Ecosystems and their services

© Myles Pinkney, NATURE@work /EEA

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, provides an introduction, overview and assessment of the most important ecosystems and their services in the EU.

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 page 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