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Nature, landscapes and biodiversity

Ecosystem Services

Social, economic and cultural value

Nature provides us with all kinds of services, some of which that are visible —such as food and wood— and other that are often less visible, such as the removal of pollutants from surface water by reed beds and natural pest control in agriculture. These services are called ecosystem services.

The importance of these ecosystem services to mankind is often underrepresented in financial decision-making processes, usually because no value has been assigned to the service in question. In cases where such a value can be assigned, those services suddenly may be viewed by society in a very different light. An example of this is the admission charge that must be paid to walk or cycle in the Hoge Veluwe nature reserve.

 Five questions will be adressed in this topic:

1. Why are ecosystem services important?

Human welfare and well-being

Ecosystems support human existence. For example, provisioning services provide food, water and wood. Regulating services partly determine the physical human environment, for example, through CO2 storage and water safety and security. Cultural services largely contribute to human well-being through the beauty of nature and the identity that certain cultures derive from it. Furthermore, it is possible that the global decline in ecosystem services is playing a role in current crises, such as global warming, food security issues, flooding and drought events, desertification, poverty, conflict and migration.

Link to infographic: 'Infographic Examples of ecosystem services in the Netherlands'
Link to infographic: 2'Infographic Examples of ecosystem services in the Netherlands'

Examples of ecosystem services in The Netherlands

2. What policy is in place on ecosystem services?

Focus on the benefits of nature

Although there is no specific policy on ecosystem services, current policies are increasingly focusing on the importance and recovery of ecosystem services. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) includes targets to secure the provision of ecosystem services, in addition to its targets to preserve biodiversity. The European Commission has translated these targets into the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020. The Dutch Government has also developed new policy to promote the sustainable use of ecosystems; the main policy documents are the Dutch National Nature Vision 2010 and the Natural Capital Agenda (in Dutch).

3. What changes are taking place in the supply and demand for ecosystem services?

Decrease in the provision of certain ecosystem services

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that 15 of the 24 ecosystem services included in the study were in decline on a global level. Although much progress has been made in the last 50 years as far as welfare and economic development are concerned, this has been accompanied by damage to our natural capital. An example of such damage is the overfishing of the world’s oceans, leading to the poor recovery of fish stocks, with all the ecological, economic and societal consequences this entails.

Dutch society uses various ecosystem services. Research shows that there are no ecosystems in the Netherlands that meet all of the demand in that particular area. Over the past 25 years, the gap between supply and demand has continued to grow, for many ecosystem services. For example, climate change has created a growing demand for water storage, coastal protection and carbon sequestration, while the supply of ecosystem services such as water, soil fertility and carbon sequestration have been declining.  

In order to address such shortages, technical measures are being implemented, such as the construction of dykes. Another alternative to the use of local ecosystem products is that of importing them. Nevertheless, even with using imports, part of the demand cannot be met. 

4. What is causing the change?

More intensive land use

Important reasons for the global decline in ecosystem services include changes in land use, climate change, overexploitation and pollution. These are indirectly affected by population growth, economic activities, technology and socio-political and cultural factors. For example, in certain areas nature is being converted into agricultural land to feed the growing world population, and farming in existing agricultural areas is becoming more intensive. These changes in food production are taking place at the expense of other ecosystem services, such as clean water provisioning, climate regulation and natural pest control.

In the Netherlands, too, the intensification of agriculture is causing a decline in ecosystem services such as soil fertility and pest control. The supply of clean water from ecosystems has declined, as water treatment plants have taken the place of natural purification systems.

5. What could policy do to preserve and develop ecosystem services?

Include ecosystem services in decision-making processes

With ‘natural capital’, the government has introduced a policy concept that focuses on the protection and utilisation of ecosystem services. This policy could be developed further, first by specifying the underlying ambitions. For example, by creating spatial links between ambitions to increase agricultural sustainability and other societal themes, such as drinking water extraction, nature and recreation. The government may support the realisation of such ambitions through innovation policy. In addition, solutions can be sought for ecosystem services that are not functioning optimally. Examples of such solutions include restoration measures, technological alternatives that imitate an ecosystem service, or the importation of services from elsewhere. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) and Natural Capital Netherlands are examples of projects that presented ecosystem services and investigated options for their preservation and development.

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