What are Ecosystem Services?

Ecosystem services are the processes by which the environment produces resources utilised by humans. In simple terms, ecosystem services can be defined as the benefits that people obtain from natural ecosystems and these benefits include the very obvious, such as food, air, water, soil, and the less obvious, such as waste decomposition, flood regulation and carbon sequestration.

Why are they important?

In an increasingly hi-tech world, it is easy to forget how fundamental biodiversity and ecosystem services are to daily life. When we hear about ecosystems being destroyed and species going extinct, people assume that other species or ecosystems are around to take their place, or that technology will invent a solution, or that it doesn't really affect us. As individuals, we rarely feel responsible for the loss of biodiversity, although human activities are the primary threat to biodiversity. However, without ecosystem services there would be no humans on Earth. We rely on ecosystem services to provide us with food, air, water and shelter. Everything we need to survive comes from the ecosystems we are a part of.

How do they affect me?

The benefits that humans derive from ecosystem services can be grouped into a number of different areas. Four categories of ecosystem services were identified by The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). These are:

Provisioning services are: The products obtained from ecosystems including, genetic resources, food and fibre, timber and fresh water.
Regulating services are: The benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes including the regulation of climate, water, and some human diseases.
Cultural services are: The non-material benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, education and aesthetic experience.
Supporting services are: Ecosystem services that are necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services. Some examples include biomass production, production of atmospheric oxygen, soil formation and retention, nutrient cycling, water cycling, and provisioning of habitat.

It can be hard to see how ecosystem services directly benefit people as individuals. A good example of just how significant ecosystem services are is the case of bees. Bees are one of a number of groups of species which are essential for pollinating plants, including the plants we and our domestic livestock eat. In recent years the numbers of these key insects have dropped significantly and today there are real concerns that we may be facing a potential ecological disaster. Just how important bees are to every single human was summed up by Einstein:

 If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.

Where does biodiversity fit?

Biodiversity is an integral component of ecosystem services. Living organisms, particularly microbes, fungi and invertebrates, are essential for the functioning of the cycles and processes which drive ecosystem function and services.

How can we protect ecosystems and the services they provide?

An “Ecosystem Approach” to conservation is a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way.

Ecosystem approaches place human needs at the centre of biodiversity management and aims to manage the ecosystem, based on the multiple functions that ecosystems perform and the multiple uses that are made of these functions. An ecosystem approach does not aim for short-term economic gains, but aims to optimise the use of an ecosystem without damaging it.

For example, when flood defences are being designed it may be more appropriate to use Natural Flood Management principles (See Climate Change chapter) which can be cost effective and benefit both people and biodiversity rather than relying upon hard engineering solutions alone.

How can the Local Biodiversity Action Plan help?

The South Lanarkshire LBAP is ecosystem focused and will take actions which will maintain and enhance ecosystem function wherever possible.