Our challenge for the future is that we realize we are very much a part of the earth’s ecosystem, and we must learn to respect and live according to the basic biological laws of nature.” —Jim Fowler
Ecosystem services are the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being.
As we often mention ecosystem services in our publications and presentations, we wanted to have a description of this important concept readily accessible on our site.
The details below are a direct excerpt from the TEEB Organization’s Ecosystem Services Resource page —please refer to their website for further details and references on the topic.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment defined four categories of ecosystem services that contribute to human well-being, each underpinned by biodiversity. These are Provisioning services; Regulating services; Supporting services, and Cultural services, and are defined as follows:
Provisioning Services are ecosystem services that describe the material or energy outputs from ecosystems. They include food, water, and other resources.
Food –Ecosystems provide the conditions for growing food. Food comes principally from managed agroecosystems but marine and freshwater systems or forests also provide food for human consumption. Wild foods from forests are often underestimated.
Raw materials –Ecosystems provide a great diversity of materials for construction and fuel including wood, biofuels and plant oils that are directly derived from wild and cultivated plant species.
Fresh water –Ecosystems play a vital role in the global hydrological cycle, as they regulate the flow and purification of water. Vegetation and forests influence the quantity of water available locally.
Medicinal resources –Ecosystems and biodiversity provide many plants used as traditional medicines as well as providing the raw materials for the pharmaceutical industry. All ecosystems are a potential source of medicinal resources.
Regulating Services are the services that ecosystems provide by acting as regulators eg. regulating the quality of air and soil or by providing flood and disease control.
Local climate and air quality –Trees provide shade whilst forests influence rainfall and water availability both locally and regionally. Trees or other plants also play an important role in regulating air quality by removing pollutants from the atmosphere.
Carbon sequestration and storage –Ecosystems regulate the global climate by storing and sequestering greenhouse gases. As trees and plants grow, they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and effectively lock it away in their tissues. In this way, forest ecosystems are carbon stores. Biodiversity also plays an important role by improving the capacity of ecosystems to adapt to the effects of climate change.
Moderation of extreme events –Extreme weather events or natural hazards include floods, storms, tsunamis, avalanches, and landslides. Ecosystems and living organisms create buffers against natural disasters, thereby preventing possible damage. For example, wetlands can soak up flood water whilst trees can stabilize slopes. Coral reefs and mangroves help protect coastlines from storm damage.
Waste-water treatment –Ecosystems such as wetlands filter both human and animal waste and act as a natural buffer to the surrounding environment. Through the biological activity of microorganisms in the soil, most waste is broken down. Thereby pathogens (disease causing microbes) are eliminated, and the level of nutrients and pollution is reduced.
Erosion prevention and maintenance of soil fertility –Soil erosion is a key factor in the process of land degradation and desertification. Vegetation cover provides a vital regulating service by preventing soil erosion. Soil fertility is essential for plant growth and agriculture and well functioning ecosystems supply the soil with nutrients required to support plant growth.
Pollination: Insects and wind pollinate plants and trees which is essential for the development of fruits, vegetables, and seeds. Animal pollination is an ecosystem service mainly provided by insects but also by some birds and bats. Some 87 out of the 115 leading global food crops depend upon animal pollination including important cash crops such as cocoa and coffee (Klein et al. 2007).
Biological control –Ecosystems are important for regulating pests and vector borne diseases that attack plants, animals and people. Ecosystems regulate pests and diseases through the activities of predators and parasites. Birds, bats, flies, wasps, frogs, and fungi all act as natural controls.
Habitat or Supporting Services underpin almost all other services. Ecosystems provide living spaces for plants or animals; they also maintain a diversity of different breeds of plants and animals.
Habitats for species –Habitats provide everything that an individual plant or animal needs to survive: food; water; and shelter. Each ecosystem provides different habitats that can be essential for a species’ lifecycle. Migratory species including birds, fish, mammals, and insects all depend upon different ecosystems during their movements.
Maintenance of genetic diversity –Genetic diversity is the variety of genes between and within species populations. Genetic diversity distinguishes different breeds or races from each other thus providing the basis for locally well-adapted cultivars and a gene pool for further developing commercial crops and livestock. Some habitats have an exceptionally high number of species which makes them more genetically diverse than others and are known as ‘biodiversity hotspots’.
Cultural Services include the non-material benefits people obtain from contact with ecosystems. They ́include aesthetic, spiritual and psychological benefits.
Recreation and mental and physical health –Walking and playing sports in green space is not only a good form of physical exercise but also lets people relax. The role that green space plays in maintaining mental and physical health is increasingly being recognized, despite difficulties of measurement.
Tourism –Ecosystems and biodiversity play an important role for many kinds of tourism which in turn provides considerable economic benefits and is a vital source of income for many countries. In 2008 global earnings from tourism summed up to US$ 944 billion. Cultural and eco-tourism can also educate people about the importance of biological diversity.
Aesthetic appreciation and inspiration for culture, art, and design: Language, knowledge, and the natural environment have been intimately related throughout human history. Biodiversity, ecosystems and natural landscapes have been the source of inspiration for much of our art, culture and increasingly for science.
Spiritual experience and sense of place –In many parts of the world natural features such as specific forests, caves or mountains are considered sacred or have a religious meaning. Nature is a common element of all major religions and traditional knowledge, and associated customs are important for creating a sense of belonging.
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