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Knowledge - Ecosystem services


Abstract: Ecosystem services describe the benefits that humans can derive from healthy ecosystems, such as food, water purification and flood control

Technological readiness level: 7 (system in use, experience to be gained)

Environment: All environments
Key words: Ecosystem services, natural resources, food, climate regulation, ecosystem health



Humans have always benefited from a wide range of resources and functions provided by natural ecosystems. Such natural benefits, which may be provided as goods (e.g. fish, gravel) or services (e.g., clean water provision), are collectively known as ecosystem services. Ecosystem Services are defined as 'the benefits people derive from ecosystems' (MEA, 2003). 

Services are not only life-support services, but also life-fulfilling services. Examples of life-support services are filtration and delivery of water, absorption of wastes, maintenance of atmosphere and climate within limits suitable for human life, maintenance of soil fertility and structure, protection from floods and other natural hazards, and maintenance of habitat and biodiversity. Examples of life-fulfilling services are provision of cultural, spiritual and intellectual stimulation and maintenance of other species for their existence value.

Ecosystem services are divided into four categories; production services, regulating services, cultural services and supporting services (MEA, 2003).


Production services

Products that are obtained from ecosystems.


  • Food and fiber - This includes the vast range of food products derived from plants, animals, and microbes, as well as materials such as wood, jute, hemp, silk, and many other products derived from ecosystems.
  • Sources of energy - such as fuel-wood, dung and other biological materials.
  • Genetic resources - this includes the genes and genetic information used for animal and plant breeding and biotechnology.
  • Biochemicals, natural medicines and pharmaceuticals - many medicines, biocides, food additives such as alginates, and biological materials are derived from ecosystems.
  • Ornamental resources - animal products, such as skins and shells, and flowers are used as ornaments, although the value of these resources is often culturally determined. This is an example of linkages between the categories of ecosystem services.
  • Fresh water - another example of linkages between categories, in this case between provisioning and regulating services.

Regulating services

Benefits that are obtained from the regulation of ecosystems.


  •  Air quality maintenance - ecosystems both contribute chemicals to and extract chemicals from the atmosphere, influencing many aspects of air quality.
  • Climate regulation - ecosystems influence climate both locally and globally. At a local scale, changes in land cover can affect both temperature and precipitation. At the global scale, ecosystems play an important role in climate by either sequestering or emitting greenhouse gases.
  • Water regulation - the timing and magnitude of runoff, flooding, and aquifer recharge can be strongly influenced by changes in land cover.
  • Erosion control - vegetation cover plays an important role in soil retention and the prevention of landslides.
  • Water purification and waste treatment - ecosystems can be a source of impurities in fresh water but also can help to filter out and decompose organic wastes introduced into inland waters and coastal and marine ecosystems.
  • Regulation of human diseases - changes in ecosystems can directly change the abundance of human pathogens, such as cholera, and can alter the abundance of disease vectors, such as mosquitoes.
  • Biological control - ecosystem changes affect the prevalence of crop and livestock pests and diseases.
  • Pollination - ecosystem changes affect the distribution, abundance, and effectiveness of pollinators.
  • Storm protection - the presence of coastal ecosystems such as mangrove forests and wetlands can dramatically reduce the damage caused by hurricanes or storm surges.

Cultural services

The non-material benefits people obtain from an ecosystem.


  • Cultural diversity - the diversity of ecosystems is one factor influencing the diversity of cultures. This may include historical and cultural landscapes such as natural levees.
  • Spiritual and religious values - many religions attach spiritual and religious values to ecosystems or their components.
  • Educational values - ecosystems and their components and processes provide the basis for both formal and informal education in many societies.
  • Aesthetic values - many people find beauty or aesthetic value in various aspects of ecosystems, as reflected in the support for parks, “scenic drives,” and the selection of housing locations.
  • Social relations - ecosystems influence the types of social relations that are established in particular cultures. Fishing societies, for example, differ in many respects in their social relations from nomadic herding or agricultural societies.
  • Sense of place - many people value the “genius of the place” that is associated with recognized features of their environment, including aspects of the ecosystem.
  • Cultural heritage values - many societies put high value on the maintenance of either historically important landscapes (“cultural landscapes”) or culturally significant species.
  • Recreation and ecotourism - people often choose where to spend their leisure time based in part on the characteristics of the natural or cultivated landscapes in a particular area.
  • Inspiration - ecosystems provide a rich source of inspiration for art, folklore, national symbols, architecture, and advertising.

Supporting services

Services that are for the health of ecosystems, but do not yield direct benefits to humans.


  • Primary production - The production of organic matter from CO2. A well known process for this is photosynthesis, which uses light as source of energy. An other type is chemosynthesis, which uses the oxidation of chemical compounds as energy source.
  • Production of atmospheric oxygen - Oxygen is produces in the process of photosynthesis. Plants produce oxygen, but also algae and cyanobacteria contribute to the worldwide oxygen production.
  • Soil formation and retention - Soil formation is essential for the health of terrestrial ecosystems. Soil is formed by micro-organisms and physical processes that decompose organic matter to small particles.
  • Nutrient cycling - Nutrients such as nitrogen or phosphate go trough a natural recycling process. Inorganic matter or minerals are taken up by living organisms. The process of decomposition will recycle the material to the physical environment.
  • Water cycling - Water circulates between the earth's oceans, atmosphere, and land. The water cycle involves precipitation such as rain and snow, drainage in streams and rivers, and return to the atmosphere by evaporation and transpiration.
  • Provisioning of habitat - Habitats provide animal and plant species with the resources they need, such as food, water and shelter. Each ecosystem consists of a diversity of habitats, that in turn support different species.


Valuation of ecosystem services

Ecosystem services are often given an economic value in order to get a clearer understanding of the value of ecosystems. The economic value of ecosystems is often used in socio-economic cost-benefit analyses. An example of such a tool is discussed in the Contingent Valuation Method for Nature Valuation. For further reading on the valuation of Ecosystem services see the TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) website here.





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