What on Earth are Ecosystem Services? Nexus Seminar on the Concepts, Methods, and Challenges

  • 2018/11/14     Dresden, Germany

    By Atiqah Fairuz Salleh, Communications and Advocacy

    The idea that nature provides benefits supporting human well-being has been there since time immemorial. With the growing awareness that these benefits are fast depleting, experts have turned their attention to ‘ecosystem services’ as a concept that helps us to better understand the interconnections between humans and nature.

    Ecosystem services can be defined as
    “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems”.
    –Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005


    In her lecture to a full seminar room, Karla Locher-Krause presented on “Ecosystem Services in Transformed Landscapes: Concepts, Methods, and Challenges” on 5 November 2018. Locher-Krause, Research Assistant for UNU-FLORES’s Systems and Flux Analysis Considering Global Change Assessment Unit, delivered the talk as part of the Nexus Seminar Series.

    Walking the audience through its historical development, Locher-Krause introduced the concept of ecosystem services and its evolution over the years. Simply put, it is a framework that helps us to think more clearly about how we manage our interaction with the environment.

    As an integrated concept, the ecosystem services concept combines both the ecological and social aspects of a system. While the concept per se is not new, it was not until the latter half of the 20th century that it gained prominence, chiefly due to the increased awareness that our natural capital is on the decline.

    Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

    In 2005, the United Nations called for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, an international process tapping on more than a thousand experts to provide an up-to-date scientific evaluation of the state of and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide. Packaged as a summary for decision makers, the findings seek to also provide scientific backing for action to conserve and use these ecosystem services sustainably.

    It is through understanding our natural world that we are better equipped to properly channel efforts for conservation.


    Karla Locher-Krause provided a breakdown of ecosystem services, distinguishing three main types: provisioning (products from nature), regulating (services from nature that regulate our environment), and cultural (non-material benefits from nature that enrich lives). These span across both the environment and the socioecological system. To make sense of and to operationalise the concept, the “cascade” framework (Potschin-Young et al. 2018) has become one of the most accepted frameworks in the study of ecosystem services. Having said that, ecosystem services as a field remains to be dynamic. There is vivid debate ongoing on how best to move forward (Constanza et al. 2017, Diaz et al. 2018).

    As an overarching framework that integrates the environment and the social and economic systems, the ecosystem services framework provides an interdisciplinary basis for modern environmental science and for embedding science into policymaking and society. In this way, Locher-Krause explains, the ecosystem services framework complements the Nexus Approach as advanced by UNU-FLORES. By looking at interdependencies and trade-offs, and seeking synergies and coherence across resources and sectors, we come closer to more sustainable and balanced management of an ecosystem. Altogether, through making explicit the linkages between people and nature, the ecosystem services framework supports the development of policies and instruments that integrate a multitude of perspectives, be they social, economic, and ecological.

    The challenge is to somehow balance different ecosystem services in a landscape ultimately to balance conservation and society demands.


    Given that studies of ecosystem services are done at a specific scale across time and space, Locher-Krause introduced the notion of “transformed landscapes”, or land systems that have undergone changes. Changes in land-use systems have been recognised as one of the most important drivers of environmental change. She illustrated this through a case study in Southern Chile. In her research, Locher-Krause looked at the landscape transformations in a highly fragmented biodiversity hotspot and evaluated the implications on the provision and beneficiaries of ecosystem services.

    Locher-Krause combined remote sensing modelling, ecological tools, and landscape planning strategies to quantify the impacts and effects of human activities on land cover and the dynamics of ecosystem services in the defined area. The goal is to enhance multiple ecosystem services – often we tend to focus on only one – and to improve conservation efforts in the landscape.

    In the study, Locher-Krause defined connectivity areas (structural) as the integration of riparian corridors (e.g., where land meets river or stream) and national conservation units (Image: Google Earth).

    The study found that the supply of ecosystem services varied significantly over the six periods analysed between 1985 and 2011, both across time and space (Locher-Krause et al. 2017b). The way ecosystem services relate to the type of land cover differs with changes in land use. When trying to understand such patterns, Locher-Krause pointed out the importance of scale – neglecting which, trends would otherwise be lost or misinterpreted.

    Take the case of carbon stock, for example. If we consider the whole study area, it would have increased over time. A closer inspection, however, would reveal different patterns for different subareas. An increase of carbon stock in the central valley would be due to exotic forest plantations, but a decrease in the coastal range would be a result of deforestation.

    Forest recreational areas multiplied drastically in particular areas over time but protected areas are unevenly distributed (Locher-Krause et al. 2017b).

    Forest recreational areas have also been found to have drastically multiplied in particular areas. The worrying part: protected areas are not evenly distributed. The ecosystem services analysis thus revealed a possible mismatch between ecosystem services beneficiaries and supply areas. These findings signal for conservation efforts to be redirected to areas where they are most needed.

    Locher-Krause concluded the seminar with a Q&A session. The audience showed great interest in the methodology of the study, such as how the ecosystem services in the study area were defined. It was a combination of literature review, the use of Landsat images, as well as a stakeholder approach through the input of the local government. On the question of whether there is a way to put a price on these services, Locher-Krause responded that this is an ongoing research area, where monetary as well as non-monetary values are being assigned to ecosystem services to better inform what we know of an ecosystem and to better inform policymaking for it.

    This Nexus Seminar is part of the joint seminar series of UNU-FLORES and TU Dresden, delivering thought-provoking lectures and stimulating discussions on the Nexus Approach to environmental resources management. The next seminar will take place on 19 November 2018.

    References and Further Reading

    Costanza, Robert, et al. 2017. “Twenty years of ecosystem services: how far have we come and how far do we still need to go?.” Ecosystem Services 28:1–16.

    Díaz, Sandra, et al. 2018. “Assessing nature’s contributions to people.” Science 359.6373:270–272.

    Locher-Krause, Karla E., et al. 2017a. “Expanding temporal resolution in landscape transformations: insights from a Landsat-based case study in Southern Chile.” Ecological indicators 75:132–144.

    Locher-Krause, Karla, Sven Lautenbach, and Martin Volk. 2017b. “Spatio-temporal change of ecosystem services as a key to understand natural resource utilization in Southern Chile.” Reg Environ Change 17(8):2477–2493.

    Locher-Krause, Karla, Sven Lautenbach, and Martin Volk. Forthcoming. “Reconnecting fragmented Patagonian landscapes: Insights from an ecosystem services supply and beneficiaries ‘assessment.” In Review.

    Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Our Human Planet. Summary for Decision Makers. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

    Potschin-Young, M., et al. 2018. “Understanding the role of conceptual frameworks: Reading the ecosystem service cascade.” Ecosystem Services 29:428-440.