Ecosystems and their services

Ecosystem services are the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and the species that comprise them, sustain and fulfil human life. These tremendously valuable natural capital assets feature highly distinctive spatial and temporal patterns of distribution, quantity, and flows. This page, which refers to a recently published report and key policy objectives, provides an introduction, overview and assessment of the most important ecosystems and their services in the EU. At the bottom of the page is a list of references that provide information on topics such as ecosystem typology, ecosystem conservation indicators and more.

Europe’s ecosystems, on which we depend for food, timber, clean air, clean water, climate regulation and recreation, suffer from unrelenting pressures caused by intensive land or sea use, climate change, pollution, overexploitation and invasive alien species.

Ensuring that ecosystems achieve or maintain a healthy state or a good condition is thus a key requirement to secure the sustainability of human activities and human well-being

This guiding principle applies for all ecosystems including marine and freshwater ecosystems, natural and semi-natural areas such as wetlands or heathlands but also managed ecosystems such as forests, farmlands and urban green spaces.

In October 2020 the EU published the "Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services: The state and trends of ecosystems in the European Union" Report. This report gives an assessments of the key ecosystems in the EU, evaluates the EU 2020 biodiversity targets and provides a baseline for the 2030 biodiversity policy and EU nature restoration plan.

Protecting ecosystems and biodiversity are key policy targets in the EU’s biodiversity strategy for 2030 and the European Green Deal. EU and national policy makers require information on the extent and condition of ecosystems to improve their management.

> For further information on the EEA’s work on ecosystem accounting, see the section Ecosystem Accounting

What are ecosystems?

Ecosystems are defined in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, UN, 1992) as:

"a dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit"

Ecosystems are multi-functional. Each system provides a series of services for human well-being either directly, e.g. as food and fibre, or more indirectly by e.g. providing clean air and water. Ecosystem assessment is an instrument for structured and targeted analysis of environmental change and its impact on human well-being. The structural and functional entities of ecosystems are key entry points for our understanding of how species interact with each other and their abiotic environments, and how these interactions are affected by human activities.

Ecosystems contain a multitude of living organisms that have adapted to survive and reproduce in a particular physical and chemical environment. Anything that causes a change in the physico-chemical characteristics of the environment has the potential to change an ecosystem’s condition, its biodiversity and, consequently, its capacity to provide services. Any activity that removes or adds organisms can change the functionality of an ecosystem. An ecosystem assessment should evaluate all of the relevant factors affecting the ecosystem’s structure and function.

Spatially-explicit mapping is required to capture different gradients and variations of the relevant components, in space and time, affecting ecosystem function (Maes et al., 2014). The assessment of ecosystem condition provides information about its capability to continuously provide services for human well-being. This knowledge is essential to document the on-going loss and degradation of ecosystems and their services, the subsequent socio-economic impacts, and the identification of pathways towards sustainable development, in order to maintain the delivery of services. As such, ecosystem assessments provide the input for decision-making by addressing and integrating basic information to sectoral policies, i.e. mainly, territorial planning, nature protection, agriculture, forestry, freshwater, marine, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and air pollution reduction.

The 2020 Mapping and assessment of ecosystems and their services (MAES) Report

This report presents an ecosystem assessment covering the total land area of the EU as well as the EU marine regions. This report constitutes a knowledge base which can support the evaluation of the 2020 biodiversity targets. It also provides a data foundation for future assessments and policy developments, in particular with respect to the ecosystem restoration agenda for the next decade (2020-2030). The report presents an analysis of the pressures and condition of terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems using a single, comparable methodology based on European data on trends of pressures and condition relative to the policy baseline 2010. The assessment is carried out by Joint Research Centre, European Environment Agency, DG Environment, and the European Topic Centres on Biological Diversity and on Urban, Land and Soil Systems.

Download the report from here.

10 key messages

1. We need to preserve and restore the EU’s ecosystems in order to secure their essential services;

2. Effective implementation of environmental legislation and policies can result in reducing pressures and improving the condition of ecosystems;

3. The adverse impacts of climate change and invasive alien species on ecosystems are increasing;

4. Improving the condition of ecosystems in the wider landscape by reducing pressures on biodiversity can help improve the status of protected habitats and species both within and outside Natura 2000 areas, and increase their connectivity;

5. Pressure on forests remains high and undermines good forest condition;

6. Agricultural biodiversity and soil - a vital asset for farmers - continues to decline;

7. Wetlands remain in poor condition. The chemical quality of rivers and lakes is improving, but overall progress to achieving good ecological status is insufficient;

8. Major data gaps pose obstacles to the assessment of marine ecosystem condition;

9. Nature-based solutions in cities can help improve urban quality of life while minimising negative impacts on other ecosystems and improving urban biodiversity;

10. The EU needs a better performing biodiversity observation network and more consistent ecosystem condition reporting.

Foreword to the report

Healthy, thriving and resilient nature is at the core of healthy lifestyles, thriving economies and resilient societies. Europe’s ecosystems - from forests, rivers and lakes to farmland, urban green spaces and soils – form a safety net that protects us from extreme climate impacts and provides us with essential ecosystem services such as crop pollination, soil creation, carbon sequestration and storage, and much more. Access to nature is vital for our physical and mental health. Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us how much our own wellbeing depends on that of the planet.

While we continue to fight Covid-19 and its consequences for the global economy, the clock has not stopped ticking on the two global crises that threaten our very existence: the climate and the biodiversity crises. These crises are fully interrelated. The loss of natural habitats is pushing wildlife out of natural areas and to the proximity of human settlements, increasing the risk of transmission of viral diseases and the emergence of pandemics. Climate change accelerates the destruction of the natural world through droughts, flooding, heat waves and wildfires. Biodiversity loss and unsustainable land use impair nature’s capacity to adapt to climate change and store carbon. Logically, the solutions to the health, climate and biodiversity crisis must also be interrelated.

However, Europe’s ecosystems are under increasing pressure. This first European ecosystem assessment covering EU Member States (EU-27) and UK shows that ecosystems suffer from the increasing impacts of climate change and nutrient pollution. They are being lost to conversion and land use intensification. Native biodiversity is gradually replaced by non-native species, particularly in grasslands and urban areas. As ecosystems are destroyed, the supply of their essential services is also declining. This is costly for our economy and for our wellbeing.

Over one year ago, the Commission presented the European Green Deal: Europe's new growth strategy to bring together environmental, economic and social sustainability. A strategy to develop sustainable and green infrastructure, renewable energy, greener cities and healthier countryside, green products and services, sustainable agriculture and food, clean transport and innovation. This strategy for a green transition has since become our roadmap to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 is at the heart of the European Green Deal. It is a comprehensive, ambitious and long-term plan to protect nature and reverse the degradation of ecosystems. It aims to put Europe's biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030 including via legally binding restoration targets that we will propose later this in 2021.

Ecosystem restoration will be essential to deliver win-win solutions for climate, biodiversity and human wellbeing by 2030. Restoring agroecosystems will increase their natural productivity and resilience to climate change, support healthier diets and help diversify jobs in rural areas. Restoring forests, wetlands, coastal and marine ecosystems will help us mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change, and increase our resilience to natural disasters such storms, floods and drought. Restoring soil to good condition will improve their fertility, carbon storage and water regulation capacity. Restoring urban ecosystems will make our cities healthier to live in, and more resilient to climate change. Scientists need now to use the results of the first EU ecosystem assessment to develop tools and data to pinpoint places where ecosystems are degraded, and prioritise restoration.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to embrace a green transition and emerge from this health crisis ready to set out towards a sustainable future. The UN has already declared this decade as the decade of ecosystem restoration. Later in 2021, we expect the world to agree on an ambitious global biodiversity targets at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China. We need to grasp this opportunity to opt for a collective recovery, for the people and the planet. (Frans Timmermans, European Commission Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal).

Further resources

EU Ecosystem Assessment - Summary for policymakers: download

EU Ecosystem Assessment - Scientific report and annex with indicator factsheets: download

Discover data sets used in the EU Ecosystem Assessment:

EU science hub:


Reference material

Typology of ecosystems

Correspondence between Corine Land Cover classes and ecosystem types

Crosswalks between European marine habitat typologies

Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES)  

Categories of ecosystem services (MA, TEEB and CICES)

Reference data for ecosystem mapping

Indicators of ecosystem conditions