Ecosystem services are the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being (TEEB D0). They support directly or indirectly our survival and quality of life.
According to TEEB, ecosystem services can be categorized in four main types:
Provisioning services are the products obtained from ecosystems such as food, fresh water, wood, fiber, genetic resources and medicines.
Regulating services are defined as the benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes such as climate regulation, natural hazard regulation, water purification and waste management, pollination or pest control.
Habitat services highlight the importance of ecosystems to provide habitat for migratory species and to maintain the viability of gene-pools.
Cultural services include non-material benefits that people obtain from ecosystems such as spiritual enrichment, intellectual development, recreation and aesthetic values.
Some examples of key services provided by ecosystems are described below:
Climate regulation is one of the most important ecosystem services both globally and on a European scale. European ecosystems play a major role in climate regulation, since Europe’s terrestrial ecosystems represent a net carbon sink of some 7-12% of the 1995 human generated emissions of carbon. Peat soils contain the largest single store of carbon and Europe has large areas in its boreal and cool temperate zones. However, the climate regulating function of peatlands depends on land use and intensification (such as drainage and conversion to agriculture) and is likely to have profound impacts on the soil capacity to store carbon and on carbon emissions (great quantities of carbon are being emitted from drained peatlands).
Water purification by ecosystems has a high importance for Europe, because of the heavy pressure on water from a relatively densely populated region. Both vegetation and soil organisms have profound impacts on water movements: vegetation is a major factor in controlling floods, water flows and quality; vegetation cover in upstream watersheds can affect quantity, quality and variability of water supply; soil micro-organisms are important in water purification; and soil invertebrates influence soil structure, decreasing surface runoff. Forests, wetlands and protected areas with dedicated management actions often provide clean water at a much lower cost than man-made substitutes like water treatment plants.
Pests and diseases are regulated in ecosystems through the actions of predators and parasites as well as by the defence mechanisms of their prey. One example of these regulating services is provided by insectivorous birds in farms that use most of their land for agriculture.
Soil biodiversity is a major factor in soil formation, which supports a range of provisioning services such as food, fiber and fuel provision and is fundamental to soil fertility, being a highly important ecosystem service in Europe. In addition, a diverse soil community will help prevent loss of crops due to soil-borne pest diseases.
Cultural services provided by ecosystems are also very important to EU citizens. Evidence can be found in the scale of membership of conservation organizations. For example, in the United Kingdom the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has a membership of over one million and an annual income of over £50 million.
Although most people associate them mainly with nature conservation and tourism, well managed protected areas can provide vital ecosystem services, such as water purification and retention, erosion control and reduced flooding; they support food and health security by maintaining crop diversity and species, play an important role in climate change adaptation and contribute to mitigation through the storage and sequestration of carbon.
A new classification of ecosystem services is under development at international level, the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES) to facilitate integration of ecosystem services in environmental accounting.
At EU level, a conceptual framework for Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services (MAES) has been developed to steer a more harmonized approach to ecosystem and ecosystem services assessments across EU Member States.
Figures from the EU 2010 Biodiversity Baseline