Latest Articles

Views from the BES Annual Conference: Ecosystems Services

A wide ranging and often fascinating series of talks and debates at the University of Sheffield.  A central theme of this year’s conference was the science of Ecosystems Services, exploring the major developments in this area over the past few years, culminating in the publication of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment.

As Bill Sutherland pointed out, the remarkable thing has not so much been the findings of the NEA (although these are intriguing) but the way in which it has captured the imagination of press, politicians and public alike.  Ecosystems service principles are noticeably embedded in this year’s Natural Environment White Paper (equally informed by the Lawton Review) and Biodiversity Strategy for England, though sadly not the draft National Planning Policy Framework.

Two questions that immediately spring to mind are how the new policies and strategies will be reconciled with (a) the proposed presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’, and (b) the need to avoid ‘license-to-trash’ outcomes from pilot schemes for biodiversity offsets.

Getting back to the point, an enormous range of practical examples of ecosystems approaches were showcased.  Some highlights include the Westcountry Rivers Trust work on catchment restoration, payments for ecosystems services (PES), three Natural England pilots to restore upland moor and peatland, and developing tools for the application of an ecosystems approach in planning.

Several others reported on a diversity of topics from carbon storage and sequestration, wetland restoration and purification services, the effects of atmospheric and diffuse nitrogen pollution and, of course, the importance of soil ecosystems.

Ecosystems Applications in Environmental Assessment and Green Infrastructure Planning?

Despite the significant progress made by the NEA, the report pointed to a need for ongoing research to increase the accuracy of the science and explore questions around valuation of natural capital.  In the absence of detailed and robust valuations of natural capital at a local scale it will be difficult for an ecosystems approach to inform local planning in an evidence-based way.

That said, there are nonetheless some interesting opportunities to bring ecosystems services into the planning system through related assessments and strategies.  Here we raise a few:

  • The location and scope of ecosystems services could be mapped and described through the scoping stages of Strategic Environmental Assessment and/or the baseline sections of green infrastructure studies
  • While the data to fully inform such an exercise is not fully available, there are several sources of information to help build a general picture
  • Deficits within certain categories of service could then be identified
  • Assessments of options and reasonable alternatives could plot various change of use scenarios in relation to losses and gains of ecosystems services
  • Commentary could be provided on the overall balance of losses and gains as a result of preferred scenarios, with particular focus on deficit
  • In time, when further research and data become available, it should start to become possible to quantify the cost to natural capital of a given scenario, and the cost of replicating lost services if required

Tags: Ecology, Ecosystem services, News, Policy