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Definition of Ecosystem services:
Ecosystem services are benefits people obtain from ecosystems [1].
This is the common definition for Ecosystem services, other definitions can be discussed in the article

An older paper on Ecosystem services can be found on the Discussion page.


Ecosystem services are usually classified into provisioning, regulating and cultural services (see Classification). Provisioning services include tangible products from ecosystems that humans make use of, such as agricultural crops, timber, fish and seafood or fresh water. Regulating services are the benefits people obtain due to the regulation of natural processes such as water purification and erosion control. Cultural ecosystem services refer to the intangible benefits people receive from ecosystems in form of non-material spiritual, religious, inspirational and educational experience [2].

Concept development

The earliest ideas behind the concept date back until the 1970s. The ecosystem service concept has received high importance since 1997, when two publications came out: Daily (1997) used the concept to emphasize how strongly humans depend on nature [3], and Constanza (1997) performed an economic valuation, intending to assign a monetary value to all ecosystem services world-wide [4].

Between 2001 and 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was conducted, coordinated by the United Nations Environment Program, applying the concept globally[1]. In 2007, the international study of “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB) was initiated, an ecosystem service study with a strong economic focus (TEEB 2010)[5]. Many countries are currently developing their own national TEEB reports.

An early overview about the development of the ecosystem service concept is given by Haines-Young and Potschin (2010)[6]. Moreover, the authors propose a cascade model to describe how ecosystem services provide a link between ecosystem structures and functions on the one hand and human benefits and values on the other hand. More recently, Constanza et al. (2017) summarize current progresses and challenges of the ecosystem service concept in the past two decades[7].

In 2016 alone, 2700 new research paper on ecosystem services were published on Scopus [7]. The momentum that the ecosystem service concept has gained in the past 20 years can surely be described as “an explosion of research, policy, and applications of the idea” [7].


Several competing classifications of ecosystem services exist. Both the classification used by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) and the adapted classification used by TEEB (2010) distinguish between the four classes of supporting (or habitat) services, provisioning services, regulating services and cultural services. In contrast, some newer classifications only include the last three categories [2][8].

Supporting services can be defined as the basic ecosystem processes, structures and functions that are necessary for the provision of the other ecosystem services; they only have an indirect impact on human well-being[7] They are also referred to as “intermediate services”, in contrast to provisioning, regulating and cultural services which form the group of “final services”. This distinction is especially important to avoid double-counting in the context of ecosystem service valuation studies[9].

The Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES), is an ongoing effort to standardize classification issues, focuses only on final services [8]. The current version is available for download at Another classification distinguishing between provisioning, regulating and cultural services is the Kiel Classification which was proposed by Kandziora et al. (2013) [2] and Burkhard et al. (2014) [10]. This classification has been frequently applied to ecosystem service mapping studies globally, which are based on the so-called matrix approach [10].

Table 1: Regulating ecosystem services (adapted from Kandziora et al. 2013[2]).
Regulating service Definition
Global Climate Regulation Long-term storage of greenhouse gases in ecosystems
Local climate regulation Changes in local climate components like wind, precipitation, temperature, radiation due to ecosystem properties
Air quality regulation Capturing/filtering of dust, chemicals and gases
Water flow regulation Maintaining of water cycle features (e.g. water storage and buffer, natural drainage, irrigation and drought prevention)
Water purification The capacity of an ecosystem to purify water, e.g. from sediments, pesticides, disease-causing microbes and pathogens
Nutrient regulation The capacity of an ecosystem to recycle nutrients, e.g. N, P
Erosion regulation Soil retention and the capacity to prevent and mitigate soil erosion and landslides
Natural hazard protection Protection and mitigation of floods, storms (hurricanes, typhoons…), fires and avalanches
Pollination Bees, birds, bats, moths, flies, wind, non-flying animals contribute to the dispersal of seeds and the reproduction of lots of plants
Pest and disease control The capacity of an ecosystem to control pests and diseases due to genetic variations of plants and animals making them less disease-prone and by actions of predators and parasites
Regulation of waste The capacity of an ecosystem to filter and decompose organic material in water and soils

Table 2: Provisioning ecosystem services (adapted from Kandziora et al. 2013[2]).
Provisioning Service Definition
Crops Cultivation of edible plants and harvest of these plants on agricultural fields and gardens which are used for human nutrition
Biomass for energy Plants used for energy conversion (e.g. sugar cane, maize)
Fodder Cultivation and harvest of fodder for domestic animals
Livestock (domestic) Production and utilization of domestic animals for nutrition and use of related products (e.g. dairy, wool)
Fibre Cultivation and harvest of natural fibre (e.g. cotton, jute sisal, silk, cellulose) for, e.g. cloths, fabric, paper
Timber Wood used for construction purposes
Wood fuel Wood used for energy conversion and/or heat production
Fish, seafood and edible algae Catch of seafood/algae for food, fish meal and fish oil
Aquaculture Harvest of seafood/algae from marine and terrestrial aquaculture farms
Wild food, semi-domestic livestock and ornamental resources Harvest of berries, mushrooms, (edible) plants, hunted wild animals, fish catch from recreational fishing, semi-domestic animal husbandry and collection of natural ornaments (e.g. seashells, leaves and twigs for ornamental or religious purposes)
Biochemicals and medicine Natural products used as biochemicals, medicine and/or cosmetics
Freshwater Used freshwater (e.g. for drinking, domestic use, industrial use, irrigation)
Mineral resources Minerals excavated close from surface or above surface (e.g. sand for construction, lignite, gold)
Abiotic energy sources Sources used for energy conversion (e.g. solar power, wind power, water power and geothermic power)

Table 3: Cultural ecosystem services (adapted from Kandziora et al. 2013[2]).
Cultural Service Definition
Recreation and tourism Outdoor activities and tourism relating to the local environment or landscape, including forms of sports, leisure and outdoor pursuit
Landscape aesthetic, amenity and inspiration Visual quality of the landscape/ecosystems or parts of them which influences human well-being and the need to create something, esp. in art, music and literature. The sense of beauty people obtain from looking at landscapes/ecosystems as ecosystems provide a rich source of inspiration for art, folklore, national symbols, architecture, advertising and technology
Knowledge systems Environmental education based on ecosystem/landscape, i.e. out of a formal schools context, and knowledge in terms of traditional knowledge and specialist expertise arising from living in this particular environment
Religious and spiritual


Spiritual or emotional values that people or religions attach to local environments or landscapes due to religious and/or spiritual experience
Cultural heritage and cultural diversity Values that humans place on the maintenance of historically important (cultural) landscapes and forms of land use (cultural heritage)
Natural heritage and natural diversity The existence value of nature and species themselves, beyond economic or human benefits

Potentials vs. flows

Ecosystem services do not exist if there is no human need for them[6]. While some regulating services such as carbon sequestration do not require people in the immediate vicinity in order to be considered a benefit, a number of provisioning and cultural services do. For example, a lagoon ecosystem might have all the necessary ecosystem structures and functions (vegetation type and growth function) to provide the ecosystem service of “edible algae”. However, if no people pick and consume the algae, nobody benefits, hence no actual provisioning service was provided.

For practical applications, it is therefore useful to distinguish between ecosystem service potentials and flows. Ecosystem service potentials are defined as the hypothetical maximum yield of selected ecosystem services[10]. In contrast, ecosystem service flows are defined as the de facto used set (bundles) of ecosystem services and other outputs from natural systems in a particular area within a given time period. In the example above, a large potential for “edible algae” exists, although no flow occurs.

Supply vs. demand

Within ecosystem service flows, it is important to distinguish further between ecosystem service supply and demand. According to Burkhard et al. (2012), the supply are the actually used ecosystem services that are provided by a particular area within a given time period[11]. The demand is the sum of the actually used ecosystem services that are consumed within a particular area within a given time period, no matter where those services originate from[11].

Large differences between local ecosystem service supply and demand might occur[11]. For example, the ecosystem service demand for “agricultural crops” and “air quality regulation” within an urban environment might be very high. Food crops are likely to be imported from other regions where a high supply exists. The demand for air quality regulation, however, has to be met in the same locality, or air quality will deteriorate.

Mapping and assessment

In an attempt to incorporate ecosystem services in decision making processes, they must be mapped and/or assessed. Mapping and assessing ecosystem services is a core component of the European Union Biodiversity Strategy for 2020. There are a number of different ways to go about this. For example, ESMERALDA (Enhancing ecoSysteM sERvices mApping for poLicy and Decision mAking) is a project that aims to provide a coherent methodology for European assessments. ESMERALDA incorporates existing ecosystem services projects and databases such as the working group MAES (Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystem Services) which has created an analytical framework when mapping/assessing ecosystem services for consistency throughout the EU (Biodiversity Information System for Europe) [12].

Mapping and Assessment Methods

Ecosystem services can be assessed and mapped using biophysical, economic, or social methods. In indicator-based ecosystem services assessments, specific indicators or groups of indicators are used to evaluate the state of ecosystem services. These indicators must be measurable, sensitive and specific, as well as relevant to the study site. Information of the suitability of typical ecosystem services indicators for marine applications is provided by Hattam et al. (2014)[13].

Biophysical ecosystem services assessment methods quantify in biophysical units with indicators such as timber stock, crop yield, area of floodplains or nitrogen removal. These can be measured directly, indirectly or through models such as spatial proxy models or process-based models. Flood protection for example could be measured directly through site observations, it could be measured indirectly through aerial photographs and remote sensing, or it could be analyzed based on a water transport model[14].

Economic methods include using market prices for assessments, usually done for provisioning services. Contingent valuation methods, travel cost methods, or damage cost avoided/replacement cost, among many others, are also used[14]. Many economic methods use monetary terms (see Monetary vs. non-monetary valuation).

Social methods of ecosystem service assessments include methods such as participatory mapping, where stakeholders are involved to map ecosystem services according to their perceptions. Preference assessment, scenario planning and photo-elicitation surveys can also be used[14].

Using maps to display ecosystem services can help show ecosystem condition, identify unsustainable practices and risk areas, assess synergies and trade-offs between ecosystem services and highlight possible discrepancies between ecosystem services supply and demand. By mapping ecosystem services, regions can be compared and ecosystem services hotspots and coldspots can be delineated. One example is the expert-based matrix approach, which can be used for instance to map ecosystem services potentials based on land use/land cover data[10][14].

There are a number of difficulties that must be overcome when mapping ecosystem services. Coastal and marine ecosystem services in particular are complex to map due to their three dimensional nature, as ecosystem services can change with depth [14]. Practical guidelines and more information can be found, e.g. in Burkhard & Maes’s (2017) textbook called “Mapping Ecosystem Services”.

Monetary vs. non-monetary valuation

Ecosystem services can be valued using monetary or non-monetary techniques. Monetary methods in the past have been more common[15], as this allows for ecosystem services to be included in traditional cost-benefit assessments and can help policy makers realize important decisions[16]. Some problems that can arise when using monetary valuation for ecosystem services include problems with spatial and temporal scale, as well as the nonlinearity of ecosystem services. Furthermore, while monetary valuation allows for standardizations that can easily be taken over in cost-benefit-analysis, the use of monetary valuation for assessing ecosystem services can neglect other social perspectives on the importance of ecosystems on human wellbeing[15]. Monetary valuation can downplay intrinsic, symbolic and other non-economic values and is especially inadequate at valuing most non-use services[17].

Coastal and marine applications

The importance of coastal and marine ecosystems for ecosystem services provision has long been recognized[4]. While provisioning services such as fish provide income for many coastal communities, natural coastal environments also provide a variety of highly important regulating services such as flood protection and water purification[18].

However, anthropological influences on coastal and marine ecosystems have been increasing. While coastal areas only account for 4% of the total land cover, they account for a third of the Earth’s population[19]. As such, these areas are some of the most exploited in the world. Marine environments are under pressure from overfishing, increased traffic, pollution and hypoxia, while climate change and sea level rise pose additional impacts [19].

Although research on ecosystem services in general is currently growing exponentially, there are still significant knowledge gaps regarding marine and coastal ecosystem services [20]. The current state of research and typical challenges regarding marine and coastal ecosystem services has been summarized by Barbier (2011) [18] and Liquete et al. (2013) [20]. Böhnke-Henrichs et al. (2013) [21] and Hattam et al. (2015) [13] have assessed ecosystem services indicators that can be used specifically in marine contexts. Existing research in the field of coastal and marine cultural ecosystem services has been reviewed by Martin et al. (2016) [22] and Rodrigues et al. (2017) [23].

Regarding practical applications, ecosystem service assessments have a high potential to support decision making even in complex coastal systems. Application frameworks or case studies of ecosystem services assessments in the field of coastal management can be found in the publications by Granek et al. (2010) [24], Luisetti et al. (2014) [25] and de Juan et al. (2017) [26]. One example for a large-scale application of the concept with a high relevance for policy-making is the UK National Ecosystem Service Assessment (Turner et al. 2014) [27].

Related articles

Marine biological valuation

Marine biological value

Biodiversity as a marine valuation concept

Marine mammals' health as an indicator of ecosystem health - tools for monitoring

Economic valuation of goods and services

Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (2001 to 2005)

Socio-cultural valuation

Tools for valuation assessments

Valuation, legislation and planning


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