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What are Ecosystem Services?

The Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) defines an ecosystem as “a complex of living organisms and the abiotic environment with which they interact in a specified location.” In other words it is a local network of interacting plants and animals, and the landscape in which they live. Humankind and ecosystems are strongly interrelated in a multitude of ways. Direct and indirect benefits from ecosystems are known as ecosystem services. This term was popularized by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA).
Forest ecosystem services (FES) are those services deriving from forest ecosystems. Watch the video “One Single Tree" to get an impression on how we benefit from trees (Winter and Schnabel, CIFOR 2015).

How can Ecosystem Services be classified?

There is a variety of different approaches to classify ecosystem services. Internationally three main classification systems are applied: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA 2005), Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB 2010) and Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES 2013). Have a look at this table for a comparison of three classification schemes for the sub-selection of forest ecosystem services. For a more detailed comparison of the international classification systems have a look at the Forest Europe Report on Valuation of Forest Ecosystem Services (2014).

How can Ecosystem Services be valued?

Decision-making is often based on the simple concept of income and expenditure which can be on the expense of the natural capital. The natural capital includes nature’s variety of species, biotopes and ecosystems. Technical, human and nature capital form the basis of value creation for a society.
Nature provides different services, the ecosystem services, which are the basic condition for many products, services and social well-being. Nature protection and sustainable use of resources are the keys to keep natural capital available for future generations. The terms nature capital and ecosystem services are characterized by the benefit for humans, in contrast to the intrinsic value of nature. The intrinsic value of nature is the value of organisms and services in themselves, independent from their usefulness for humanity.
The ways that forests benefit society are numerous and diverse, and new benefits continue to be identified. While a total valuation of these benefits is a virtual impossibility, providing concrete values where we can will help us make better management decisions.

Economic valuation of ecosystem goods and services cover both non-monetary and monetary sources of value. The values associated with ecosystem services can be categorized in use values and non-use values, for further information on the topic click here.

What are Payments for Ecosystem Services?

The UNECE defines Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) as “a contractual transaction between a buyer and a seller for an ecosystem service, or a land use/management practice likely to secure that service” (UNECE 2006). PES therefore covers a variety of arrangements through which the beneficiaries of ecosystem services pay the providers of those services. It is a range of financing arrangements for the conservation and sustainable use of natural ecosystems, such as forests, to ensure that the cost to the environment is paid for. It is not, therefore, one model to be universally applied, but rather a series of schemes which can be considered for application to particular circumstances.

To establish a PES scheme the ecosystem services have to be valued. This can be a very critical and difficult task as the services of ecosystems are often not easy to assess and many of them can be seen as invaluable. Nevertheless, effort should be made to agree on values to establish PES schemes with multi benefits for people and nature.

For an overview table with examples of PES schemes in the UNECE region click here.

UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Sections work on Forest Ecosystem Services

List of related videos, documents, publications

List of related meetings and workshops

-        International Day of Forests: Forest and Water (21 March 2016)

-        Silva2015 (2 - 6 November 2015)

-         Forest and Water week (4 - 8 July 2011)