive from the natural environment. Effectively ecosystem services are the product of ecological and natural processes and interactions. Examples of these services include providing us with: food (so called provisioning services); natural areas to enjoy (cultural services); flood storage (regulating services); and soil formation (supporting services).

To date much of the debate over the use of this concept has come from attempts to assign monetary value to the natural environment based on the services provided. The idea of attributing £ signs to the natural environment, which was previously considered to be worth protecting for its intrinsic worth and spiritual and ethical reasons, meant that ecosystem services has been perceived as an essentially reductionist, selfish and money driven concept. Over time these concerns have been diluted as the main argument for the use of ecosystem services, that previously the value of biodiversity was invisible in decision making, has won out and the value of ecosystem services as a useful concept when making the case for protecting or enhancing the natural environment has been realised.

The evidence of this is clear with the UK Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) mentioning ecosystems services 58 times (in 84 pages) and the European Biodiversity Strategy 23 times (in 17 pages).

Throughout these documents biodiversity and ecosystem services are generally synonymous and there appears to be an implicit assumption that measures to protect or enhance biodiversity will lead to the increased provision of ecosystem services and vice versa. However the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services is more complex than that and there is the risk that not making this explicit may undermine the positive potential of the ecosystem services concept. More importantly the interpretation of this relationship has real implications for policy makers and practitioners; especially considering the recent focus on enhancing the natural environment.

The nature of the relationship
Our understanding of how biodiversity relates to ecosystem services is still in its infancy. The most established way to consider this relationship is that biodiversity is in effect a central part of the machinery which provides ecosystem services. If this machinery is damaged or removed then the services we receive decrease and at some point irreversibly stop.

There is however a huge amount of uncertainty within this description. For instance the extent to which biodiversity can be reduced and service provision remain relatively stable is unknown in almost all cases as the thresholds of service collapse are context and ecosystem specific.  As such the condition and status of ecosystem services is generally unclear. This signals a core difference between the two, with ecosystem services having provable monetary value to society but it being hard to measure their condition whereas biodiversity can be measured but it is difficult to assign monetary value to specific species or habitats.

Interpretation in practice
There are other differences that can be articulated by example.
The UK’s woodlands provide a range of ecosystem goods and services in the form of timber products as well as storing significant amounts of carbon and forming the background to a large amount of recreational and cultural activity; they are also one of the UK’s most bio-diverse terrestrial habitats. A major challenge is managing the UK’s woodlands to balance these various and often competing aspects of woodland use. To put it simply “more trees do not equal more wildlife” and more wildlife does not equal more timber products or, necessarily, more carbon storage.

This conflict between service provision and biodiversity has led to significant revision in a major global forest protection programme – the United Nations’ (UN) Reducing Emissions for Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD). The REDD programme provides payments to forest owners and managers to maintain trees to act as a carbon store, initially this system did not recognise the need to manage biodiversity separately to carbon storage. The assumption was that keeping trees standing would protect biodiversity. Subsequently it was feared that many REDD projects may focus on carbon storage alone and not effectively consider or protect biodiversity. The UN has since launched REDD+, with the + indicating a more holistic view of forest management which explicitly indicates the need to distinguish between payments for ecosystems services (PES) and biodiversity management.

Woodland management is an area where there may be direct conflict between optimizing service provision and increasing biodiversity and as such provides a cautionary tale that biodiversity and ecosystem services are not one and the same.

Cultural ecosystem services are generally harder to quantify and value than other services, due in part to their less tangible nature. For example, what is the value of a dew laden spider’s web or a walk in a park? Valuation is considered to be possible by assessing personal decisions and opinions regarding the natural environment. One of the clearest aspects of valuing cultural services is that experiencing the environment is core to valuing it.

There is, of course, significant value in knowing that somewhere there is a wooded area which echoes with the rat a tat of a green woodpecker but this “existence value” is quickly exceeded by actually experiencing these areas. There are however established conflicts between maximising these sorts of cultural services, for instance by increasing visitor numbers, and delivering biodiversity objectives. Conservation activities may for instance require management that limits human activity. Examples of such management may include using grazing animals on grass or heath lands or the use of fire, both of which may be considered detrimental to recreational use. These are challenges that reserve managers and wardens are used to addressing and their inclusion here is to provide further evidence that managing biodiversity and ecosystem services requires different goals and potentially different approaches.

One of the unique aspects of managing or enhancing ecosystem services, as opposed to biodiversity, is the need for additional capital inputs. For example the “value” of a fish in the sea or the view from Snowdon is not realised without the introduction of a hook and line or some form of transport respectively. Effectively many ecosystem services do not ‘exist’ or exist to a lesser extent without humans and often without capital input. Therefore unlike biodiversity ecosystem services often require additional infrastructure, which may itself impact on biodiversity.

So what is the response?
What does it mean for policy makers and practitioners if we are to understand that biodiversity and ecosystem services are different and that their related management and enhancement activities are also potentially different?

Initially it requires us to understand that both biodiversity and to some extent ecosystem services are spatially specific and cannot be replicated as and when they are required. As such there is a need to consider and allow for local context and priorities –in some instances this will mean that the focus is on a specific element of biodiversity such as a target species or habitat and in other instance this will require the prioritisation of a specific ecosystem services such a flood regulation or water quality.

This is not a binary choice, in many circumstances management and enhancement activities will deliver both improved biodiversity and ecosystem services but it is not enough to assume this. Rather as part of the management of an area or the consideration of a policy it is vital to consider ecosystem services and biodiversity as separate (but related) aspects of our natural environment. This will need to be informed by an understanding of the local priorities within the national context as well as the potential of the area under consideration. For instance is there a local need to improve flood storage, increase recreation or protect a particular species.

Realising potential ecosystem services and maximising the trade offs are something that was suggested as a result of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UKNEA). Lead author Ian Bateman suggested that there would be a significant increase in ecosystem services if low quality grassland currently used for low intensity agriculture was enhanced through afforestation. In particular he suggested that areas that were nearest to urban areas should be prioritised for afforestation as this is where cultural services can be enhanced most efficiently.

This is not necessarily a good idea, but it does signal a potential benefit of considering ecosystem services and biodiversity separately. The ability to pull apart individual services and consider the priorities and potential tradeoffs, perhaps based on societal preferences or defined trade off rules.

The prioritisation of ecosystem services is not new. This is essentially what we do with suitable land where provisioning services (food production via agriculture) are prioritised over others. It is also true that different ecosystem services are provided by different aspects of biodiversity, so as much as we have prioritised biodiversity to date we are have also prioritised ecosystem services. We might as well make this explicit and consider the tradeoffs.

Arguing that the environment is an asset that should be “optimised” – is not particularly appealing but what it lacks in poetry it makes up for in power and arguably represents the logical evolution of our thinking about ecosystem services.
In many instances there will be a need to focus on biodiversity for its own sake. Certain key species and habitat types are in urgent need of support and management and enhancement activities can improve individual site quality as well as the coherence of the natural environment more generally. As we have discussed, in some instances there will be a need to prioritise biodiversity at the expense of other services. In other instances delivering multifunctional landscapes might be the appropriate approach.

When considering the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services it is worth recalling that the primary driver of natural environment policy has been to deliver biological outcomes. As such there is potentially an argument that we should have a hierarchical relationship with biodiversity taking priority over ecosystem services? This article seeks to express that this prioritisation should be explicit, considered and transparent.

By tending to conflate biodiversity and ecosystem services current policy has potentially missed an opportunity, but the flexibility of the current policy framework does allows for local decision makers to separate and prioritise biodiversity and ecosystem services based on their local context. By considering biodiversity and ecosystem services as separate aspects of the same complex system we have the potential to create a more honest and effective discussion about how we are managing and enhancing the natural environment.



27 Replies to “Guest blog – A service-based environment? by Jonathan Baker”

  1. Fell asleep after first few of to many lines. No wonder folk don’t listen to folk whom write to much.

  2. AS you will be spending all your time working on wind farm proposals and the final document is out of your reach can you add how biodiversity benefits from such monsters?

    1. John

      Assuming the ‘monster’ you refer to is the wind farm (i.e. turbines) then the benefits to biodiversity (and therefore to human society in an economic context in the context of Jonathan’s blog) are in brief:

      reduced reliance on hydrocarbons which in turn will require less extraction, so reducing the pollution risk to marine environments and thus benefit marine ecosystems which can contribute to benefitting fish stocks which, if you are in the fishing industry in north-east England (e.g. Grimsby) has a considerable local positive benefit to the economy if managed sustainably (Bruntdland definition).

      reduced need to construct pipelines (which require trenching (terrestrial habitat disturbance/ loss)), which reduces land available for food production (e.g. a 100km pipeline at a working width of say 40m takes out an area of 400ha of agricultural land temporarily (larger proportion) and permanently out of food production, which then has impacts on food prices and farmers incomes); and

      reduced air pollution which will reduce health issues for asthma sufferers and others which will have an economic impact on the NHS (UK), that can mean costs savings or money can be diverted elsewhere in the health system (e.g. increase salaries for lower paid employees, reduce the ‘postcode lottery’, allow more research in to drugs combatting cancers or other diseases).

      All from the ‘monster’ that is your windfarm.

      And I haven’t even gone down the route of habitat creation that can be delivered from felling low ecological value dense coniferous plantations that require chemical pesticides to maintain growth and replacing these with upland habitats that sequester carbon (e.g. bogs) and/ or heathland which provide a cultural benefit to society.

      The disbenefits of windfarms are yes, there is a visual impact (but so would the chimney stacks of the hydrocarbon fuelled powerstations) and if located badly, potential negative impacts on raptor populations. Just as well there are environmental/ ecological consultants (including me) working on such schemes to ensure that they are policy and legal compliant and to identify and work with the industry in a positive way for the benefit of all, economically, environmentally and socially.

      Flippant comments offer nothing to a genuine debate, reduces what could be a valid argument to a reactive comment, both of which reflects badly on individuals who I am confident are normally regarded as highly intelligent and articulate members of society.

      1. Richard – would be interested in your thoughts on the debate about forests v. heaths. See link on comment below. Some people are getting very worked up about deforestation for heaths.

        1. Afforestation of upland areas with fast growing species such as Sitka Spruce was, if memory serves me correctly and this wikipedia article is accurate (, caused by the UK Government creating a tax break for the wealthy and thus created large areas of dense, species-poor forest, some of which I observed, when I was last in the Flow Country (in 2009); and, which I was shocked to discover, requires significant chemical intervention (pesticide and fertiliser) to keep them growing. The Flow Country is the Flow Country because the soils are (very) nutrient deficient and very wet; trees wouldn’t normally grow there of their own accord. This is a single example, and I suspect that Mark, who has quite literally written a book on forestry, can add more academic weight to the debate. The Flow Country is not heathland per se; but I guess you could broadly squeeze it in to a category that includes heathland in the strictest sense.

          So that places some context to my earlier comment.

          The debate in terms of loss can be illustrated from personal experience, thus: as a teenager, I was involved in clearing scrub from chalk downland in the Chilterns as part of a local community group, for the benefit of calcareous flora and fauna, notably butterflies and other invertebrates. A local campaigner videoed us and likened our behaviour and consequences of this scrub-bashing (great fun by the way) to the destruction of the Amazonian Rainforest. He was even promoting the concept of planting sycamore trees on the chalk grassland to create a wonderful “native woodland”. He clearly had no idea what he was talking about, had no ecological training and attracted, briefly, a following. The lesson is that felling trees, for whatever reason, as this article demonstrates ( is an emotive issue. A few vocal local voices and entirely appropriate and legitimate felling can be given bad press.

          Where does this stem from? In my opinion, it is partly down to the fact that the majority of people are divorced from the countryside and fail to recognise that habitats need to be managed, whether they be heathland, woodlands or wetlands. Woodland was managed as coppice for centuries to make building materials (houses as part of the wattle & daub construction), native forests were felled in their entirety to create our Navy and defeat the Spanish Armada (and others) and am sure there are plenty of other examples of woodland bashing that others can contribute.

          On this subject (kind of), I was having an interesting conversation with Dr Roger Key (ex-Natural England, President of the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union) on Saturday on whether our native habitat was the wild wood of lore and legend. He was telling me that perhaps the woodland cover that is described in the text books as being ‘wild wood’ in Neolithic times was a misnomer and referred to Franz Vera (see this British Wildlife edition: for some additional themes on this and wider subject) who noted that in all interglacials except the one which Humans dominate, there were large grazing herbivores (rhinos, antelope etc) in the UK so presumably they lived in grassland/ savannah type environments or ‘Park Grassland’; i.e. individual/ copses of mature trees amongst grassland. Perhaps this was the native habitat and when the bow and arrow and spear were invented, the grazing mammals mets their demise and woodland grew up as ‘weeds’ (my interpretation to the conversation!). This is a controversial theory (I think) but the point is that the environment is dynamic on a scale that extends beyond our lifespans.

          And of course, people see their local forest as having been there for ‘ever and ever’ and so place an ownership on it, regardless of its value (nature conservation, social or cultural), when in fact it is really just a moment in time.

          Does this answer the question? I hope so!

          1. Great answer Richard – thank you. Having spent time pulling pines out of heaths as well as having worked as a tree surgeon I don’t have much love for the pine forests that generaly cover old heaths. However I do see why some people who arent aware of the biodiversity arguments think that removing any woodland is bad news.

            To my mind this issue is a very good example of the potential for conflict between biodiversity and ecosystem services and why it is important to differntiate between the two. Part of the solution is making it clear that in this instance biodiversity is more important.

      2. Not many cherries left on that tree.

        Having spent time today watching buzzards and a kite riding the updraught on the escarpment outside my fence, I propose that anyone who kills or knowingly permits or encourages these magnificent birds to be killed should have to pay dearly. This includes consultants who, knowing that wind turbines kill raptors, argue for their construction, and all operators, shareholders and users of the power that they occasionally generate.

        The scale of fines should equal all income from the scam, and should be redistributed as a premium on top of the winter fuel allowance.

        I’m really warming to the notion of Vicarious Liability.

  3. Another example of the conflict between services and biodiversity can be seen with the row over clearing forests to restore heaths – lots of anger about losing forests (which are high in ecosystem services) for heaths (which are high in biodiversity) –

  4. Really interesting piece – well thought out and argued. I agree that biodiversity doesn’t sit well in the ecosystem services framework (it’s main limitation as a framework in my opinion). Perhaps one of the reasons it tends to be classed as a cultural service is that the evidence that it supports other services is so shaky. You can strip out a considerable amount of biodiversity from many systems without affecting their function or ability to provide ecosystem services. Having said that, the Government’s Research Councils think there is a good enough chance that more tangible links will be found between biodiversity and ecosystem services that they’ve put >£10M into NERC’s Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services & Sustainability programme to explore the relationship further. In the mean time, I agree with your proposed approach to treat them separately in policy terms.

    1. Interesting point Mark. It is possible that we’ll be able to get a more nuanced understanding of ecosystem services and biodiveristy and there is a lot of work going on in this area. The work I’ve seen does seem to suggest that services increase with increased biodiversity as does resilience to shocks – for example . However we dont seem to be anywhere near being able to differentiate between different services at this point.

      I’m not sure how useful that sort of information would actually be though. Currently we tend to rely on the precautionary principle and protect biodiversity and assume it protects service provision. In most instances this is good as I would suggest that in most instances biodiversity should be prioritised in most instances. My concern would be that if we knew what the limits were for biodiversity there would be a tendency to conserve it to that level.

  5. Good read. I think the points made are integral to a wider discussion on our
    need for alternatives in our economy. Sometimes the complexity of a case or
    the fact that the theme does not have a particularly public spotlight detracts from the
    strength of the points being made. I hope this blog is widely read.

  6. This is an interesting article. I’m not sure I agree with seperation of biodiversity and ecosystem services in management or conceptually. From what I know they are both part of the same holistic ecological systems and what’s good for biodiversity is good for ecosystem services? Or is it really more complex than that? I understand biodiversity is the health ingredient that underpins ecosystems and should be prioritised in practice and policy.
    I agree we need to consider limiting disruption to certain habitats for them to flourish – through limiting public access and development amongst other measures. In this case I agree that biodiversity should take precedents over cultural ecosystems if necessary.
    Perhaps the most difficult part of environmental management is what point in history we need to restore landscapes and habitats, considering climate change and the continual adaptation of wildlife and habitats over time. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and thoughts.

    1. Hey Emma, thanks for the comment. The ecology is unclear on the exact relationship between the two in most instances. As such it is probably not enough to assume that both biodiversity and ecosystem services will increase (or decrease) at the same rate in response to management (or disruption). This is especially true, as you indicate, for cultural services where increasing service provision may reduce biodiversity.

      The point of this article is to suggest that improving one, will not neccessarily improve the other and that in some instances this needs to be made clear.

  7. As a nature conservationist I certainly believe that giving nature a value is important, since it may stop its destruction in cases where it doesn’t make any economic sense to destroy it. But value is not the end of the story because in addition, I rejoice in nature reserves that conserve biodiversity insofar as possible in as near natural conditions as possible.

    I’ve no doubt you could take renewable energy from the hot springs in Yellowstone and maybe not disturb nature much or build a windfarm on Minsmere. But just because you could, it doesn’t mean you should. Indeed I would strongly argue that you should not.

    This is an ethical or spiritual thing and the value of that is as infinite as the value of the air we breathe.

    1. Thanks for the comment Alistair – to be honest my approach to ecosystem services steers quite clear of explict valuation. I think the methods for assigning “value” are pretty flawed, assumption led and easy to pull apart.

      To my mind the most interesting use of ecosystem services is to explain to people how they use the environment and biodiversity. Most dont realise that the water in their tap, their dry floors (flooding) and lack of beer belly are due in part to natural spaces. The big numbers that projects like TEEB and UKNEA pull out are only useful at very high level policy – local level is much more about how we use the environment.

  8. Thanks for the interesting article. I agree that biodiversity (per se) and ecosystem services should be differentiated between. I think it is important that conservationists make it clear they do not use a ecosystem services argument as their primary defence for conservation and then fall back on a argument defending biodiversity in terms of its intrinsic value when the ecosystem service argument is not sufficient to render conservation economically viable. What are your thoughts.

    1. If we’re talking about communicating “why biodiversity matters” I think its very much a case of horses for courses. In some instances I know that policy makers at higher levels are very turned on by talking about the economic imperative to protect biodiversity and maintain green spaces. But at the local level this is gibberish – as you probably know as well as I talking about how people use their local environment is much more effective. I think these “economic” and “use” arguments support rather than replace the argument that the environment has intrinsic value.

      It comes down to framing it so that people engage with what you are saying – do you think that people who arent like us engage with the intrinsic value argument?

      1. Absolutely, I believe that everyone, given the opportunity, will engage with nature and value it intrinsicly. I believe that, ultimately, an ecosystem services approach is a mechanism by which conservationists can ensure that the biodiversity they value intrinsicly is preserved based on its economic value.

  9. Jonathan Baker suggests there is a ‘debate’ about forestry vs heathland. Only in the minds of the more reactionary Forestry Commission folk I think. The recent Open Habitats consultation has made it very clear what the majority of conservationists think – heathland good; FC plantations bad. The FC did try to play the carbon card, but as many of us pointed out they completely ignored any carbon stored below the surface, and all the greenhouse gases released during forestry operations compared with traditional heathland management. Doh.
    Richard – good article I thought. A longer comment coming up in a bit.

    1. I agree that the “debate” is pretty much won but there are still conflicts at the local level. I have to agree that its a good example of a fight well fought by conservationists.

  10. Richard, all good points, but I think we have to think even bigger.

    Where I live in Dorset, I can go walking over one of the biggest carbon capture projects on Earth – the Jurassic (and Cretaceous, but we don’t mention that on the ‘Jurassic Coast’). Now, where was all that carbon-storing limestone and chalk originally formed? Basically, in wet places; swamps, bogs, and, above all, the sea.

    It is surely the same today. About half the carbon we produce from fossil fuels goes into the atmosphere. So what happens to the other half? Forests and dry vegetation can only act as a short term store at best. The important long-term carbon capture is going on where new ‘fossils’ are being created – in the world’s wet bits. Most books on global warming give this hardly a mention, if at all, and in all the effort put into trees, it seems to be totally overlooked. Surely the most important ecosystem service of all is going on in our mires, lakes and seas: fossil-creation, to put back the carbon we have taken out.

    Meanwhile I’m planning to do my bit this weekend – I’ll have half a dozen oysters, and look after their carbon-capture shells.

  11. Please put the shells back in the ocean. I know its a tangent but I’ve been working all day on a project on oyster overexploitation and when you remove the adult shells the larvae have no substrate to attach to and die. Enjoy your oysters!

    1. Iain – I noticed in South Carolina last year that there were skips for recycling your shells which were then dumped back in the sea. I’d never thought of it – and was rather impressed.

    2. Ok, I’ll admit I was going to make a ‘midden’, rather like the mesolithic ones on Portland (shows oyster shells can last 10-15k years at least), but will save for my next seaside trip. I think the oyster farmers look after the larvae in this case, but good point about substrate – we should indeed be doing anything that encourages carbon-capturing oysters!

  12. Interesting debate. I agree that in some cases there is a strong link between biodiversity and certain ecosystem services in certain systems e.g. in many food webs, providing “provisioning services”. But there are cases where it doesn’t work. A 50% drop in biodiversity wouldn’t affect flood risk or water quality from an upland catchment unless a small number of key species linked to surface roughness and DOC production were affected. Worst case scenario (and I’m not advocating this!!), if you were to concrete over the Scottish Highlands, many people would still probably climb to the top of Ben Nevis, forbthe sane reasons they climb to the top of the Empire States building, and get health and perhaps even spiritual benefits from the experience…?

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