What Are Ecosystem Services?

The short answer: The words “ecosystem services” capture all of those tangible and intangible ways in which human beings depend on, use, and benefit from the natural environment.

Back it up: The United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2001 outlined the concept of “ecosystem services.”

Graphic in which four photographs are cropped to form the four panes of a curved window.

Figure provided by Marie Johnston.

There are four main types of ecosystem services.

  1. Provisioning services: The environment produces a diversity of goods and products we use in our daily lives. Examples include food, fuel, water, fiber, and medicine.
  2. Regulating services: This category includes natural processes that are critical to our life on earth. Examples include pollination, decomposition, water purification, erosion prevention, and carbon storage. Many of the ecosystem services that are obvious candidates for credits or programs are in this category.
  3. Cultural services: The environment is more than a nice view; it alters us and guides our social, spiritual, and psychological development. Examples of these services include recreation opportunities, mindfulness, aesthetic appreciation, and tourism.
  4. Supporting services: This category includes all the services that ecosystems provide to fundamentally support life through continuous natural processes. Examples include photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, water cycling, and soil formation.

The big picture: some ecosystem services are more identifiable—and easily quantified with dollars and cents—than others. If you’re here, then you might be interested in how market developers and programs are creating “ecosystem services credits.” And that’s a tough question to answer.

  • Ecosystem services are often things that we don’t think about purchasing—you probably don’t set out everyday to buy clean air or water. But many ecosystem services are under threat, and finding ways to value them could help us keep them around.
  • Water quality trading is a longstanding example of an ecosystem services market. The National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has multiple pilot water quality trading projects throughout the US.
  • Carbon capture, or carbon sequestration, is getting a ton of headliner time for its potential as an ecosystem service credit. If you’ve done any digging, you might see how complex it is to value and trade carbon credits. Though creating other ecosystem service credits is a step forward for better maintaining our resource, each will likely come with similar challenges.

Taken together, ecosystem services represent the invaluable ways that a healthy environment supports life. Finding means to support and protect ecosystem services is just one way toward improving our health—and our planet’s health—for all.

Photo by DeAnn Presley.