Ecosystems services and environmental assessments

12th February 2014


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  • Natural resources ,
  • Ecosystems ,
  • Consultancy

Author

David Okonkwo

Michael Paginton, from the Pegasus Group, examines the role of ecosystems services in environmental impact assessment (EIA) practice

Ecosystems services are the benefits people and communities obtain from natural habitats. The services they provide underpin and contribute to our health and wellbeing.

The term gained international recognition through the research carried out as part of the United Nations millennium ecosystems assessment. This four year study (2001–05) assessed the “consequences of ecosystem change for human wellbeing and the scientific basis for action needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those systems”.

The assessment categorises ecosystems services into four groups:

  • provisioning – food, fuel, wood and fibre, for example;
  • regulating – climate regulation, flood regulation and disease regulation;
  • cultural – aesthetic, spiritual, educational and recreational; and
  • supporting – nutrient cycles, soil formation, primary production and crop pollination.

Following the millennium assessment’s groundbreaking research, the concept of ecosystem services, our understanding of the interaction and functions of ecosystems and human wellbeing has continued to gain momentum.

In 2011, the UK government published the key findings of the UK national ecosystems assessment. The study assessed different ecosystems services, identifying their importance to human wellbeing and of changes seen in those services following human influence. It identified that while some services were being delivered well others were declining.

Why integrate ecosystems services into environmental assessments?

In development planning there are a number of mechanisms used to assess environmental impacts. For example, strategic environmental assessments and sustainability appraisals are typically associated with assessing the environmental impacts of development plans, while EIA is applied to development proposals that are likely to lead to significant environmental impacts. Whether at a strategic scale or at a local scale, ecosystems services have an important role within these assessments.

Ecosystems services can provide a holistic view of the natural environment, the benefits being provided and their interactions.

Many services and the benefits we obtain from ecosystems are being degraded and lost through unsympathetic development. To continue to benefit from ecosystems services it is imperative that key services are supported and where they are in decline action is taken to reverse this.

For this to be realised, ecosystems services need to be considered when a decision on development is taken. Environmental assessments of developments will play a key role in achieving this goal.

The benefits of an ecosystems services approach:

  • A greater degree of integration between different subject areas, as well as biophysical and socioeconomic issues.
  • A greater understanding of ecosystems and their services at both the strategic and local level.
  • A greater understanding of ecosystems will support more effective impact prediction and allow a more targeted approach to requirements for intervention and mitigation.
  • Closer co-operation between different stakeholders to promote cross disciplinary integration.

What are the key challenges?

  • The term ecosystem services has gained recognition but is not fully understood by practitioners.
  • A key part of any environmental assessment is the preparation of a detailed baseline. Despite studies into ecosystems services, preparing a detailed baseline remains difficult due to:
    • uncertainty as to how to collect ecosystems service baseline data;
    • uncertainty in identifying services’ functions and their actual and perceived value; and
    • timeframes in which environmental assessments need to be completed, particularly in relation to EIA. Conducting an ecosystems services baseline can be perceived as onerous and time consuming.
  • Quantifying the value of ecosystems services is not simple. The issue is increasingly the subject of research, with Birmingham City Council, for example, recently completing an economic valuation of the ecosystems services provided by its green infrastructure. However, there are still knowledge gaps and limitations when it comes to how an economic value is reached.

Next steps

To further promote the incorporation of ecosystems services into environmental assessments more research needs to be conducted into preparing ecosystems services baseline assessments.

It would be particularly useful if local authorities followed in the footsteps of Birmingham City Council to prepare a borough or district-wide assessment of ecosystems services as a basis for further studies. A local authority wide ecosystem services baseline would help provide information for, direct and feed into, development scale assessments.

There has been a UK-wide ecosystems services assessment, but now regional and local assessments are required. Individual parcels of land and habitats form part of ecosystems that in turn form part of larger ecosystems. Detailed baselines at a range of scales will facilitate the formation of key aims and objectives for ecosystems services to guide development and its planning. Without detailed baselines it is difficult for environmental assessments to positively incorporate ecosystems services.


This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice.

Michael Paginton is an environmental planner at Pegasus Group


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