Looking for answers? Search our list of FAQs.
What are ecosystem (or environmental) services?
If properly managed, ecosystems yield a flow of services that are vital to humanity, including the production of goods such as food and timber, life support processes such as providing clean and ample water, protection from storms and flooding, recreational opportunities such as beautiful places to visit, and the preservation of genetic diversity.
Despite their importance, ecosystem services are poorly understood, scarcely monitored, and, in many cases, undergoing rapid degradation and depletion. The Natural Capital Project uses science-based approaches and tools to account for spatial changes in these ecosystem services and their relationship to human well-being. We then use this information to inform decision making that leads to better outcomes for people and ecosystems.
When should I use an ecosystem services approach to conservation?
An explicit focus on ecosystem services – the benefits that humans receive from ecosystems – presents an opportunity to achieve dual conservation and development goals. An ecosystem services approach seeks to integrate ecosystem services into decision making by: (a) using scientific assessment tools to understand people’s dependence and impact on the services provided by ecosystems and (b) applying policy and finance mechanisms that incorporate ecosystem services and their values into the decisions made by governments, businesses, NGOs and individuals.
An ecosystem services approach can enhance conservation and development strategies by providing access to new sources of long-term financing, providing replicable, transferrable approaches to supporting dual conservation and development goals in a wide range of decision contexts, and opening new avenues for advancing conservation with institutions that do not traditionally consider the environment in their decision-making.
Is there a conflict between biodiversity and ecosystem service approaches to conservation?
Not necessarily. Although taking a purely biodiversity perspective will often generate a different set of priorities for conservation than an ecosystem services approach, biodiversity conservation can be successfully incorporated into an ecosystem services approach to conservation (See: Polasky et al. 2012), and in some cases, biodiversity and ecosystem services are strongly positively correlated (see: Cardinale et al. 2012).
We have successfully incorporated biodiversity as well as single-species conservation in a number of demonstration sites, including our work in Sumatra that prioritized tiger and orangutan habitat conservation, our work in Hawaii that took into account native forest cover, and our work with the department of defense where we developed models for threatened and endangered species conservation. Biodiversity also is included as one of many possible goals for a watershed conservation area in our new Resource Investment Prioritization System (RIOS) tool.
We have found that clearly stating biodiversity as a conservation goal at the earliest planning stages is the best way to incorporate biodiversity and species conservation into an ecosystem services approach to management.
Are you putting a price tag on nature?
No, we are not. We are finding ways to portray the value of nature to society in a variety of metrics that matter to people. Most of the time, decision-makers do not request monetary value metrics, but rather are most interested in the supply of an ecosystem service in biophysical metrics, such as tons of carbon stored, or the amount of sediment or nutrient retained in a watershed. When we do use monetary value, we are not putting a price tag on nature, rather we are demonstrating the value of just one of many services nature provides to society.
What is the Natural Capital Project (NatCap)?
The Natural Capital Project (NatCap) works to develop and apply scientifically rigorous approaches to incorporate natural capital into decisions; create innovative software tools to model, map, and value nature’s benefits to society; build capacity worldwide to use ecosystem service understanding to inform decisions; and engage influential leaders to advance change in policy and practice. We are a strategic partnership that combines leading environmental and social science research at Stanford University, the University of Minnesota, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences with the global reach of science teams and conservation projects at The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.
What is the NatCap approach to incorporating ecosystem services into a particular decision-context?
Through on-the-ground experience, NatCap has developed an approach to incorporating ecosystem services into decisions. This approach involves working with local partners to define their objectives and to identify what ecosystem service information might best inform upcoming policy and management decisions. Then, together with local partners and stakeholders, we compile local knowledge and data to provide baseline information on ecosystem services and develop scenarios of possible alternative futures. Next we analyze these data using the InVEST software suite to model and map the ecosystem service outcomes under alternative future scenarios and estimate the values of these services. The next step is to synthesize the results of changes to ecosystem services under alternative future scenarios using metrics that are most meaningful to decision makers, often in both biophysical and monetary terms. Agreeing upon scenarios to explore, desired ecosystem service outcomes that make sense for a particular context, and results that resonate is an iterative process. Several iterations of scenario development, running models, and synthesizing results are often needed to provide ecosystem service information that can be incorporated into decisions, and to build awareness, understanding, and capacity. Over the years we have found capacity building to be a critical step in getting ecosystem services incorporated into policy decisions. For examples of this approach in action, see our stories.
In addition to scenario-based inquiry, we also have co-developed natural capital approaches focusing on optimization of returns from finite investment budgets (e.g., RIOS).