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Ecosystems are living systems that cover the entire surface of the earth (land and water). The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, UN, 1992) defines ecosystems as: "a dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit".
What are ecosystems?
There are many different ecosystem types which are shaped by their specific combination of a range of abiotic factors (e.g. soil type, water levels, climate etc.) with living organisms (plants, animals, fungi, bacteria etc.). According to their degree of naturalness they can be allocated to three main groups: natural, semi-natural and anthropogenic ecosystems.
Natural ecosystems are those which occurred before farming was introduced to Europe. These include natural forests, peat bogs, high mountain habitats, oceans, lakes and rivers. They can be strongly impacted by human activities but will recover on their own if these pressures are removed.
Semi-natural ecosystems have been created by human land use over the last 10,000 years or so, mainly via different types of livestock grazing and biomass harvesting. They include habitats such as lowland hay meadows, heathlands or steppic grasslands. Nearly all semi-natural ecosystems depend on a continuation of traditional, extensive land use.
Anthropogenic ecosystems are substantially transformed by human activity, e.g. via wetland drainage, intensive cultivation and/or infrastructure and buildings. Key examples of such ecosystems include intensively used farmland areas, urban areas and certain forest types, such as Eucalyptus or mono-species conifer plantations. They are generally species-poor and would benefit from nature restoration.
More information of International and European ecosystem classification
- The main European ecosystem classification is provided by the ‘European Nature Information System’ – EUNIS.
- At the international level the IUCN classification of Global Ecosystem Types (IUCN GET) is gaining increasing recognition.
What is the distribution and condition of European ecosystems?
Europe’s ecosystems have been massively transformed by intensive farming, fishing and forestry, urbanisation, transport infrastructure, pollution and climate change, and invasive alien species. This means few areas remain of natural and semi-natural ecosystems in good condition. This is summarised in a 2020 EU report on "Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services: The state and trends of ecosystems in the European Union" Report. This report gives an assessment of the key ecosystems in the EU, evaluates the EU 2020 biodiversity targets and provides a baseline for the 2030 biodiversity policy and proposals for an EU nature restoration law.
The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 calls for developing an EU-wide methodology to map, assess and achieve good condition of ecosystems, so they can deliver benefits to society through the provision of ecosystem services. The System of Environmental Economic Accounting - Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA) provides a good reference framework for this purpose. The SEEA EA is an integrated framework for organizing biophysical information about ecosystems, adopted as a global statistical standard by the United Nations: Ecosystem Accounting | System of Environmental Economic Accounting
Work at EU level in the INCA project has produced a range of outputs on the extent and condition of EU ecosystems as well as their services. A recent EU report has further developed the methodology for assessing ecosystem condition: JRC Publications Repository - EU-wide methodology to map and assess ecosystem condition (europa.eu)
The SEEA EA is also the reference framework under the proposal for the amendment of Regulation (EU) No 691/2011 on European environmental economic accounts.
Further information on the EEA’s work on ecosystem accounting:
What are ecosystem services?
While nature and thus ecosystems deserve to be protected in their own right, ecosystems are also appreciated for the ‘ecosystem services’ they provide. These are defined internationally as the ‘contributions of ecosystems to human well-being’. This means ecosystems services generate benefits that humans derive from ecosystems and use in economic and other human activity.
The SEEA Ecosystem Accounting uses the following three broadly agreed categories of ecosystem services:
- Provisioning services are those ecosystem services representing the contributions to benefits that are extracted or harvested from ecosystems; examples are mushroom or fish harvested in the wild and the crops and grazed areas that deliver us bread, meat and other foodstuffs;
- Regulating and maintenance services are those ecosystem services resulting from the ability of ecosystems to regulate biological processes and to influence climate, hydrological and biochemical cycles, and thereby maintain environmental conditions beneficial to individuals and society. Climate regulation and water flow regulation are important examples of this type;
- Cultural services are the experiential and intangible services related to ecosystems whose existence and functioning contributes to a range of cultural benefits, such as improved health, recreation or cultural rituals.
Towards a common classification of ecosystem services
‘CICES’ stands for ‘Common international classification of ecosystem services’ and aims to support the implementation of public ecosystem accounts and ecosystem services research by making results comparable between studies and countries.
EEA has supported the development of CICES since its beginnings and is the custodian agency for CICES in the United Nations’ inventory of international classifications.
Just like the UN ecosystem accounting standard (SEEA EA), CICES distinguishes three main groups of ecosystem services:
- Provisioning services
- Regulating and maintenance services
- Cultural services
CICES offers additional features compared to other ecosystem service classification approaches. One such feature in the forthcoming version allows users to select only those ecosystem services that depend on living systems (i.e. biophysical ecosystem outputs) or to include the non-living (abiotic) parts of ecosystems that can also contribute to human well-being (geophysical ecosystem outputs).
From 2018 to 2022, the H2020 MAIA project has supported nine EU Member States and Norway to test the implementation of the SEEA EA framework at national and regional scales.
Progress and lessons learnt by EU Member States in the implementation of the SEEA EA framework
Member states have tested the SEEA EA by compiling core pilot ecosystem accounts (extent, condition, services and assets) at national and regional scales. The MAIA pilot ecosystem accounts report presents the pilot accounts compiled by each country and provides a detailed overview of input datasets, applied methodologies and outputs. Synthetic reports and other resource are available from the MAIA project's library
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: https://data.jrc.ec.europa.eu/collection/maes