Analyses of changes between 2000 and 2012 show an overall increase of the monetary value of ecosystem services, mainly due to an increase in demand for (and therefore in the beneficiaries of) ecosystem services.
Two approaches to quantifying the value of ecosystem services
The new method described in the article includes two different approaches for quantifying the flow of ecosystem services:
- fast-track approach based on official statistics and inventories; and
- spatial modelling approach based on mapping the potential, demand, and use or actual flow of ecosystem services. The estimate of the actual flow, and its monetary value, is required for accounting. It represents the amount of service effectively mobilised from ecosystems to society to generate benefits.
The fast-track approach is most suited to ecosystem services related to biomass production (e.g. crop and timber provision, global climate regulation), where the ecosystem service flow can be evaluated using official national accounts. However, where data are not readily available (for flood control, crop pollination and nature-based recreation), spatial models can help quantify the amount of service used.
Mapping the actual flow of ecosystem services
The authors mapped the actual flow of the 6 ecosystem services for which sufficient EU data is available: crop provision, timber provision, climate regulation, flood control, crop pollination and nature-based recreation.
These maps revealed different spatial patterns of each ecosystem service.
Central Europe, which is characterised by high precipitation levels and mild temperatures, shows higher ecosystem productivity in terms of crop provision, timber provision and global climate regulation. These services were assessed using the fast-track approach.
The spatial distribution of the other three ecosystem services (crop pollination, flood control and nature-based recreation) largely was linked to their demand. For instance, the actual flow of crop pollination was mapped for areas planted with pollinator-dependent crops, food control was estimated for areas where economic assets are at risk of flooding, and nature-based recreation was mapped where higher populations make use of suitable nearby areas for daily recreation (central Europe and capital cities).
The monetary value of ecosystem services and ecosystem types
The total of all 6 ecosystem services accounted for at the EU level were valued at €124.87 billion for 2012.
At €50.4 billion, nature-based recreation was found to be the ecosystem service with the highest absolute monetary value of all ecosystem types, representing 40% of the total.
Ecosystems are assets that provide a full range of services. For instance, ’woodland and forest’ can provide timber (a natural resource), but can also regulate climate, mitigate floods, provide a recreational resource and so on.
Woodland and forest, followed by wetlands, are the ecosystem ‘assets’ with the highest monetary value per unit area (approximately €44 thousand/km2 and €27 thousand/km2, respectively) and, therefore, make a greater contribution to human well-being.
These ecosystems are the main contributors in the delivery of the ecosystem services assessed, but other ecosystem types are also needed to guarantee a whole range of ecosystem services.
The monetary value of the ‘asset’ wetlands could be significantly larger if their role in sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere were better captured. At EU level, wetlands are reported in the official greenhouse gas inventories as sources of CO2, mainly due to peat extraction. However, there is a lack of data on unmanaged and more natural wetlands for most countries. The use of appropriate management practices and rewetting would boost the natural functioning of these ecosystems as CO2 sinks, thereby increasing their ability to mitigate CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.
Despite having the lowest overall value of all ecosystem services (€9.72 billion), the annual value of crop pollination represents about 20% of the total yield value of pollination-dependent crops.
The urban ecosystem yielded the lowest monetary value per year in both absolute (€170 million) and relative (€810/km2) terms. However, if only the extent of green urban areas were taken into account (leaving out the area of built-up land cover), urban ecosystems would yield a relative value of €56,000/km2, which is even higher than the value of forest.
Main benefactors of ecosystem services
Households emerged as the main economic users of ecosystem services, benefiting from flood control and nature-based recreation to the tune of €11.73 billion and €50.4 billion per year, respectively.
The agricultural sector is the second biggest benefactor, receiving a yearly flow of ecosystem services that result in yield (from crop provision and pollination) and protection (from flood control) estimated at €31 billion. Without the contribution of these ecosystem services the costs of production would be significantly larger.
Using spatial modelling of ecosystem services to inform policy
The spatial modelling of ecosystem services provides a unique planning and monitoring tool for policymakers.
It highlights the main drivers of change in the ecosystem services (their potential and demand) and helps understand the role of the ecosystems that provide the service and/or the role of the society the benefits from it.
It can also inform land planning, for example by mapping the part of the demand that is not sufficiently satisfied by ecosystems (unmet demand) to show areas where ecosystem restoration could enhance the ecosystem contribution to human well-being.
As this modelling approach requires ad hoc expertise, the development of Geographic Information Systems tools that include the whole accounting workflow could help make it easier to use and more accessible for practitioners and policymakers.
The authors call for accounts of more ecosystem services, since they each present very different characteristics.
Future JRC research will prepare accounts for the ecosystem services of water purification, soil erosion control and habitat maintenance.
Integrating ecosystem services accounts into mainstream economics
Ecosystem services accounts help quantify the contribution of ecosystems to human well-being and the economy.
The ecosystem services accounts described in this paper can inform the development of an ecosystem services mapping and reporting system that is truly integrated with official economic accounts.
This is essential for ecosystem services accounts to play a role in economic modelling, analysis and planning.
The new method described in this paper will contribute to the development of the United Nations System of Environmental Economic Accounting - Experimental Ecosystem Accounts (SEEA EEA).
It is in our interest to protect, enhance and ensure their sustainability in order to ensure our livelihood and allow future generations to benefit from these remarkable gifts of nature.
Ecosystem services accounts can help steer us in the right direction.